If there was any doubt about LeBron James status in the NBA, the answer was provided again last week when his phone rang shortly after the death of Kobe Bryant and eight others in a helicopter crash near Los Angeles.
The league was in the process of planning its All-Star Game and it had an idea it wanted to pass along to James, who was generally considered one of Bryant’s best friends in the world of basketball.
James was told of a plan to have one All-Star team wear No. 24 and the other No. 2 in memory of Bryant and his daughter, Gianna. The league wanted to know what he thought of the idea and which of the two numbers he might want to wear.
“I picked No. 2,” James told ESPN.
That was Gianna Bryant’s number during her youth basketball career, one that seemed to be pointing her to a likely college career.
Gianna Bryant had made it clear her desire was to play for UConn’s Hall of Fame coach, Geno Auriemma. In fact, the Huskies honored her last week by draping a No. 2 UConn uniform over an empty seat on their bench before a game.
So now, when the All-Star Game is played Feb. 16 in Chicago, the team James will captain will wear No. 2 and the one led by Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo will wear No. 24.
James said wearing No. 2 will serve two purposes. Not only would it enable him to honor the memory of Gianna, it would celebrate his relationship with his own five-year old daughter, Zhuri.
After Bryant’s death, James changed his Instagram profile picture to one of Bryant holding Gianna. James original photo was one of he and Zhuri.
“It felt like these last three years were the happiest I’ve ever seen him,” James told reporters Friday before the Lakers honored Bryant and the other victims at Staples Center. “I think we all can say that. It was the happiest I’ve ever seen him, being able to just be with his daughters, be with his family. …
“To see him these last three years just being … y’all see ‘girldad,’ the hashtag. I’m a girl dad. My brother right here – Anthony Davis – is a girl dad.”
In one way or another, the Lakers will deal with Bryant’s death every day for the remainder of the season. There will be questions to answer and assumptions made about how much his memory will spur the team to win this year’s NBA Championship for him.
“We can expect that probably for the rest of the year, some type of tribute or something honoring him,” Davis told The Athletic. “Knowing that he’s with us, whether they don’t or whether they do. Knowing he’s with us as long as Laker Nation is alive.”
But while news about the crash continues to filter out – the latest 911 calls underscoring how terrible weather conditions were that morning – the Lakers organization decided earlier this week to respectfully move on by arranging the dismantling of the makeshift memorials constructed by fans and well-wishers in the aftermath of the accident.
The public memorial located at the L.A. Live plaza across from Staples Center was disassembled Monday after a smaller one outside the Lakers’ practice facility was removed Sunday night.
The team told ESPN it will collect and store donated items until further directions are provided by the Bryant family. Meanwhile, the flowers collected from the site will be mulched and spread around the property.
You might not have noticed it, but there were even random signs pointing to Bryant’s presence at Staples Center during the Lakers’ 129-113 win over Sacramento.
“The fact that we scored 81 points … in the first 24 minutes, how eerie that was, and then both teams’ combined points were 242, was like the 2 and the 2, 2-4,” James said. “There was, like, some weird stuff going on.”
The 81 refers, of course, to James’ record-setting 81-point performance against Toronto in 2006.
“I guess he’s here with us,” Davis said.
The Lakers front office is moving ahead, as well, preparing for Thursday’s impending trade deadline.
“I think it’s just part of this time of year, it just comes with the territory of being an NBA player, NBA coach, NBA front office — we’re going to do our job,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said.
There was also evidence last week that the nation was still transfixed by the loss of Bryant. The Lakers game against the Trail Blazers on Friday, their first since the crash, was the second-most watched regular-season NBA game on ESPN.
The game averaged 4.41 million viewers. The only telecast to surpass that over the last 17 years was a January 2003 game between the Lakers and Houston Rockets featuring the first matchup between Shaquille O’Neal and Yao Ming.
Vogel acknowledged the obvious last week when he told the media that Bryant’s death will change the nature of their season. Each stop they make around the country will likely feature some type of ceremony honoring his memory.
And it will be like that for casual fans, as well. They will be more likely to tune into a Lakers game just to see how the team is doing.
“It’s never going to feel normal,” Vogel said.