How the Lakers went from LeBron's milestone to handling Kobe's death
The Lakers had just finished a trip with a win in Philadelphia. LeBron James passed Kobe Bryant for third on the scoring list, but hours later Bryant would die.
Kobe Bryant, daughter Gianna and seven others perished in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, 2020. Remembering the Lakers legend a year later.Signs pointed to James passing Bryant in Philadelphia of all cities. If James maintained his scoring average during the trip, he’d overtake Bryant in the city where he blossomed from high school star to NBA lottery pick.
“Seeing a kid, 17 years old come into the NBA and trying to make an impact on a franchise, I used it as motivation,” James said of Bryant. “He helped me before he even knew of me because of what he was able to do.”Bryant was one of the players whose photos were taped to James’ bedroom when he was just a kid from Akron, Ohio. But in the push to overtake Bryant on the scoring list, the moment was downplayed.
The Lakers won in Houston, with James scoring 31, before getting blown out in Boston, with reporters crunching numbers to figure out what it would take for James to make history in New York.AdvertisementThe trip to New York would be memorable for other reasons. Vogel, co-owner Jeanie Buss and executives Rob Pelinka and Kurt Rambis attended a memorial for former NBA commissioner David Stern at Radio City Music Hall. headtopics.com
Lakers luminaries Magic Johnson and Pat Riley provided eulogies to a room filled with NBA legends.The Lakers were able to beat the Knicks before blowing out Brooklyn, setting the stage for James to pass Bryant in Philly with 18 more points.As James made his way up the scoring list, points were never how he measured himself. A step-back jumper or a cocked-back one-handed dunk were means to winning, just like a brilliant pass to a teammate.
Early in his career, that mentality was viewed as weakness, an unwillingness to take over a game and force his will on defenses. But with James on the doorstep of 33,643 points, his complete offensive arsenal was on display. He had a triple-double against the Nets, his kind of game, talking with former President Bill Clinton courtside after the win.
LeBron James and Kobe Bryant next to each other during a Cavaliers-Lakers game on Feb. 15, 2007, at Staples Center.(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)“Out of all the things that I’ve done in my career as far as individual accolades, things have happened organically because I just go about my business,” James said that night. “I don’t think about it going into it saying, ‘OK, this is what I got to do. This is how many points I need, this is how many assists I need.’ When it happens, it happens.
“If it happens.”#33,644The fans sitting courtside that Saturday night in Philadelphia took out their phones and aimed them at the paint.AdvertisementEven though the Lakers were struggling against the 76ers, who were playing well even though center Joel Embiid was out, they knew what was about to happen. headtopics.com
The Lakers were down 22 points with 7 minutes and 27 seconds left in the third quarter when James rubbed off a Kentavious Caldwell-Pope screen and curled toward the middle of the court, catching a pass from Anthony Davis in stride.He pounded the ball into the court with his right hand and pulled it above his head, knifing between two defenders. With an effortless flip of the wrist, James rolled the ball onto the backboard and through the rim for the 33,644th points of his NBA career — one more than Bryant.
He ran back up the court in black-and-gold sneakers, the words “Mamba 4 Life 8/24 KB” scribbled on his Nikes.At the next timeout, the crowd gave James a standing ovation. He offered a quick wave of acknowledgement and sat down on the Lakers’ bench.After the game, James talked about a pair of sneakers Bryant once gifted him, beginning a multi-faceted relationship. The two great rivals shared the court when they won gold as Olympians in 2012.
American stars (from left) Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant celebrate after winning Olympic gold at the 2012 London Games.(Charles Krupa / Associated Press)Now it was history that joined them.“It’s too much. The story is too much. It doesn’t make sense,” James said that night. “Just to make a long story short — now I’m here in a Lakers uniform, in Philadelphia, where he’s from. The first time I ever met him, [he] gave me his shoes on All-Star weekend. It’s surreal. It doesn’t make no sense, but the universe just puts things in your life. And I guess when you live in the right way, when you just give it everything to whatever you’re doing, things happen organically.
“And it’s not supposed to make sense, but it just happens. And I’m happy just to be in any conversation with Kobe Bean Bryant, one of the all-time greatest basketball players to ever play, one of the all-time greatest Lakers. The man has two jerseys hanging up in Staples Center. headtopics.com
Advertisement“It’s just crazy.”That night, Dwight Howard, Bryant’s former teammate, spoke with a crackling regret in his voice.“We don’t appreciate each other as much as we should as a humanity,” he said. “And I think something like that should be appreciated. You should appreciate people while they’re alive.”
James passing Bryant on the scoring list could’ve been a more awkward moment within the franchise with Bryant’s place in Lakers lore so prominent. On social media, the team acknowledged James becoming third on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. They didn’t, however, mention that he had passed Bryant to do it.
Bryant wasted no time congratulating James on the achievement, tweeting “Much respect” and ending the message with “#33,644.”Continuing to move the game forward. Much respect my brother 💪🏾 #33644— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant)Sunday morning, Bryant and James would speak on the phone.
Bryant’s tweet still sits at the top of his Twitter page, his final public statement.The end of normalNews of Bryant’s death spread around the league, teams closing their locker rooms, players paying tributes on the court by taking 24-second violations and eight-second backcourt violations as homage to their hero.
AdvertisementIn Golden State, the Warriors were in the early parts of a practice when the news got whispered into coach Steve Kerr’s ear. Soon everyone in the gym knew. Everything stopped. Players collapsed to the court in tears.“We all just sat there in silence,” Kerr said. “It was one of the worst moments of all of our lives. I don’t think any of us will forget that day.”
The hours stuck in flight felt like days for the Lakers, the plane finally landing around 2 p.m. at LAX before heading to a private terminal.“Everybody was devastated,” Green said.Some longtime team employees and Bryant associates were there on the tarmac while the team deboarded the plane.
James, with a hood over his head and sunglasses covering his eyes, wiped his face after a lengthy hug with assistant coach Phil Handy. Other players found longtime trainer Judy Seto and tried to console her.For so many people with the organization, Bryant’s presence was a constant before he was ripped out of their lives.
“It’s hard to be in the moment. You think of them,” Green said. “You try to be there for everyone else around you.”Before they left, the teammates cried and embraced, milling around the baggage. Pieces of them were left in the air that day. E\verything changed from that point forward.
“I try not to take myself back to that position, to that place, to that timeframe,” James said.Advertisement Read more: Los Angeles Times »
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