LOS ANGELES (AP) — Kobe Bryant’s resonant voice echoed through the darkened Staples Center while images from his life and career flickered on the scoreboard above.
LeBron James’ heartfelt pregame speech honoring his friend then left Lakers fans and players alike cheering through tears.
The Lakers and the Portland Trail Blazers somehow had to play a basketball game after a wrenching pregame ceremony honoring Bryant and the other eight victims of the helicopter crash just five days earlier.
And Damian Lillard gave a performance that nudged aside the basketball world’s collective heartbreak for just a moment.
Lillard scored 48 points and the Trail Blazers beat Los Angeles 127-119 on Friday night in the Lakers’ first game since Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others died in a helicopter crash.
Lillard hit seven 3-pointers and added 10 assists and nine rebounds in an inspired effort that sent the Blazers to a win over an opponent still dealing with the trauma of the crash that claimed the life of their franchise icon.
“I think everybody was emotional tonight,” said James, who played in two Olympics alongside Bryant. “We all have our individual reasons why emotion hits us, and then we all have this brotherhood and this family, being a part of this Laker organization, which automatically brings in even more emotion.”
Both teams stood on the court during a poignant pregame tribute to Bryant including songs, Kobe highlights and James’ speech, which captivated the arena.
“So in the words of Kobe Bryant, ‘Mamba out,'” James told the crowd. “But in the words of us, ‘not forgotten.’ Live on, brother.”
Highlights of Bryant’s career played during every break, but Lillard put on a show between the whistles.
Lillard’s seven 3-pointers gave him 40 in his last five games, setting an NBA record. But even the Blazers star knew results were secondary on this unique evening.
“I don’t feel like anybody feels like we walked away as a winner tonight, given the circumstances,” Lillard said. “The memories that we’ll take away from it was just sad and just tough. It’s good that we had to compete, so being on the winning side is a positive, but I don’t think anybody walks away from this moment and this situation a winner.”
James had 22 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds, and Anthony Davis had 37 points and 15 boards in the Lakers’ first game since last Saturday.
Roses for Kobe and Gianna as Lakers return to action
LOS ANGELES (AP) — LeBron James wiped his eyes as the national anthem ended. Wearing Kobe Bryant’s No. 24 jersey, James wrapped teammate Anthony Davis, in a No. 8 jersey, in an embrace.
The Lakers’ two current superstars were back on the court Friday night for the team’s first game since Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others were killed in a helicopter crash five days earlier.
“Everybody was emotional,” James said after the Lakers lost to Portland 127-119.
Davis, who scored 37 points, added, “We wanted to make him proud.”
“Just showing that appreciation and love he gave us way before he knew us,” said James, who had 22 points, eight rebounds and 10 assists.
The crowd tried to rally the Lakers, breaking into chants of Bryant’s name when the home team was down double digits.
“That was pretty awesome,” said coach Frank Vogel, who used all 13 players on the roster. “I wanted to give everyone an opportunity to contribute.”
James took center court in a pregame ceremony and read the names of the victims, ending with Bryant. He told the Staples Center crowd he had remarks prepared and pulled a piece of paper from his sweatpants. But then James tossed it to the floor.
“Laker Nation, I would be selling you short if I read off this (expletive), so I’m going to go straight from the heart,” he said.
“The first thing comes to mind is all about family. As I look around this arena, we’re all breathing, hurt and heartbroken,” James said. “The best thing you can do is lean on the shoulders of your family.”
He recalled watching Bryant from afar before joining the NBA out of high school, like Bryant did.
“Kobe is a brother to me,” James said. “The one thing we always shared was that determination to just want to win. I want to continue his legacy, not just this year, but as long as we continue to play basketball.”
James noted there will be a memorial at some point for Bryant.
“I look at this as a celebration tonight,” he said.
Red roses adorned the courtside seats where Bryant and his daughter sat at the last Lakers game they attended earlier in the season. On the overhead video board, photos of Bryant in action for the Lakers alternated with those of the others killed.
Longtime public address announcer Lawrence Tanter introduced the Lakers starting lineup as Kobe Bryant.
Usher stood at center court of the darkened arena in front of No. 8 and No. 24 yellow rose arrangements to sing “Amazing Grace.” Cellist Ben Hong from the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed while video of Bryant talking about his life and career played.
Fans interrupted the silence with chants of “Kobe! Kobe!” and “MVP! MVP!”
Boyz II Men, from Bryant’s hometown of Philadelphia, sang the national anthem.