Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers will forever be synonymous with each other.
The Black Mamba played the entirety of his 20-year career with the team, won five championships, one NBA Most Valuable Player Award, and had both of his jerseys retired.
Before their deaths, Bryant and his daughter Gianna, would frequently sit courtside to watch the current iteration of the Lakers led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Many of the players on the Lakers roster played against Bryant, most grew up idolizing him. So it should come as no surprise that the team was asked frequently about Bryant in recent days as we approached the one-year anniversary of the tragic helicopter crash that not only killed Kobe and Gianna, but seven other beautiful souls as well.
January 26, 2020 was one of the most gut-wrenching and devastating days for the city of Los Angeles and Kobe fans around the world. For many, the one-year anniversary is equally if not more emotional. Vanessa Bryant, earlier in the week released a statement on her Instagram account asking the media to not show footage of the helicopter crash that took the lives of her husband and daughter.
"Celebrate their lives, not the day they lost them," she wrote in the post.
Vanessa also reportedly requested that the NBA not to show Kobe Bryant tribute videos on the one-year anniversary of his death.
The emotional gravitas of the one-year anniversary was enough that Lakers' head coach Frank Vogel decided to give the entire team the day off on Tuesday. He did this in order to allow the team to focus on their own thoughts and feelings when it came to the anniversary of that mortifying day.
"To me, this is not just a day of remembrance. This is more of somber tone type of day," said Vogel. "I'm going to give our guys the day off and let them manage that day however they see fit."
Fresh off his season-high 46 points against the Cavaliers in his hometown of Cleveland, LeBron James would much rather practice and prepare for Wednesday's matchup with the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers, than have an entire day off to think about January 26, 2020.
"I try not to take myself back to that place and time," said James when asked about his thoughts and feelings as the one-year anniversary of Bryant's death drew near. "Obviously, he's looking down on us along with Gigi. I hope he's proud of what we're trying to do here as an organization, and hopefully we continue to make him proud as well and make her proud to wear the purple and gold every night. I don't want to live in the past, and I definitely don't want to live out that day again. It's about always continuing to move forward and continuing to live on his legacy."
For many of the Lakers, reliving that day is not just about the somber moment they found out the news that Bryant and Gianna had passed away in a horrific accident, but moreover, where they were when they received the news.
Ironically, one-year ago the Lakers were also in Philadelphia, the hometown of Kobe Bryant. They had just finished off a long road trip and suffered a 91-108 loss to the Sixers. However, in that game, James surpassed Bryant for third place on the NBA's all-time scoring list. In fact, Bryant's last ever tweet was congratulating James on the milestone.
The next morning, the day of the accident, Bryant and James spoke on the phone just before the latter boarded a flight back to Los Angeles with his teammates, and the former jumped on a helicopter with his daughter and seven others.
Most of the team was asleep when the news of the helicopter crash broke on social media. Row by row, Vogel was given the arduous task of rustling his players awake to inform them of Kobe and Gianna's death.
Unsure if they were awake, or trapped in a horrid nightmare, the Lakers players and personnel tried to process the news as they soared through the skies. Trapped on-board a metal tube for three more hours, grief began to sting like a frozen lash.
"I wasn't sure if it was real or not," said former Lakers' forward Danny Green, now with the Sixers. "It's hard enough for it to sink in when you're wide awake, let alone half sleeping."
Some coaches rushed to the nearest on-board bathroom to weep in solitude. Others, needed to talk out their feelings with their teammates. By the time the plane landed at a private terminal in LAX, team employees and friends of Bryant were there on the tarmac to greet them. With tears in their eyes, the players and coaches left the plane to hug and console each other.
"I leaned on Bron and Bron leaned on me," said Davis of that moment. "After that we had a purpose. It was more so, 'Let's do it for him.' That's what we ended up doing all last year. Even now, it's still in the back of our minds that we're playing for Kobe, his family, and the city. I think it brought the city a lot of joy when we won the championship. It brought a little bit of joy back to the city. It made it all worth it, everything we went through that year. We fought til the end for a purpose and it wasn't just for ourselves, but for the entire Bryant family."
From the ashes came a purpose. Through the grief, a mission and newfound motivation. As Davis mentioned, the Lakers dedicated the remainder of the season to Kobe and Gianna. In their honor, the team won their 17th NBA Championship in October. A record-tying title that Bryant himself made no secret he wanted see occur, as it tied the Lakers with the rival Celtics for the most in NBA history.
"We still think about it. It was January 26th of last year when it happened. From that point on we had a purpose and to this day we still say, 'Mamba on three' every time we bring it in," said Davis. "We still want to recognize that he's a part of our organization. There were so many times in the bubble that he was there for us. We had a different approach every time we had the [Black Mamba] jerseys on. We had signs everywhere that Kobe was with us. Me subconsciously yelling 'Kobe!' when I hit that shot against Denver, it just shows we were destined to win the championship."
New additions, who were not on board the flight when they got the news of Bryant's death say that Kobe is still with the team even during this new season. Many credited Bryant's infamous "mamba mentality" as a catalyst for how they approach their own lives and their inspiration on the court.
"He will be a part of not only the team, but the franchise, the city, and each of us have talked a lot about him," said new Lakers' center Marc Gasol, who joined the team as a free agent this offseason after spending the last two seasons with the Toronto Raptors. "It's very emotional. He's obviously someone we looked up to."
Before his game back home in Cleveland, James shared stories of how he had Bryant's posters hanging on his walls in his room growing up. Sharing a tiny apartment in Akron with his mom, Gloria, James said he would often imitate Bryant on the court, and credited Kobe with forever influencing his game.
"I appreciated Kobe's game for Kobe's game. The way he played the game, the finesse that he played with, everything he did, I respected him as a player," said James. "The fact he was able to take some things from MJ [Michael Jordan] and look at his DNA and was able to do it. He actually did it. He did it at a high level for a long, long, long time and you can respect that."
James believes that the best way for he and his Lakers teammates to help Kobe's legacy endure is to emulate Bryant's mindset in their daily lives. That includes how they practice, train, and study their opponents. Additionally, it means playing the game the right way, and with an undying desire to win.
"There's a saying that goes: 'Time heals all,'" said James. "As devastating as it all was and is, it all takes time. Everyone individually is different and everyone grieves differently. All you can do as a friend is put an arm around someone when they need it. We do whatever we can to live his legacy on. There are a lot of things that die in this world, but legends never die, and he's exactly that. "