James returned to the spotlight Friday, stepping to center court to deliver an extended pregame statement honoring Bryant before the Lakers’ 127-119 home loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. The speech hit all the right and expected notes: James recognized the victims, expressed sympathy to their families, praised Bryant’s basketball abilities and thanked Lakers fans for coming together as a community. He projected strength and pledged to honor Bryant’s legacy, all while doing his best to hold back tears.
What he said was just beautiful. It was strong,” Lakers Coach Frank Vogel said. “It represented who he is and who we are as a team. [That was] definitely the heaviest game I’ve been a part of.”
After the game, the weight of Bryant’s death on James was even more obvious. He wore sunglasses to hide his eyes, he hung his head at times, and he answered questions, uncharacteristically, in monotone. Yet James was able to make clear that Bryant’s death had led him to reflect on his own life, career, family and priorities.
Although James and Bryant were rivals for more than a decade, they had much in common. They are champions, MVPs, Olympic gold medalists, fathers, maniacal workers, global celebrities, sneaker pitchmen and heirs to Michael Jordan. They had different strengths on the court and distinct personalities off it, but they clearly could relate to each other in ways outsders could never fathom.