The first game at Staples Center since the tragic helicopter accident that took the lives of Kobe and Gianna Bryant and seven others was the most complicated rooting experience I’ve had to date.
Mascara ran down my cheeks as I took in the Lakers’ touching video tribute to Kobe ahead of Friday’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers. I fought to hold back tears as Lakers forward LeBron James read the names of all nine passengers who had died in the crash.
Let’s establish that I grew up in a family that has been rooted in Portland for over 40 years. As a Blazers fan, I was taught from a young age that the Lakers are to basketball as the New England Patriots are to football — you either love them or you hate that they dominate.
Despite my strong allegiance to Rip City, I found myself texting my parents on Friday night: “Do the Blazers even want to win this game? Should we want them to win this game?”
Experiencing the aftermath of Kobe’s death while living in Los Angeles was truly indescribable. I was covering a game at Galen Center at the time — the same place where I had stood five feet away from Kobe and Gianna only a year ago — and could feel a palpable dip in the crowd’s energy as they became aware of the devastating news. I drove through downtown Sunday night and took in the purple and gold lights that shined over the city as it grieved the loss of its star.
I have friends, professors and classmates who had personal connections to the victims, to the crash site and even to Kobe himself. Sure, I grew up rooting against the Lakers, but I was immersed enough in the Los Angeles community that I couldn’t imagine how it would respond to any outcome other than a Lakers win that night.
On paper, Friday’s game was an important one for my team. Yes, one game in the midst of an 82-game season is not going to make or break a team, but the Blazers had recently emerged as potential playoff contenders despite an injury-plagued start to the season. The team was also coming in with momentum after back-to-back wins and an unprecedented scoring streak by star point guard Damian Lillard, who averaged 48.5 points in his prior four outings.
Despite all of this, I believed the only way to bring hope to a grieving community was for the Lakers to come out on top. So I spent the first quarter of the game rooting against my team of 19 years. As the two teams exchanged 24- and 8-second violations to honor Kobe’s two retired jersey numbers, though, it was clear that this game was bigger than any player, team or league.
The two teams could not have put on a better show in Kobe’s honor. A high-scoring first half saw the Lakers with a 62-60 lead heading into halftime, and Lakers forward Anthony Davis put up 18 points in the first quarter alone.
As I listened to Charlie Puth and Wiz Khalifa perform “See You Again” at halftime, I realized that Kobe would have wanted both teams to leave everything on the court. After Lillard ended the game with 48 points en route to a 127-119 Blazer win, I thought to myself, “Kobe probably would have congratulated Dame for that game, despite the outcome.”
I realized that the tragic deaths of these nine basketball players, coaches and parents left its mark not only on the Lakers and L.A. but on the entire basketball community.
Blazers forward Carmelo Anthony, for example, did not make the trip to L.A., and it wasn’t hard to figure out why.
“YOU just called me and told me you were coming to the game Friday and that you were proud of me and ‘regardless of anything, stay true to myself and STAYME70,” Anthony wrote in an Instagram caption below a photo of him and Kobe in a tight embrace.
Wins and losses are the accepted way of measuring success in sports games, and I had trouble reconciling that this one was different. The Blazers came away with a convincing win, but while I might have texted a couple of people that it was “Lillard Time” as he continued to drain shots from deep in the second half, I otherwise felt numb to the victory.
I entered the week rooting for the Blazers and entered the game rooting for the Lakers, but in the end, this game was not about allegiance. The stellar efforts by Lillard, Davis and James — all of whom put up 20-plus points — demonstrated a commitment to honoring Kobe’s legacy that transcended the boundaries of any player or team.
It wasn’t about a tally in the win or loss column. It was about honor, fight and showcasing the “Mamba Mentality.”
Lillard expressed this sentiment as reporters asked him how he felt after his remarkable outing, in which he fell just one rebound short of his second career triple-double. These numbers would normally be a cause for celebration, but stats were the furthest thing from Lillard’s mind.
“Nobody wins tonight,” Lillard said in an interview with Yahoo Sports. “You don’t walk away from this game with too much to be proud about because of the circumstances. We got the win, but I think the moment and what it was about tonight is the one thing I won’t forget.”
Amanda Sturges is a sophomore writing about the impact of sports. She is also a features editor for the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Out of the Park,” runs every other Tuesday.