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Red roses adorned the courtside seats where Kobe and Gianna Bryant sat at the last Los Angeles Lakers game they attended. On the overhead video board, photos of Bryant in action for the Lakers alternated with those of the seven other people who were killed alongside him and his 13-year-old daughter in a helicopter crash.
Friday night at Staples Center was unlike any other.
Longtime public address announcer Lawrence Tanter introduced the entire Lakers lineup the same way: “From Lower Merion High School, No. 8, Kobe Bryant.”
In a ceremony before the Lakers’ first game since the crash Sunday, Usher stood at center court of the darkened arena in front of No. 8 and No. 24 yellow rose arrangements to sing “Amazing Grace.” Cellist Ben Hong from the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed while video of Bryant talking about his life and career played.
Fans interrupted the silence with chants of “Kobe! Kobe!” and “MVP! MVP!”
Boyz II Men, from Bryant’s hometown of Philadelphia, sang the national anthem.
LeBron James, wearing No. 24, wiped his eyes as the anthem ended. He and Anthony Davis, wearing No. 8, hugged.
The crowd stood for 24.2 seconds of silence as the shot clocks ticked off the time until the horn blared. Spotlights shone on the empty seats set aside for Bryant and his daughter. His had a black-and-white Mamba jersey and hers a No. 24 jersey.
James stood at center court and read the names of the nine crash victims, ending with Bryant. He told the crowd he had remarks prepared and pulled a piece of paper from his sweatpants. But then James tossed it to the floor.
“Laker Nation, I would be selling you short if I read off this [expletive], so I’m going to go straight from the heart,” he said.
“The first thing comes to mind is all about family. As I look around this arena, we’re all breathing, hurt and heartbroken,” James said. “The best thing you can do is lean on the shoulders of your family.”
James noted there will be a memorial at some point for Bryant.
“I look at this as a celebration tonight,” he said.
In the couple of hours leading up to the game there was mostly silence. The electric atmosphere that surges through the arena before NBA games was nowhere to be felt. Media talked quietly among themselves without the usual music playing. Somber ushers took up their positions with black ribbons attached to their purple work shirts. Grief counseling was offered to arena staff and one female usher pulled tissues out of her pocket that had been provided.
Inside the Lakers locker room, Bryant’s No. 24 gold jersey hung on a wooden hanger from a fire alarm next to James’ locker. It was Bryant’s locker when he helped the team win five NBA championships during his 20 years in Los Angeles.
“He’s been really a tower of strength for all of us,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said of James. “We’re following his lead.”
Dwight Howard sat at his locker with earbuds in. None of the players spoke before the game.
Back in the arena, Jeff Nadal was among the early arriving fans. Nadal rolled up a giveaway No. 24 T-shirt in his hand and rested his chin on it, staring into space.
“It doesn’t really feel like you’re here for a game,” the 26-year-old middle school teacher from Whittier said. “It feels like you’re here for something a lot bigger than that. We didn’t even know the guy, but we feel like we did.”
The music began playing once the public flowed through the doors. Several fans donned the gold T-shirts at their seats; others took pictures of the video board and the electronic ribbon scrolling the victims’ names around the upper level.
“We know it’s going to be a heavy-hearted night,” Vogel said. “It’s our job to manage our emotions and honor Kobe, Gianna and the other victims the right way.”
Across the street from Staples Center, large crowds continued to gather for informal public mourning at a plaza loaded with flowers, balloons and handwritten messages, many on the pavement, honoring Bryant and his daughter.
Large poster boards covered in signatures and messages were moved to the middle of the blocked-off street separating the arena and the LA Live entertainment district.
The Lakers will wear a “KB” patch on their jerseys the rest of the season.
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