June 24, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Lakers went from LeBron’s milestone to facing Kobe’s death

Everyone just wanted to go home.

One by one, Lakers coach Frank Vogel walked through the aisles of the team’s chartered jet, gently rustling his napping players to deliver unthinkable news, words that make you wonder if you’re actually awake or stuck in an unbelievable nightmare.

But he had to make them understand the horrible truth.

Kobe Bryant, as iconic of a Laker as there has ever been, was dead. The helicopter he was aboard had crashed. His daughter, Gianna, along with seven other people were with him. Life within the Lakers organization would never be the same.

“I wasn’t sure it was real or not,” Danny Green said. “It’s hard enough for it sink in when you’re wide awake, let alone half sleeping.”

For the next three hours, the slowest in so many of their lives, they would have to stew in the misery, shell-shocked by news so bad that it was hard to imagine.

New Lakers star LeBron James greets Lakers legend Kobe Bryant during a game Nov. 17, 2019.

(Twitter.com)

They wanted to land, to escape this tube 38,000 feet above the ground, then go hug their sons and daughters. Players slumped in disbelief. Coaches retreated to the bathroom to sob. Support staff openly wept.

“I definitely don’t want to live out that day again,” LeBron James said nearly one year later.

Those hours the Lakers wish they could forget but can’t erased what could’ve been a celebration, a five-game trip where James reached another milestone by passing Bryant on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, a monumental achievement while James was still working to cement a place for himself within Lakers fandom.

Bryant applauded the accomplishment, a sign to those fans that it was fine to fully embrace their newest superstar, a sign to his former organization that it was proper to celebrate his former rival.

“It feels like a million years ago,” Vogel said, “but also it feels like it just happened yesterday.”

The chase

An off shooting night in a one-point loss to Orlando left James 111 points behind Bryant for the No. 3 spot on the league’s all-time scoring list before the start of a five-game trip.

He’d been hailed before as he passed the greats on his way up that leaderboard, except when overtaking Michael Jordan a year before in Los Angeles, an achievement that was met with a noticeably muted response from the Staples Center crowd.

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.

The 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.

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.

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.”

#33,644

The fans sitting courtside that Saturday night in Philadelphia took out their phones and aimed them at the paint.

Even 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.

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.

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.

“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.”

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 normal

News 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.

In 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. Everything changed from that point forward.

“I try not to take myself back to that position, to that place, to that timeframe,” James said.

It doesn’t matter. For the people on that trip and on that plane, those feelings will never vanish.