“Everything negative – pressure, challenges – it’s all an opportunity for me to rise.” – Kobe Bryant
The Lakers have made it to the NBA Finals for the first time since Kobe Bryant led them there in 2010, but the road to get there has been more difficult than it’s been for any other team. The Lakers postponed only four games in their 73-year history before 2020. This year alone, L.A. postponed three games due to racial injustice, a global pandemic and the tragic loss of Bryant.
The Lakers first game was postponed on Jan. 29 against the Los Angeles Clippers after global icon and Lakers legend Bryant tragically died in a helicopter crash three days before. Bryant meant everything to the city of Los Angeles and the Lakers franchise. Hall of Fame Players Magic Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal often referred to him as the greatest Laker of all time, having won five championships in his 20-year career with the team. Bryant was drafted in 1996 at 17 years old and the city, along with millions of fans around the world, watched him grow up.
With the countless matchups and comparisons between Bryant and LeBron James over the years, it took time to get used to James wearing purple and gold. However, Bryant’s last post on social media was congratulating James about passing him in all-time scoring. One of the eeriest aspects of Bryant’s death was how James spoke about his admiration for Bryant for ten minutes on the night he broke Bryant’s record, hours before the fatal helicopter crash.
The Lakers have always been about big stars like Bryant and Johnson, which made James, the NBA’s biggest star today, a welcome and familiar face to help guide Lakers Nation through its darkest hour. Echoing Bryant’s speech after his 60-point career finale, James spoke to the crowd before the first game since Bryant’s death, “So in the words of Kobe Bryant, ‘Mamba Out,’ but in the words of us, ‘Not forgotten. Live on, brother’.”
The Lakers' game scheduled for March 13 was postponed after Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for COVID-19 on March 11 — the same day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. This led to uncertainty about whether the 2020 season would ever resume. Back on March 11, the Lakers were No. 1 in the Western Conference for the first time since 2012. Then came the longest break in NBA history, which lasted more than four months. Finally, the league came up with the idea of creating an isolated bubble inside Walt Disney World, inviting 22 teams into the bubble, hosting games behind closed doors at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex on July 30th.
During the suspension, the NBA, a league with over 80% Black players, was deeply affected by the protests around the country against racial injustice after the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. When George Floyd was murdered on May 25, NBA stars stepped up to lead protests, speak out against racial injustice on social media and even form foundations. Black Lives Matter and the 2020 fight for social justice became widely recognized as the largest social justice movement in U.S. history, with NBA players being at the forefront.
Many NBA stars did a phenomenal job stepping up, but James is the league’s most recognizable face of social activism. James created More Than A Vote, a group of Black entertainers and athletes working to fight Black voter suppression. Other Lakers protested in their own way. Dwight Howard nearly boycotted the bubble, Avery Bradley didn’t come to the bubble and Danny Green publicly protested in the streets.
While in the bubble, emotions ran high when Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The shooting sparked nation-wide protests and players felt truly isolated from the causes they supported as they could not protest with people outside the bubble. The Milwaukee Bucks were the first team to take action when they did not walk onto the court in their first-round playoff game against the Orlando Magic. The Lakers' third game of the season was postponed after they chose to boycott with the Bucks on Aug. 26.
After uncertainty surrounding the resumption of the season, James and NBPA President Chris Paul led a subcommittee of players in a discussion with former President Barack Obama. Obama advised the players to resume the season and to continue to use this massive platform. On Sept. 24 James used his large platform again to plead for justice and express love and support to the Black women in his life during a powerful postgame interview after a state grand jury did not charge police officers with the killing of Breonna Taylor. “We want justice no matter how long it takes,” James said.
Somehow, someway the NBA Finals are happening. It’s only fitting that the team which has overcome the most is four games away from their championship.
The Lakers have dedicated this run to Bryant. When asked about this, Lakers superstar Anthony Davis said, “It means a lot. He inspired every single guy on this team. He inspired this entire organization. He is this organization. We just want to make him proud.”
All of this has led to the Lakers dedicating a playoff run to Bryant with Black Lives Matter painted on the court inside of an isolated bubble in Walt Disney World. Disney World is known as the place where dreams come true and magical stories come to life as the Lakers seem to be writing their own storybook ending to the most meaningful run in Lakers, and possibly NBA history.