LOS ANGELES — Lakers home games are probably the most unique basketball experience in the world, especially when the team is actually good. The dimmed lights make the on-court action look like a prizefight. The organ music adds an old-school, showtimey touch. The most famous people in the world, aside from the ones actually playing, are dotted along the sidelines to add some dramatic heft. Witnessing a Laker game is the equivalent of being at the high school parties you were never invited to. The coolness factor is worth the price of admission alone, and that’s before LeBron James throws down a fastbreak dunk, or Anthony Davis pirouettes around a defender to catch a high-arching lob.
This year in particular, Laker games have the added benefit of confidence—and not the false bravado that permeated only the most irrational of die-hards during the organization’s lean years. Both the crowd and the team act like they know they can crush the opponent at any time. The crowd is on top of everything, not only the Bron and AD megawatt plays, but also the Dwight Howard offensive rebounds and the Alex Caruso dive for a loose ball. Everything about the experience at Staples screams marquee. The Lakers are the best show—and make no mistake, it’s not a basketball game, it’s a show.
The vibe was the exact opposite Friday night, the Lakers’ first home game since the death of franchise icon Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others in a helicopter crash five days earlier. Over three hours before tipoff, hundreds of fans crowded the sidewalks around the arena, some to make sure they could spend every allowable second inside, others to experience just a small part of probably the most emotional NBA game ever.
The area outside Staples Center had grown from a memorial to Bryant to a community shrine. Several wall-sized whiteboards are filled with handwritten messages for Kobe and Gianna. And with room scarce on those, more notes are written on the floor. The city’s supply of flowers is seemingly being drained. And there are enough candles on the floor to keep Staples’ facade lit during a power outage.
Whatever sense of cool typically exuded by the Lakers, their fans or Los Angeles in general, was replaced with raw, powerful emotion. Bryant’s loss clearly meant something to every single soul in Staples, and no one was precious about letting their feelings come to the surface. Not the Lakers players, who each wore Bryant’s jersey during warmups, were introduced to his name when starters were announced, and hugged each other tightly at several different moments. Not the fans, who let their tears flow during the beautiful pregame tribute, which included two videos set to performances by Usher singing “Amazing Grace” and cellist Ben Hong. And not LeBron, who after reading the names of all the lives lost in Sunday’s crash, crumpled up and tossed aside his prepared speech to speak off the cuff, ending with words that will undoubtedly become a refrain in the Kobe remembrances to come: “Not forgotten. Live on, brother.”
There will probably—hopefully—never be another NBA game like Friday’s. I still don’t know how anyone on the court could gather themselves to actually play. The emotion in the building was unparalleled. NBA games are supposed to start with loud music, pyrotechnics, spirit squads, mean mugs and screaming fans. They’re supposed to start with cheers, not tears.
That’s not to say there were no smiles at all Friday night. In fact, especially after LeBron spoke, people in the stands finally had a chance to celebrate. After a week of somber tributes and difficult moments, the Lakers ultimately provided their faithful with an opportunity to once again revel in all of Kobe’s on-court accomplishments, highlighting his biggest basketball moments during timeout videos throughout the night. Chants of “Kobe” sprung up a couple times per quarter, often in an attempt to galvanize.
After the game, Lakers head coach Frank Vogel said it never really felt normal to be coaching in that kind of game, though the competitive aspect of the task at hand did help. And if anything could help bring a sense of normalcy to this Lakers season, competition is probably the best bet.
Friday’s game probably never felt normal for the crowd, either—though Damian Lillard did his best to suck everyone back into basketball. After barking at the refs and earning a technical foul, Lillard exploded for 23 points in the third quarter, stunning the Lakers with absurd three after absurd three. Lillard’s explosion was not only breathtaking, it was a welcome distraction. It seemed to snap both teams into action. The crowd grew restless with the home team’s defense, and roared in anticipation at the hint of any comeback.
In that sense, Lillard’s run was perhaps a microcosm of how the Lakers can find whatever comes on the other side of grief. Basketball is not the only therapy this team will need, but serious competition seemed to finally coax out the sights and sounds Staples had grown accustomed to this year, from the players to the coaches to the fans. Whether it takes one game, one month, or one year for Staples to feel like the coolest club in the NBA again, after the loss of a person who means so much to everyone who shows up to the building, the experience will continue to be unlike any other in the world.