(Note: Please be advised that paragraph 3 contains language that some readers may find offensive)
By Rory Carroll
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James delivered an emotional speech honoring his “brother” Kobe Bryant prior to the first Lakers game since the NBA great, his 13-year-old daughter and seven others died in a helicopter crash on Sunday.
James began by reading the names of all nine victims of the tragedy and then throwing a piece of paper containing his prepared remarks on the court.
“Laker nation, man, I would be selling you all short if I read off this shit so I’m going to go straight from the heart,” James said to a raucous applause from the sold-out crowd at Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles.
“I know that at some point we will have a memorial for Kobe, but I look at this as a celebration tonight,” he told the crowd, referring to them as “family.”
“This is a celebration of the 20 years of the blood, the sweat, the tears, the broken down body, the getting back up — the determination to be as great as he could be,” he said of Bryant, who played 20 seasons with the Lakers, 18 as an all-star, and won five NBA championships.
“Tonight we celebrate the kid who came here at 18 years of age, retired at 38 and became probably the best dad we’ve seen over the last three years,” he said of Bryant, who has four daughters with wife Vanessa.
“Kobe is a brother to me … and throughout my career, the one thing we shared was that determination to win and be great.
“Along with my teammates I want to continue his legacy not only for this year but as long as we can play the game of basketball that we love because that’s what Kobe Bryant would want.
“So in the words of Kobe Bryant, Mamba out,” he said, referring to Bryant’s famous sign off after his final game as a Laker in April 2016.
“But in the words of us, not forgotten,” he said.
“Live on brother.”
Players, coaches and fans could be seen wiping tears from their eyes after James’ remarks.
The Lakers ran out the 24 second shot clock on their first possession of the game and the visiting Portland Trail Blazers did the same when they got the ball, as teams around the NBA have done since Bryant’s passing.
Teammates of Gianna, whose basketball game the group was traveling to on Sunday when the helicopter went down in foggy weather on a hillside northwest of Los Angeles, sat courtside.
Kobe’s No. 24 and Gianna’s No. 2 jerseys were placed on the two courtside seats where the pair watched their last Lakers game and the crowd frequently broke out into chants of “Kobe” and Gianna’s nickname “Gigi.”
Vanessa Bryant, who did not attend the game, posted a photo of the jerseys on Instagram during the game.
“There is no #24 without #2,” she wrote in the caption.
The Lakers fell 127-119 but the outcome felt somewhat beside the point.
“LeBron being up there and speaking to Laker nation with such strength is what we’re all about,” Lakers head coach Frank Vogel told reporters after the game.
(Editing by Shri Navaratnam)