Then, the unimaginable: On Jan. 26, Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, were among nine people who died in a helicopter crash outside of Los Angeles. Bryant, an iconic and polarizing star, had spent his entire 20-year playing career with the Lakers, winning five championships, before he retired in 2016.
Rob Pelinka, the Lakers’ general manager, was among Bryant’s closest friends, and many current players revered him. Artwork of Bryant and his daughter appeared in spaces across the city — and beyond. Fans left flowers and handwritten notes at the team’s practice facility. A public memorial was staged at Staples Center, where Beyoncé sang and Michael Jordan wept.
Just over two weeks later, the season was indefinitely suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic. As the hiatus dragged on, protests against police brutality and racial injustice roiled the country, and many players used their platforms as celebrities to bring attention to those issues. Some even questioned whether the season should be canceled so as not to be a distraction.
Yet, through it all — calamities, big and small — the Lakers remained determined to chase the franchise’s first championship since 2010, which was also Bryant’s last title.
“I think the hard times, or the trials, are when you grow,” Pelinka said.
Throughout the finals, James and his teammates warmed up in T-shirts that read, “VOTE.” And during the restart, they occasionally wore black uniforms that Bryant had helped design.
“It means something,” James said, “something more than just a uniform.”
It is never easy to win a championship, and the challenges of winning one this season were unique. Consider the Milwaukee Bucks, who had the league’s best regular-season record — and Giannis Antetokounmpo, who beat out James to win his second straight N.B.A. Most Valuable Player Award — but lost in the Eastern Conference semifinals after struggling to reassemble their chemistry after the hiatus. Consider the Houston Rockets, who tried (again) to reinvent themselves before losing to the Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals.