With more than a minute to go for full time, LeBron James and Anthony Davis broke away from their team-mates. In the passage leading to the courtside exit, the two had a little moment to themselves – a hug, a few words and some moist eyes.
Play was still on; it wasn’t the first time the LA Lakers had celebrated prematurely. Leading 3-1 into game 5 of the NBA Finals, the team had switched to the ‘Black Mamba’ jersey, in memory of the late Kobe Bryant, for the game. In that jersey, the Lakers had never lost a playoff game. Until Game 5, that is.
This time, James and Davis had no cause for worry. The Lakers beat Miami Heat 106-93 in the sixth game on Sunday night to seal the seven-match NBA Finals 4-2 for their 17th NBA title, the first in a decade.
The Lakers played Game 6 in their original jersey, but ‘Black Mamba’ was on their minds all along.
“We didn’t let him down,” Davis said in a courtside interview after the win. “Ever since the tragedy, all we wanted to do was do it for him. It would’ve been great to do it the last game wearing his jersey, but it made us come out even more powerful and aggressive to make sure we close it out tonight. I know he’s looking down on us and is proud of us.”
Bryant, a Laker for life, died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California in January this year along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others. The tragedy broke the sporting world, and united the Lakers to dedicate the rest of the season to their hero.
This was Bryant’s season now. This was the Lakers’ season now.
In Game 2 of their Western Conference Finals against Denver Nuggets last month, when the Lakers were down by one point with two seconds on the clock, Davis stepped up for a match-winning three pointer and yelled ‘Kobe’ after it went in.
“Mamba Shot. That was Mamba right there,” coach Frank Vogel said in the locker room. The ‘Mamba mentality’ was everywhere in the Lakers camp. Players shouted “1-2-3 Mamba!” while breaking huddles; some wore his shoes; James and Davis even got tattoos in his honour.
From Kobe to LeBron
Widely regarded as one of the greatest basketball players of all time, Bryant spent his entire NBA career from 1996 to 2016 with the Los Angeles outfit, giving them five championship titles, three of them back to back (2000-02).
Along with Shaquille O’Neal, Bryant became the heart of an outfit coached by Phil Jackson that dominated the league at the turn of the century.
Before Bryant came on board, the Lakers’ last NBA title came in 1988. By the time it was Bryant’s last season in 2015-16, the Lakers had failed to make the playoffs for a third consecutive year with a 17-65 win-loss season record, a new low. For a club with four NBA titles in the 1950s (as Minneapolis Lakers), five in the 1980s and five in the 2000s while boasting some of the biggest names in basketball history – George Mikan, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bryant, O’Neal – it was a slow and painful slide.
Something had to change. Enter LeBron James.
“I told Jeanie (Buss, Lakers co-owner) when I came here that I’m going to put this franchise back to where it belongs,” James said on Sunday after collecting his fourth NBA Finals MVP trophy.
James became a Laker in July 2018 as a three-time NBA champion. But he had no magic wand. He couldn’t do it all alone, more so with injuries keeping him down.
Enter Anthony Davis.
In July last year, when Davis was traded to the Lakers from New Orleans, the 27-year-old made a pact with James.
“He (James) told me that he wants to give me my first ring (given to the winning team of the Finals),” Davis was quoted as saying by The New York Times. “And I told him that I want to get him back to the Finals.”
Promises kept. Together, they carried the Lakers: James (27.6) and Davis (27.7) became only the second Lakers duo to win the NBA Finals while averaging more than 25 points per game in the postseason. The first? Bryant and O’Neal.
If overcoming the trauma of Bryant’s death wasn’t challenging enough, the Lakers had to deal with sustaining their early momentum for the longest season in NBA history.
They had to get back in the groove after a long pandemic-forced layoff and finish their remaining matches inside a bio secure bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
The first match of the regular 2019-20 season was played on October 22, 2019 – almost a year before the last. The season was suspended on March 11 and for close to four months, players had to contend with just sitting at home. In early July, the first batch of players began sprinkling into the bubble, a mammoth exercise – more than 800 people comprising players and staff of 22 teams, apart from match officials and broadcast teams, stacked into one massive resort for weeks.
Toll on players
It had all the amenities of the modern world for the players to indulge in, but it wasn’t home. And it was taking a toll on the players.
James had no qualms in admitting that he had “numerous nights and days thinking about leaving the bubble”. Ahead of the Game 1 of the Finals, James, the legend who has seen painful injuries and heartbreaking defeats for 17 years, said being in the bubble was “the most challenging thing I’ve ever done as far as a professional, as far as committing to something and actually making it through”.
There were other emotional upheavals to work with too – players inside the bubble united in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter campaign. The Milwaukee Bucks refused to play against the Orlando Magic after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin in August. Matches were suspended for three days. Players began to speak out against police brutality, they wore masks and jerseys with the words “Black Lives Matter”, and they took a knee before matches.
In all of that turmoil, the spirit of Bryant remained a constant. “There would be times in the middle of the night I’d hear his voice,” Rob Pelinka, the former agent of Bryant who is the Lakers’ GM, said on Sunday, “‘Stay the course. Finish the task.’”
On Sunday night, that’s exactly what the Lakers did, in memory of Bryant