With anniversary of Kobe Bryant’s death approaching, Lakers still wrestle with grief

Even a year later, it’s something the Lakers find themselves reeling from. As LeBron James put it, “I try not to put myself back in that head space, because it’s just too dark.”

But the one-year-mark of Kobe Bryant’s death is unavoidable, especially as the Lakers retrace their steps. The team was flying home from Philadelphia a year ago when they were startled awake by the terrible news of the helicopter crash that killed Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven other people. On Tuesday, the anniversary of the crash, they’ll be flying to Philadelphia for the first time since that day — which also happens to be the hometown of one of the franchise’s brightest stars.

That quirk of the schedule has only added to the emotions bubbling up from the Lakers who were close to Bryant. Anthony Davis said it’s sometimes difficult to acknowledge that it happened at all.

“It saddens our hearts to actually come to the realization that he’s gone,” he said. “I know I still have trouble with it. You still just can’t believe it, especially when you’re really close to him. And I think that just playing back everything on that day, and then you fast forward to a year later to where we’re going back to Philly on almost the same exact day.”

For the Lakers organization, the anniversary will pass quietly — a moment of somber reflection rather than a public outpouring of lingering grief. On her Instagram, Vanessa Bryant has made public pleas that media coverage of her husband and daughter — as well as the other victims of the crash — remain focused on their lives.

But Bryant’s memory has been threaded in many parts of the last year: The team still has broken huddles shouting “MAMBA” on the count of three. Some of the team’s biggest wins in the postseason came while donning Bryant’s Black Mamba-inspired uniforms. The championship rings have Mamba-themed backdrops and detailing, and have both of Bryant’s jersey numbers, 8 and 24, set in black.

The 17th championship in franchise history doesn’t erase the enormity of his loss, Davis acknowledged, but he thought it gave some healing.

“That entire year, it was heavy hearts about the tragedy,” he said. “When you win, it kind of just brings, you know, a little bit of joy back to the city. Doing it for Kobe, for the organization, for the city. And it kind of made it all why we were playing — the bubble and everything we went through that year — it made it worth it.”

Marching through that grief, however, has often felt grim. The Lakers went through a slew of tributes for Bryant during the regular season prior to the hiatus, and between the All-Star Weekend focused on Bryant and the Staples Center Celebration of Life for him and Gianna, the stream of events were emotionally taxing.

James still keeps Bryant literally close at hand: On his left middle finger, he still wears a sleeve with Bryant’s No. 24 on it. But even dating back to that first week, when James told the team privately he was ready to shoulder the pressure of the rest of the season, that role has carried a significant weight — he’s just felt it was necessary.

“ As the leader of the ballclub it was my job and my responsibility to take it all on and represent our team with the most strength that I could (muster) at that point and time,” he said. “For the purple and gold, for Laker Nation, it was my job to take that, take that responsibility and I wanted to let everyone know inside this organization that I was OK with doing that.”

For many of the returning members of the team, talking about Bryant’s passing is still difficult.

Marc Gasol, who was not on the team last season but still knew him well through his brother Pau, said he preferred to keep most of his thoughts private: “I’m not comfortable talking about it. I’m sorry. Still to this day, I have never really talked about it and I’m sorry that I cannot give you any thoughts or stuff on it.”

What might have changed the most is their understanding of the scale: Davis said he didn’t know during Bryant’s life how influential he was even outside the world of sport.

“When people pass, people usually come up with all these things about how great he was and he inspired me and such and such, but I think that he really inspired so many people and that’s why so many people feel the pain that the basketball community felt last year,” he said. “And they’re still feeling it.”

And the Lakers are, too.

Leave comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with *.