It started with a tattoo, a black mamba on his left thigh, curled up with the numbers 8 and 24. LeBron James got the tattoo on Wednesday in honor of his friend, former Olympic teammate and fellow Lakers legend Kobe Bryant. Underneath it reads, “Mamba 4 Life,” a reference to Bryant’s nickname, Black Mamba.
In the morning, it was a pair of Nike Zoom Kobe 5 Protros, as yet unreleased, that combine Bryant’s Parade Nikes with his Big Stage Nike. James wore those to Lakers shootaround ahead of Friday night’s matchup against the Trail Blazers.
Throughout the day, James found ways to pay tribute to Bryant, a fellow basketball icon with whom he shared a close relationship. He even showed up for the game dressed in a Bryant No. 24 shirt as Bryant’s jersey hung next to his locker.
Bryant, along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others, died in a tragic helicopter crash last Sunday. While there was grief all around, James seemed to carry the banner for the reaction to Bryant’s passing from the Lakers as a franchise.
It was only natural. James was the heir to Bryant as the league’s marquee player as the 2000s turned into the 2010s, much as Bryant took that mantle from Michael Jordan after the 1990s. James was also picking up Bryant legacy in Los Angeles, tasked with returning the Lakers to championship form.
In the 2016 All-Star game, just before Bryant retired, Bryant told reporters, “When I leave, (James) will be the elder statesman.”
LeBron James Had Eloquent Words for Bryant
James has taken that responsibility seriously. He was in tears during the rendition of the national anthem before tipoff then went to midcourt to honor the nine victims of the helicopter crash. He read off the names and said he had prepared remarks to read. But he dropped those remarks.
“Laker nation,” he said, “I would be selling y’all short if I read off this sh–, so I’m gonna go straight from the heart.”
That got a raucous ovation. “I know we’re going to have a memorial for Kobe at some point,” James said. “But I look at this as a celebration tonight. This is a celebration of the 20 years of the blood, the sweat, the tears, the broken-down body, the getting up, the sitting down, the everything, the countless hours, the determination to be as great as he could be. Tonight, we celebrate the kid who came here at 18 years of age, retired at 38 and became probably the best daddy we’ve seen over the last three years, man.”
The mention of Bryant as a father caused a break in James’ voice. He spoke of meeting Bryant as a young player and how they shared a burning desire to win. “Kobe was like a brother to me,” James said.
He then turned to the Lakers and their fans. “I want to continue, along with my teammates, to continue his legacy,” James said, “not only for this year, but as long as we can play the game of basketball that we love because that’s what Kobe Bryant would want.”
James closed by reflecting Bryant’s speech in his final game in April 2016.
“In the words of Kobe Bryant, Mamba out,” James said. “But in the words of us, not forgotten. Live on, brother.”
James Passed Bryant on NBA Scoring List Six Days Ago
James, like most Lakers and like most of L.A. itself, has spent the week grappling with his emotions. It was less than a week ago that James brought Bryant back to the fore of the NBA’s consciousness when he passed Bryant on the league’s all-time scoring list, an especially poignant feat considering he’d done it Philadelphia, not far from where Bryant attended high school.
On Twitter, after the game, Bryant wrote, “Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother.”
The two reportedly talked by phone after that game while other Lakers listened in.
“When I was a kid, in high school, I was coming up through the ranks when Kobe came into the league,” James told reporters after the Philadelphia game. “It wasn’t a dream of mine at that point in time to come from high school into the NBA, but I was like, ‘Wow, 17-year-old, 18-year-old kid being able to make that leap, that’s pretty damn cool.’”
James also remembered meeting Bryant at the 2001 NBA All-Star weekend in Philadelphia, when James was just 16. Bryant gave him a pair of his shoes and James wore them the following night, when his high school team played against Carmelo Anthony’s Oak Hill team at a tournament in New Jersey.
“I was a 15, he was a 14, but I wore them anyway,” James said. Bryant, for his part, won the All-Star MVP award that year.
James would reflect on the strange coincidence of it all—being a Lakers, passing Bryant on the scoring list in the city in which he first met Bryant. “It’s surreal,” James said. “It doesn’t make no sense. But the universe just puts things in your life.”
Hours later, of course, the universe took away Bryant, who helped James so much on his way up. Now that he is gone, James is still finding ways to honor Bryant for that.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel, speaking to reporters before the Portland game, registered the team’s appreciation. “I think (LeBron has) been really a tower of strength for all of us,” Vogel said.
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