By Rory Carroll
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – LeBron James and the Lakers overcame the death of Kobe Bryant, widespread social unrest and the isolation of the Orlando bubble to emerge victorious in an NBA season marked by tragedy and triumph.
The loss of Bryant, who perished alongside his daughter Gianna and seven others when their helicopter crashed into a hillside near Los Angeles on a gray January morning, led to an outpouring of emotion that stretched beyond the basketball world.
Bryant, who won five championships during his 20-year career with the Lakers, was notoriously competitive and James, Anthony Davis and a revolving cast of role players came out of their mourning more motivated than ever.
However, the novel coronavirus struck just as the Lakers were close to wrapping up the regular season with the top seed in the Western Conference on March 11 when there was a delay to the start of a game between the Utah Jazz and the Thunder.
The rocking, sold-out Oklahoma City crowd was told moments before the tip-off that the game had been postponed and to disperse in an orderly fashion, a move that gave many their first taste of the life-altering impacts of the pandemic.
The NBA’s decision to halt its season after it was revealed that the Jazz’s Rudy Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19 led other leagues to quickly follow suit and the North American sport’s landscape entered into a deep freeze.
Four months later, the NBA began its ambitious – and ultimately successful – restart in a bio-secure bubble at Walt Disney World in late July.
Meanwhile in Minneapolis, a Black man named George Floyd, who was a childhood friend of ex-NBA player Stephen Jackson, died after a police officer pinned him to the ground by his neck as he cried out for help.
When a video of the May incident was released, protesters immediately flooded the streets to demand justice for Floyd and reforms to counter racial disparities in the economic and criminal justice systems.
When another Black man, Jacob Blake, was shot by police in Wisconsin three months later, the league saw its season halted for a second time when the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the floor before their game, leading to a three-day halt in play.
Once again, the action of the NBA had a domino effect, with the National Hockey League, Major League Soccer and Major League Baseball and others also postponing games.
“WE DEMAND CHANGE. SICK OF IT,” James tweeted at the time, summing up the frustration at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement.
James would become a de facto spokesman for the movement, which drew the ire of U.S. President Donald Trump.
On the court, the Lakers dropped just three games as they powered past Portland, Houston and Denver to set up a Finals showdown against Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat.
Facing his former team, James took his play to another level, bullying his way to the rim, making pinpoint passes and playing lockdown defense en route to his fourth Larry O’Brien trophy and fourth finals MVP with a blowout win in Game 6.
Davis, who was also sensational inside the bubble, said that despite the enormous challenges 2020 presented, the team never forgot about Bryant.
“We wanted to do it for him, and we didn’t want to let him down,” said Davis, who was Bryant’s team mate on the 2012 Olympic team. He was a big brother to all of us.”
(Reporting by Rory Carroll in Los Angeles; Editing by Ken Ferris)