Lakers dedicate title to Kobe & Gianna

Pelinka: "Kobe and Gianna have guided this team the entire year."

It was impossible not to think of Kobe Bryant after the Lakers won their first championship in a decade.

It has been a little over eight months since Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others were killed in a helicopter crash and there are still moments when it doesn’t seem real. As if it was part of this nightmare called 2020 that we will all wake up from at some point and go back to the way things were before.

When Jeanie Buss became the first female owner to accept the Larry O’Brien Trophy on Sunday, she said, “To Laker nation, we have been through a heartbreaking tragedy with the loss of our beloved Kobe Bryant and Gianna. Let this trophy serve as a reminder of when we come together, believe in each other, incredible things can happen.”

Moments later, Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka was emotional when discussing Bryant, his former client and best friend, and Gianna, his goddaughter.

“When I took the job, I remember (Kobe) said, ‘Hey, I know what you did for me for 20 years.’ He said, ‘I'll give you two, three years, you'll fix this. You'll get the Lakers back on top,’” said Pelinka, who then looked up. “I guess you were right, man. You give me the energy to do it.”

There have been so many moments during the Lakers time in the Orlando bubble where they have felt Bryant’s presence.

The Lakers claimed their 24th Pacific Division championship in the bubble by defeating the Utah Jazz, 116-108. If you add up the scores you get 224. If you subtract the scores, you get 8. Bryant wore 24 and his 8 during his career with the Lakers while Gianna wore 2.

When the Lakers played the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the playoffs on Kobe Bryant Day (8/24), they took a 24-8 lead to start the game. "He's here in the building," James would later say when asked about the score.

Bryant’s path to his fourth championship in 2009 saw him defeat the Houston Rockets in the second round and the Denver Nuggets in the conference finals before he held the Larry O’Brian Trophy and MVP award in Orlando. James took a similar route towards his fourth title and first with the Lakers.

Whenever I think of Bryant, his fourth championship in Orlando is the moment that sticks out the most.

The Lakers had normally stayed at the Grand Bohemian Hotel for road games in Orlando. It’s a downtown luxury hotel about a mile away from Amway Arena. For the NBA Finals, however, Phil Jackson decided the team would stay at the Ritz-Carlton Grand Lakes, a secluded resort 16 miles away from downtown. Jackson wanted his players and coaches to focus on the job at hand without the distractions of being in the city. They would leave the hotel for games and practices but that was it. It was essentially the bubble before the bubble.

I was staying at the hotel and found Bryant sitting in the lobby around 2 a.m. the day before the Lakers would win the championship. He looked tired as he pulled the hood of his sweatshirt over his head and took a sip of his Corona. He invited me and a few others to join him before he retired to his room for the night. As I walked back to my room around 5:30 a.m. I saw Bryant leaving the gym in a full sweat.

“Did you sleep,” I asked him.

“I don’t need sleep,” he said.

After the Lakers clinched the championship in Game 5, the team returned to the hotel to celebrate. Bryant was joined by his wife, Vanessa, and his daughter, Natalia, who was 6 at the time, and Gianna, who was 3. Everyone had changed their clothes except for Bryant. He was wearing the same champagne-soaked T-shirt, jersey and shorts he had on at the arena. He even refused to take his armband off as he lit up a cigar.

“What a night,” Bryant said as he posed for a picture with Vanessa, Natalia and Gianna by the Larry O’Brien trophy and his first NBA Finals MVP award.

He didn’t want that night and that moment in Orlando to end.

After the Lakers claimed the franchise’s 17th championship in Orlando on Sunday, tying the Boston Celtics for most in league history, thousands of fans took to the streets of Los Angeles and chanted, “Kobe! Kobe! Kobe!”

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“I think Kobe and Gianna have guided this team the entire year,” Pelinka said. “Kobe's voice is always in my head, always, every day, every minute… For us to be able to win this championship doesn't take away the sting of the loss, but what it does is it helps us add to their legacy.

“Kobe and Gianna's legacy will last forever. It will impact lives around the world in positive ways, and this championship and this Lakers championship in 2020 is partly to build on that legacy and honor them, and for us to be able to do that, the moment couldn't be any more special to do that for them.”

Listen to “The Arash Markazi Show” on The Mightier 1090 Monday-Friday from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. You can also listen to the show later on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Google Play.