It was “Mamba Day” on Monday in the NBA bubble at Disney World, on 8-24, because Kobe Bryant, a.k.a “Black Mamba,” died tragically in January.
In the “Mamba” jerseys, the Lakers effectively ripped the Blazers’ hearts out. A 135-115 blowout put the Lakers up 3-1 in the series. It was as dominant the team had been all season long, yet the celebration didn’t match the outcome.
The Lakers had so much weighing on their minds for the past couple of days. It almost brought back the feelings of the days and weeks after Kobe’s death.
In the weeks after the crash, every night was like this, with poignant tributes and a sense of shared sorrow and numbers that would appear on the scoreboard — numbers so coincidental that the only explanation was they had been divinely placed.
Game 4 was just that. The Lakers were wearing their jerseys honoring Kobe and Gigi. The score board once showed the Lakers up 24-8. They were on pace for 81 points in the first half.
“OK,” James later remembered thinking. “He’s here in the building.’”
The emotional energy of the entire night, which came one day after Bryant would have turned 42, harkened back to the Lakers’ schedule in February, when for weeks they played games that began with a moment of silence and fans wore commemorative T-shirts honoring Bryant and his daughter.
“It definitely did remind me of that,” said Vogel, who has worn a “KB” pin on the sidelines ever since Bryant’s death. “The emotional aspect did feel different than any other game we played since we’ve been in the bubble.”
The Lakers are trying to advance in the postseason and win the franchise’s 17th championship. If they are successful, it will cap a season that must be seen as one of the most challenging in the history of the NBA.
Not only are the Lakers playing to win for Kobe, they also happen to be chasing a title in the most bizarre times.
Their season began with a preseason trip to China that was upended by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet in support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. Lakers players watched from their hotel rooms as their faces were peeled from a building across the street, unsure of whether they would even play their two exhibition games in Shanghai and Shenzhen.
Then came the death of former NBA commissioner David Stern. Then Bryant, whose death came the morning after James passed him for third on the all-time scoring list and led to the postponement of the next game on the schedule.
“All these things are just part of this group’s DNA now and part of our identity and part of our mission,” Vogel said early in the NBA’s restart. “I don’t think any of it pulls away from our focus on basketball, but it just brings more meaning.”
Even on Monday, a day that was in many ways set aside for Bryant, James was conflicted. He wanted to celebrate the player he competed against and the man he admired as a father. Earlier in the bubble, he had said of Bryant that “a day doesn’t go by when I don’t think about him.” He said Bryant’s wife, Vanessa, and their three daughters are a “a part of this family, just as big as anybody in this organization’s history.”
But Kobe was sharing space in LeBron’s mind and heart. James was shaken by the video he had seen earlier in the day of Jacob Blake, the Wisconsin man who was shot by police on Sunday.
“I had so many emotions today because today is a big moment for our organization,” James said. “You know, today is Kobe Bryant Day. We’re supposed to be celebrating and rejoicing and remembering everything he’s ever done, not only on the floor but off the floor. Uplifting the game of basketball. And at the same time, I see the video today for the first time and my emotions is all over the place.”
He had just scored 30 points and added 10 assists and six rebounds to give the Lakers a 3-1 series lead. But, he said, “I can’t even enjoy a playoff win right now, which is the sad part.”
In many ways that has been the narrative of the Lakers season. This is the best the franchise has been in a decade and yet every high is met with an even deeper low.
LeBron passes Kobe in scoring, Kobe dies the next day. The Lakers beat the Bucks and Clippers, the pandemic passes the NBA season. Once the season restarted the focus couldn’t be on basketball, but for the fight for social justice. Again last night, in the Lakers most dominant game of the season, they team couldn’t appreciate what they’ve just done. Kobe and the shooting of Jacob Blake weighed heavy on their conscience.
The Lakers seem to have figured out how to properly honor Bryant while fighting for social justice and honoring the franchise legend they lost earlier in the year.
“I think while we’re on the floor our main focus is to win a basketball game,” Davis said, “and when we’re off the floor our main focus is to continue to push the envelope on social justice and create the change.”
The year, the Lakers have required a certain emotional dexterity. On Monday, they honored Bryant and consciously reopened the wound of his death, and then spoke out against the latest police shooting of an unarmed Black man.
In the process, they pushed the Trail Blazers to the brink of elimination and moved a step closer to winning a championship. These aren’t circumstances you can ever prepare for, but the Lakers have nonetheless had practice.
“We’ve had a lot of things going on away from the basketball court that we’ve had to manage while staying focused,” Vogel said. “I just commend our guys for making sure we’re honoring Kobe’s memory on Kobe Bryant Day, being vocal about racial injustice and still staying locked into the task at hand, which was beating a very difficult opponent.”