LOS ANGELES (AP) — Kobe Bryant’s resonant voice echoed through the darkened Staples Center while images from his life and career flickered on the scoreboard above.
LeBron James’ heartfelt pre-game speech honouring his friend then left Lakers fans and players alike cheering through tears.
The Lakers and the Portland Trail Blazers somehow had to play a basketball game after a wrenching pregame ceremony honouring Bryant and the other eight victims of the helicopter crash just five days earlier.
And Damian Lillard gave a performance that nudged aside the basketball world’s collective heartbreak for just a moment.
Lillard scored 48 points and the Trail Blazers beat Los Angeles 127-119 on Friday night in the Lakers’ first game since Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others died in a helicopter crash.
Lillard hit seven three-pointers and added 10 assists and nine rebounds in an inspired effort that sent the Blazers to a win over an opponent still dealing with the trauma of the crash that claimed the life of their franchise icon.
“I think everybody was emotional tonight,” said James, who played in two Olympics alongside Bryant. “We all have our individual reasons why emotion hits us, and then we all have this brotherhood and this family, being a part of this Laker organisation, which automatically brings in even more emotion.”
Both teams stood on the court during a poignant pre-game tribute to Bryant including songs, Kobe highlights and James’ speech, which captivated the arena.
“So in the words of Kobe Bryant, ‘Mamba out,’” James told the crowd. “But in the words of us, ‘not forgotten.’ Live on, brother.”
Highlights of Bryant’s career played during every break, but Lillard put on a show between the whistles.
Lillard’s seven three-pointers gave him 40 in his last five games, setting an NBA record. But even the Blazers star knew results were secondary on this unique evening.
“I don’t feel like anybody feels like we walked away as a winner tonight, given the circumstances,” Lillard said. “The memories that we’ll take away from it was just sad and just tough. It’s good that we had to compete, so being on the winning side is a positive, but I don’t think anybody walks away from this moment and this situation a winner.”
James had 22 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds, and Anthony Davis had 37 points and 15 boards in the Lakers’ first game since last Saturday.
Hassan Whiteside scored 30 points, and CJ McCollum added 19 for the Blazers, who were playing their third game since Bryant’s death, which seems to have affected practically everyone who picked up a basketball in the past quarter-century.
“We’ve had five days and two games to kind of understand the emotions that were going to be out there,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “I know it was a tough game for the Lakers, watching them during the tribute, during LeBron’s talk. I thought it was a difficult game for them to play. I mean, it was difficult for both teams, but I think we’ve had some time to go through the grieving process.”
The entire evening was likely both profoundly painful and cathartic for anyone who loves the Lakers or Bryant, who won five championships while playing his entire 20-year NBA career in purple and gold.
Bryant retired in 2016, but he remained a face of his only franchise and an inspiration to the current players, who learnt about his death on their plane ride home from an East Coast road trip. Their next game against the Clippers was postponed, and the Lakers franchise persevered through a brutal week of coping with the loss.
“We understood this was going to be a difficult one,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “We didn’t want to lose, but this week has been more about life than basketball. … We’ve got to continue to focus on the work. There’s therapy in the work.”
Several Lakers teared up during the ceremony, as did the Blazers — but after both teams took 24-second and eight-second violations off the opening tip, they lifted the heavy moment with grace.
Davis began the game with red eyes, but managed to score 18 points in the first quarter alone. The Lakers committed 13 turnovers in the first half while playing with an obvious surfeit of energy.
Lillard, the gifted California native, went wild in the third quarter, scoring 23 points and hitting six 3-pointers in a virtuoso display of offensive skill.
The Lakers then trailed by 12 in the fourth quarter before a “Kobe! Kobe!” chant broke out. They promptly made a 9-0 run, but the Blazers stayed steadily ahead.