It ended with a championship, a happy and familiar outcome for an outfit like the Lakers, possessors of 17 NBA title trophies and employers of the game’s biggest star, LeBron James. But the past year was an incredibly difficult one for the proud franchise, which saw one of its all-time greatest stars—Kobe Bryant—killed along with his daughter, Gianna, and seven others in a plane crash in late January.
Just weeks later, of course, the NBA halted the season in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, putting the Lakers’ chances at a title won in Bryant’s honor in peril. They did finally get their chance, but had to do so in the bubble environment the league created in Orlando last summer.
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For team owner Jeanie Buss, the Lakers showed remarkable resilience, and there is no doubt to her where that resilience originated—James, whom she called, “fearless,” a “comfort to Laker Nation,” and credited for his ability to command respect. That, according to Buss, was critical in helping the Lakers recover as a franchise from the loss of Kobe Bryant.
“They put on their shoulders a fan base that was heartbroken, and they [were] led by LeBron James…he’s a leader, he’s fearless.”@JeanieBuss joins WNTT tonight at 7 PM ET to talk about the resiliency she saw in the Lakers organization this season. pic.twitter.com/M1iZrndwMC
— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) December 15, 2020
Buss on LeBron: ‘He Is a Leader. He Is Fearless’
Speaking with CBS Sports, Buss explained just how important James was for the franchise this past year:
The way that the team came together. They put on their shoulders a fan base that was heartbroken and they—led by LeBron James who, you know, I didn’t really know LeBron until he became a Lakers—and watching him in this time of crisis, not only in the loss of Kobe but during the pandemic and also the social unrest we experienced this summer, he is a leader. He’s fearless. He’s taught me just by example that you don’t accept anything less than your respect. He even said it in his speech, ‘I want my respect.’
He has been just a comfort to Laker Nation. He led this team, to go from not being the playoffs the year before to winning a championship is so, it’s mind-blowing. And to do it in a bubble under challenging circumstances, the team was separated from their homes, their families, for over 90 days while they sacrificed to play in the bubble. To be the last team standing really shows their resiliency.
Buss, Kobe Bryant Had Long, Close Relationship
Buss and Bryant had a long and close relationship over his 20 NBA seasons. Her father, Jerry Buss (who died in 2013), was the team owner for most of Bryant’s career. In the wake of Bryant’s death, Buss posted a message to him on Instagram saying, “Kobe, I don’t know how to express what you mean to me, my family and the Los Angeles Lakers. My father loved you like a son, which makes us family.”
Bryant had been advising Buss after his retirement and, when the team was planning to make a run at James ahead of his free-agency in 2018, it was Bryant who told Buss to “clean house” and bring in new management. At the time, the Lakers were dealing with infighting involving Jeanie Buss, her brother Jim Buss, former general manager Mitch Kupchak and a number of factions within the organization.
Buss did clean house, and James agreed to become a Laker.
Back in May, when Buss appeared on a podcast with broadcaster Joe Buck, she talked about Bryant.
“As heartbroken as I am, one comfort that I have is that Kobe knew how much we loved him and we told him and we retired his numbers,” she told Buck. “He never doubted that we were behind him 100%. That gives me some comfort. We never held back the celebrating the greatness that was Kobe.”