As the Los Angeles Lakers basked in the aftermath of their victory over the rivalry Boston Celtics on Sunday afternoon at Staples Center, they were quickly reminded that another emotional day awaits them on Monday.
On the eve of the Kobe Bryant "Celebration of Life" at Staples Center, the Lakers honored the Black Mamba's legacy with a 114-112 victory over their most hated rivals.
If you believe in an afterlife, then certainly Bryant was watching this one from above.
"We know that he's with us," said LeBron James after the victory that avenged a 32-point blowout loss from last month in Boston. "His jersey is sitting in my locker right now."
There was no doubt that Bryant left his imprint on Sunday's game. He was everywhere. As Bryant's No. 24 jersey hung in James' locker--the same locker that Bryant occupied during his 20-year tenure with the Lakers--I was reminded of all the symbolism and coincidences that took place in the game.
Before tip-off, Celtics legend Bill Russell arrived to the arena paying tribute to his friend, wearing a No. 24 Kobe Bryant jersey. Likely one of the few times you'll ever see a Celtics Hall of Famer wear the Lakers colors.
"At Staples Center [for] Celtics vs. Lakers. I see everyone tweeting I am wearing a Lakers jersey. I would do anything to honor Kobe and Gianna. I am always a Celtic. We had a deeper connection. 2 + 4 does = 6. We had much love and respect for one another," wrote Russell on Twitter.
"Just respect. That was the first thing that went through my mind," said James when he first saw Russell wearing Kobe's jersey. "At the end of the day, both teams throughout the years they'll battle, they'll fight. They'll push and scratch, curse each other out, but at the end of the day when you give it all to the floor you have that mutual respect and that's what it all boils down to."
Later, with 2:24 (Gianna and Kobe's numbers) remaining in the third quarter, the score was tied at 81-81 (the most points Kobe famously ever scored in his career, and the second-most in NBA history, during a 2006 victory over the Toronto Raptors) and there was 24 seconds remaining on the shot clock.
If that wasn't symbolism enough that Bryant was in the building, the date of his memorial on Monday is 2/24/20. Gianna Bryant wore the No. 2 with her Mamba Academy basketball team. Bryant famously wore the No. 24 for the final ten years of his career, which spanned 20 years.
Bryant famously said that his fifth and final championship was "the most special." The monumental seven-game series took place in 2010, and featured an epic Game 7 that culminated on the very same Staples Center floor that the memorial will be held on Monday.
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Bryant was a student of the game of basketball, and studied its history obsessively. As a lifelong Laker fan, he hated the Celtics with every fiber of his being. There's no doubt he enjoyed Sunday's contest.
“It’s just special to be part of this rivalry," James said. “We understand that this has been going on since the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, all the way through. So to be a part of a rivalry, to be a part of a historical two-franchise group, this is special. ... (We love) to represent this rivalry with the utmost respect and play this game the right way, as all the former players have done in the past.”
The game itself epitomized the Lakers tumultuous season as a whole. The Lakers jumped out to an early lead, and appeared primed to cruise to victory. However, Jayson Tatum caught fire to start the second half, and gave the Celtics a seven-point lead.
For the Lakers to win, they would have to overcome adversity and battle back. There were six different lead changes and seven ties in the fourth and final quarter as both teams took turns delivering knockout blows reminiscent of Saturday's Heavyweight Championship fight in Las Vegas.
Tatum and James went back-and-forth in the final few minutes, but LeBron hit a fadeaway over the 21-year-old youngster on a shot that looked reminiscent to Bryant's signature move. The game-winning shot broke a tie, and put the Lakers ahead for good. James finished with 29 points, nine assists, and eight rebounds. Tatum matched his career-high with 41.
The Lakers victory celebration was brief, as after the game the attention quickly shifted to the memorial on Monday morning.
"I'm just trying to stay in the moment," said Lakers' center Dwight Howard when asked about it after the game.
According to the death certificate, Bryant and Gianna were buried in a private family service at the Pacific View Memorial Park in Corona del Mar on February 7, but Monday's public memorial is expected to be extremely emotional and feature over 20,000 mourners in attendance.
"All the good memories. The ways he inspired me. The way he inspired this organization. This team. The players on this team. For us, it's trying to figure out how to stay in the moment, while embracing and carrying on his legacy every game," said Davis of what he expects during the memorial on Monday. "He was a part of this rivalry for 20 years. Every time we step on the floor it's how do we carry on his legacy each and every game? Tomorrow is going to be tough again, but we have to make sure we stay in the moment and when it's time to grieve, we grieve, and when it's time to line up between the lines we have to do it."
Staples Center, AEG, the Los Angeles Lakers, and the LAPD are encouraging fans who do not have a ticket to the memorial to watch from home, and not come down to Staples Center. There will be no overflow area at L.A. live, and the memorial will not be broadcast on any of the outdoor screens. Additionally, all the nearby streets will be closed to prevent crowds from flocking to the arena.
After the memorial, Staples Center employees will tear down the 24-by-24-foot stage built especially in honor of Bryant, and turn the arena back into a basketball court for the Grizzlies and Clippers game later that evening.