Ten years ago, Los Angeles Lakers fans celebrated the team’s 16th championship and Kobe Bryant’s fifth, but little did Lakers nation know, the team’s next championship would be their most memorable and would come without Kobe on the sidelines or in the stands at Staples Center.
The abnormality of the 2019-2020 NBA season magnified how special the 17th championship is for the Lakers. The team overcame playing in a bubble during a pandemic, spoke out on social issues as they made their playoff run and made LA proud when they dedicated the championship to the late, great Kobe Bryant or, as many fans refer to as the “GOAT.”
On Jan. 26, the public woke up to the news that Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash. I had just finished eating breakfast when I heard my mom yell out, “Kobe died.” I rushed to the TV to figure out if it was true and as I sat there in disbelief. I couldn’t hold back my tears.
The reports were true, and my heart shattered when I heard that Kobe’s daughter, Gianna, was one of the nine people who died in the helicopter crash.
The Lakers franchise released a statement acknowledging the impact Kobe Bryant had on the city of Los Angeles and how they have forever been changed by his sudden death. The 2019-2020 Lakers team now faced a pressure like no other, as they were now tasked with winning a championship not just for Los Angeles, but in honor of Kobe and Gianna Bryant.
Lakers faced turmoil the last 10 years, as the team dealt with uncertainty in ownership after the death of Jerry Buss in 2013, contracts that hurt the team more so than helped and a revolving door of coaches.
As a Lakers fan, I had been spoiled with great players who only care about winning championships, so seeing the Lakers become the laughingstock of the NBA was like living in a parallel universe.
The quest for the Lakers 17th championship started two years ago.
July 1, 2018 changed the sports world when Klutch Sports Group announced LeBron James would sign a four-year deal with the Los Angeles Lakers. The magnitude of this news carried different story angles questioning if James was still committed to basketball or if he simply wanted to become a movie star. My initial thought was that the Lakers were contenders again.
The hype of signing James did not bring instant success, as the Lakers failed to make the 2018-2019 playoffs, which extended the team’s playoff drought to six years. The pressure was on, and James was aging. The franchise needed to make a move to prove to Lakers nation that they were committed to bring the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy back to Los Angeles.
The final piece was added summer of 2019, when the Lakers traded for best big man in the NBA, Anthony Davis, a 6’10 power forward who has no weakness to his game. The New Orleans Pelicans agreed to trade Anthony Davis to the Lakers in exchange for Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and three first-round draft picks.
The message was clear; the Lakers were done with the rebuilding process and it was time to go all in for a championship. The Lakers acquiring two of the top five players in the NBA with Davis and James equipped the team with the best one-two punch since Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.
From the start of the 2019-2020 NBA season, the Lakers dominated their competition with a mix of veteran role players with high basketball IQ, James facilitating the offense and Davis dominating every aspect of the game.
Everything was going as planned until the unexpected happened.
Kobe Bryant’s death paused the NBA; multiple games were postponed and players mourned his death. The Lakers commemorated Kobe before their first game after the tragedy, as James shared a heartfelt message dedicated to Kobe.
“The one thing that we always shared is that determination to just want to win and just want to be great,” James said, “The fact that I am here now means so much to me. I want to continue, along with my teammates, to continue his legacy not only for this year, but as long as we could play the game of basketball that we love because that’s what Kobe Bryant would want,” James said.
The storybook ending was in place for the Lakers, but to ensure they carried out their promise, the team embraced the mamba mentality.
The Lakers attained the second-best record in the league and were playing their best basketball. They earned statement wins against the favorites to make the finals, Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers, but the NBA continued to face adversity when the pandemic stopped every sports league in March.
During the four-month hiatus, the NBA came up with the bubble idea, so the teams could finish the season and crown a champion at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at the Walt Disney World Resort.
At the start of the NBA bubble, multiple analysts kept disregarding the Lakers as serious contenders because of the age of the roster. However, the analysts were overlooking the leadership the veterans provided, and their championship experience.
To honor Kobe, the team wore “Black Mamba” jerseys the second game of every playoff series and felt a special connection when they wore them. Davis, in a postgame interview, expressed the meaning behind the jerseys after hitting a game winning shot against the Denver Nuggets in game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.
“Obviously, we’re representing him,” Davis said. “Especially in those jerseys. It’s his jersey, one he created, and any time we put it on we want to win.”
James and Davis kept putting the team on their backs to prove everyone wrong, as the team’s defensive mindset carried the Lakers during the most difficult playoff run in NBA history. Their domination over their playoff opponents showed they were tired of being disrespected.
In game 6 of the NBA Finals, the Lakers capped off the NBA season with a defensive masterpiece, beating the Miami Heat, 106-93 — keeping their promise to LA as they claimed their 17th championship.
This championship journey for the Lakers embodied what Los Angeles is as a city. They kept proving doubters wrong and stressed the importance of playing as a team. Watching the closing seconds of the game, I was so proud of the Lakers for overcoming so much in one year and earning the respect they deserve, but Kobe would never want them to become complacent.
The quest for the Lakers 18th championship starts now.
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