Lakers Are All Introduced as Kobe Bryant in an Emotional Tribute Before First Game Since Fatal Crash
Friday night marked the first time the Lakers have played at Staples Center since Kobe Bryant's tragic accident on Jan. 26
The Los Angeles Lakers paid an emotional tribute to the team’s legendary player, Kobe Bryant, in their first game at the Staples Center since the fatal Jan. 26 helicopter crash that claimed the lives of 13-year-old Gianna Bryant and seven others.
The Staples Center was transformed into a sea of gold as each seat in the stadium was covered with either Bryant’s No. 8 or No. 24 jersey, which the thousands of fans donned to honor the fallen NBA star.
The tribute began with cheers of “MVP” from the crowd before Usher took center court to sing “Amazing Grace.” The musician stood in front of two floral displays featuring the numbers 8 and 24 in gold and purple roses.
While Usher sang, the JumboTron showed footage of athletes across several sports wearing Bryant’s numbers.
After the moving rendition, the crowd broke into chants of “Kobe” and then “Gigi.”
Next, Ben Hong of the Los Angeles Philharmonic played “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen on the cello as footage from throughout Bryant’s impressive NBA career, footage with his family and of Bryant at the Oscars appeared on the screens above the court.
As Hong played, the Lakers clung onto each other, many — including LeBron James — in tears.
The crowd then stood for a 24.2 second moment of silence for all nine victims in the helicopter: John, Keri and Alyssa Altobelli, Payton and Sarah Chester, Christina Mauser and Ara Zobayan in addition to Gianna and Bryant.
Gianna’s and Bryant’s jerseys were illuminated as the entire stadium was silent, finally breaking into cheers once the moment had passed. Once again, the crowd broke into cheers of “Kobe” before Boyz II Men sang the National Anthem.
To conclude the pre-game tribute, James walked out on the court to give a speech — throwing out the one he had prepared so he could speak from the heart.
“As I look around this arena, we’re all grieving,” he said tearfully. “Everybody that’s here, this is really truly a family… now, I know at some point we will have a memorial for Kobe… but I look at this as a celebration tonight. This is a celebration of the blood, sweat and tears… the determination to be as great as he could be.”
James spoke about how much it meant to him to be able to “continue his legacy.”
“In the words of Kobe Bryant, ‘Mamba out,’ but in the words of us, ‘not forgotten,'” James concluded. “Live on brother.”
In a particularly moving moment that had all the crowd on their feet, when the Lakers players were introduced, each player was named as “Kobe Bryant.”
The Blazers let the LA team win the jump ball as the game began.
Both teams then opened the game with clock violations, 24-seconds for the Lakers and eight seconds for the Blazers.
Earlier in the night, Anthony Davis was seen sporting a Bryant t-shirt with a No. 8 on the front and No. 24 on the back, while James was photographed in the locker room preparing for the game wearing a Bryant t-shirt.
When the Lakers came out as a team onto the court in their warmups, every player wore a Bryant jersey, along with “KB” patches on one arm and a black band on the other, to honor all nine victims who perished in the helicopter crash.
Two court side seats were left open in honor of Bryant and Gianna. Each of their jerseys were laid on the seats along with bouquets of red roses.
Ahead of the game, Lakers head coach Frank Vogel told PEOPLE about the special family bond the team shares and how it has been exemplified in this tragic week.
“I think the first time we came together on Wednesday and put some shooting work in, then we spent time together upstairs with our lunch,” Vogel said. “Really each day that we’ve gotten together the bond has strengthened even more and that will continue to be the case.”
During the game, Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka was seen watching the game with his young daughter sitting on his lap.
Former Lakers player Magic Johnson was in attendance, and shared that the tribute to Bryant brought the crowd to tears.
“Usher singing Amazing Grace, Boyz II Men singing the National Anthem, and Ben Hong with the cello tribute brought everyone to tears,” Johnson, who also used to serve as the president of basketball operations for the team, wrote on Twitter. “We will always love Kobe and he will be forever in our hearts.”
The Blazers ultimately beat the Lakers 127-119.
Carmelo Anthony of the visiting Portland Trailblazers did not join the team due to “personal reasons.”
Anthony, 35, was a close friend of Bryant’s and posted a moving tribute to him on Instagram this week. Brooklyn Nets player Kyrie Irving and Chris Paul of the Oklahoma City Thunder both missed games due to Bryant’s passing.
The Lakers were initially scheduled to play the L.A. Clippers on Tuesday, just two days after Bryant’s passing, but were allowed to postpone the game until a later date. In that time, Lakers players, executives and fans have all paid their respects to the victims on social media and around the world.
Footage of James, who joined the Lakers in 2018, getting off the Lakers team plane the next morning showed him weeping in response to the tragic accident.
In a post to social media the following day, James revealed he spoke to Bryant just hours before his death.
“Please give me the strength from the heavens above and watch over me! I got US here!” James wrote, in part. “There’s so much more I want to say but just can’t right now because I can’t get through it! Until we meet again my brother!!“
The next day, James uploaded a video of him greeting Bryant and Gianna during a recent game at Staples Center. “My brother!! I love you man!!” he wrote.
James and teammate Anthony Davis both appeared to get inked with Bryant-inspired tattoos this week.
Vanessa also took to Instagram on Wednesday to thank “the millions of people” for their support and love following the accident.
“We are also devastated for the families who lost their loved ones on Sunday, and we share in their grief intimately,” she wrote, continuing, “There aren’t enough words to describe our pain right now. I take comfort in knowing that Kobe and Gigi both knew that they were so deeply loved. We were so incredibly blessed to have them in our lives. I wish they were here with us forever. They were our beautiful blessings taken from us too soon.”