Lak­ers play out­side to lighten spir­its

Antelope Valley Press - - SPORTS - By GREG BEACHAM

EL SE­GUNDO — Be­fore the Los Angeles Lak­ers prac­ticed on the fi­nal day be­fore their first game since Kobe Bryant’s death, they played.

The play­ers, their coach­ing staff and gen­eral man­ager Rob Pelinka took to the park across the street from the team’s head­quar­ters Thurs­day to kick around a soc­cer ball and throw a pigskin.

The sight of these bas­ket­ball big men strain­ing to make saves in goal or lop­ing un­der­neath LeBron James’ 30-yard passes brought smiles and laugh­ter to fans walk­ing by. The ex­cur­sion also seemed to lift the spir­its of the play­ers, who got a fun respite from a rough week.

“It’s a beau­ti­ful day out, and there’s al­ways ther­a­peu­tic ben­e­fits to sun­shine and be­ing out­side in fresh air,” Lak­ers coach Frank Vo­gel said.

The Lak­ers will re­turn to the court Fri­day night at Sta­ples

Cen­ter to face the Port­land Trail Blazers in their first game since Bryant’s death along with his 13-year-old daugh­ter, Gianna, and seven more in a he­li­copter crash Sun­day.

The Lak­ers will hold a pregame tribute to the Bryants and the other vic­tims,

al­though the fran­chise wants the de­tails kept pri­vate un­til game time.

“I would imag­ine it prob­a­bly makes it a lit­tle harder than an or­di­nary game with all the emo­tions and that stuff, but we shouldn’t do it any other way,” Vo­gel said. “It’s the right thing to do, and an im­por­tant night for our fran­chise and for Laker Na­tion.”

Bryant re­tired in 2016 af­ter a 20-year ca­reer with the Lak­ers. He re­mained a fran­chise icon and kept close con­nec­tions to many team em­ploy­ees, all the way up to Pelinka — Bryant’s long­time agent — and owner Jeanie Buss. Pelinka is­sued a state­ment through the Lak­ers on Thurs­day, while Buss posted a heart­felt let­ter to Bryant and his fam­ily on Instagram.

“My fa­ther loved you like a son, which makes us fam­ily,” Buss wrote be­fore go­ing on to de­scribe a lunch with Kobe and Gianna in which she found in­spi­ra­tion and strength to be­come the fran­chise’s leader af­ter the death of her fa­ther, Jerry.

Pelinka was Gianna Bryant’s god­fa­ther, and he re­ferred to Bryant as his “best friend” while de­scrib­ing the tragedy as “an am­pu­ta­tion of part of my soul.”

“For any of us who knew them, there is an ir­re­place­able void left be­hind,” Pelinka wrote. “But I am also find­ing that there is a hope. For now, each new step for me will be full of deep love and prayers, as a heavy sor­row for Vanessa (Bryant and their daugh­ters) Natalia, Bianka, and Capri, and all the fam­i­lies in­volved, is slowly re­deemed into some­thing healed and new.”

Span­ish big man Pau Ga­sol, Bryant’s most im­por­tant team­mate on two Lak­ers cham­pi­onship teams, also posted poignant thoughts on Twit­ter.

“I will be heart­bro­ken for a long time, but I will for­ever be thank­ful for hav­ing had (and) shared so much to­gether,” Ga­sol wrote. “You in­spired me and pushed me to be a bet­ter ver­sion of my­self ev­ery­day. As you have done with many oth­ers.”

Associated Press

GET­TING SUN — Lak­ers for­ward LeBron James joins team mem­bers dur­ing a train­ing ses­sion out­doors in El Se­gundo on Thurs­day. The Lak­ers held their sec­ond prac­tice Thurs­day, while they con­tinue to grieve for for­mer player Kobe Bryant.

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