EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — The lights shined on Kobe Bryant’s two jersey numbers in the corner of the Lakers’ practice facility. Literally and figuratively, Bryant’s name has cast a looming shadow over the Lakers in recent days.
Four days after Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter and seven others died in a helicopter crash on their way to an AAU basketball game, the Lakers have struggled with processing the death of a future Hall of Famer who led them to five NBA championships and became the franchise’s all-time leading scorer.
“We want to represent what Kobe was about more than anything,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said Wednesday at the Lakers’ practice facility. “We’ve always wanted to make him proud. And that’s not going to be any different here.”
Outside stood a series of spots for fans to lay Bryant memorabilia, flowers and candles as well as a mural for fans to write various notes. One of the notes read in capital letters, “Heroes come and go, but legends are forever.”
Vogel represented the lone member of the Lakers’ organization to speak despite others having much stronger connections to Bryant.
Lakers controlling owner Jeanie Buss knew Bryant ever since the Lakers secured his draft rights from Charlotte in 1996. Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka served as Bryant’s long-time agent. Bryant had publicly expressed support for LeBron James before he surpassed him on the NBA’s all-time scoring list last week after once being connected as opponents and teammates on the U.S. Olympic team. Anthony Davis has often credited Bryant for his ongoing mentorship.
James, Davis and others have commented about Bryant’s death on their Twitter and Instagram pages. The Lakers released a statement Monday night expressing support for the Bryant family.
The Lakers have focused on grieving through what Vogel called an “unthinkable tragedy.” While the Lakers flew from Philadelphia to Los Angeles on Sunday, Vogel alerted every player individually about Bryant’s passing just in case they did not know the news.
After having Monday off, the Lakers talked to the NBA about cancelling Tuesday’s game. Instead, the Lakers had an informal practice and luncheon. They also hosted grief counselors for group and individual sessions, and plan to offer those services as needed.
“We did some things that we felt would be therapeutically beneficial,” Vogel said. “We got in the gym for some team shooting work. It was no real practice working on anything in particular. I wanted our guys to come in primarily free, but to get a sweat, touch the ball and to be around each other. And then we had a lunch where we all just spent time together and grieved together.”
After Pelinka addressed the group for the first time since Bryant’s death, James led the way, opening up about his time with Bryant on two gold-medal winning Olympic teams, according to The Athletic. Others followed suit in a group that included Buss and other Lakers brass. They held the luncheon at their team headquarters here, in a room overlooking the practice court, according to The Athletic. Then they toasted Bryant.
On Wednesday, the Lakers adhered to the front office members and players’ wishes not to speak. Vogel offered public condolences to Bryant’s wife Vanessa; their three surviving daughters, 17-year-old Natalia, 3-year-old Bianka and newborn Capri; and the seven others that died.
Vogel respectfully declined to share any favorite Bryant memory. But he called Bryant “the most feared man in the league for an entire generation.” Vogel also felt struck with Bryant’s tragedy since he and his wife, Jenifer, also have daughters (Alex, Arianna).
“Him being a father to daughters and being involved in their sports was the most enjoyable thing in his life, from my observations,” Vogel said. “And it’s the most enjoyable thing in my life. I love being the coach of the Lakers, but it doesn’t come close to comparing to my family time. So it’s very relatable.”
How do the Lakers get through this?
“We’ve collaborated with them on what the next few days should look like,” Vogel said of James and Davis. “They’ve been vocal in terms of just helping the group manage their emotions and get through this.”
They will have practice again Thursday. The Lakers (36-10) plan to play the Portland Trail Blazers (20-27) on Friday at Staples Center.
Lakers guard Quinn Cook confirmed to USA TODAY Sports that he will switch from No. 2 to No. 28 because Gianna Bryant wore No. 2. Cook respectfully declined to comment further.
It is not immediately clear if the Lakers will have any other tributes for Bryant before Friday’s game and beyond, but Friday’s game is expected to be extremely emotional. Prices for tickets have soared on StubHub as fans clamor to see what the team will do for Bryant.
Though the Lakers remain in mourning, Vogel strongly doubted this would negatively affect the team’s play. Beyond the team’s star-studded talent and relatively strong health, the Lakers also have attributed their success to their chemistry on and off the court. They appear just as emboldened to win an NBA title for the first time since Bryant helped them win one against the Boston Celtics in 2010.
“I don’t think it can break us apart in any way,” Vogel said. “It’s just a feel thing. Those around you, you observe your own feelings and emotions. Then you proceed at the right pace and at the right time.”