RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
NBA games in January usually aren't especially significant. Last night was an exception. In Los Angeles, the Lakers hosted the Portland Trail Blazers in the team's first home game since the death of former Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant. He and his 13-year-old daughter were among nine people who died in a helicopter crash in Southern California. NPR's Tom Goldman reports on a dramatic and emotional night.
BEN HONG: (Playing cello).
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: As part of a pitch-perfect pregame tribute, Cellist Ben Hong played at center court while, on the video screen above, the familiar face and voice of the man Lakers fans had come to honor.
KOBE BRYANT: Once upon a time, there was a young basketball player who had...
GOLDMAN: Fans cheered the video montage all narrated by Bryant at different times during his career. They did a double take when, in a final flourish, the public address announcer introduced the Lakers starting lineup.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The other guard is number 24, 6'6, 20th year out of Lower Merion High School, Kobe Bryant.
GOLDMAN: Confusion gave way to the biggest cheers of the night as each of the five starters got the same introduction.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Six '6 - 20th year from Lower Merion High School, Kobe Bryant.
GOLDMAN: Kobe Bryant literally was everywhere last night in Staples Center. When fans showed up to the game, every seat came with a Bryant number eight or number 24 yellow jersey draped over the back. He wore both numbers during his career. I watched a woman have her picture taken next to a small memorial for the crash victims. And I asked her name.
EBONY BRYANT: Ebony Bryant (laughter).
GOLDMAN: You're going with Bryant. Is it really your name?
E BRYANT: It really is.
Like so many others, Ebony Bryant came last night to pay homage to Kobe and, in her words, to feel the love with the rest of Lakers nation, which she says she did.
E BRYANT: I'm mean, I'm sitting next to total strangers. We're hugging. We're crying, high five-ing. I mean, during the whole thing, you know, we're shedding tears together.
GOLDMAN: The draw for her, like so many have said this week, was Bryant's utter devotion to his craft, his work ethic combined with supreme skill and the achievements that followed. There's also been talk of a multi-layered legacy - much good, some bad. The 2003 sexual assault accusation that ended in a settlement, Kobe's perceived arrogance that earned the Lakers haters. But in Ebony Bryant's mind, death earns someone a clean slate.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Defense, defense.
GOLDMAN: Of course, the perfect ending to last night was a Lakers victory. But that part of the script was thrown out. Portland won 127-119. Lakers head coach Frank Vogel didn't fault his team. It had been a wrenching week. Starting players, he said, went out on the floor with tears in their eyes after the tribute.
In a postgame press conference, current Lakers star LeBron James talked less about the game and more about Bryant's happiness post-retirement when Bryant finally spent the time with family that he hadn't during his career. For James, Bryant's death brought that message home.
LEBRON JAMES: I didn't feel bad in Boston when I went to go see my son two hours away in Springfield and we had a game that night when we got our ass kicked. I didn't feel bad at all. Yeah. That took a twist. But in the name of Kobe, why not?
GOLDMAN: Tom Goldman, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.