Shadow of Kobe Bryant hangs over first Lakers game since his death

LOS ANGELES, Jan 31 (Reuters) - Kobe Bryant's former team the Los Angeles Lakers will make an emotional return to the court on Friday for the first time since his death earlier this week in a helicopter crash that shook basketball fans in the city and worldwide.

Bryant, 41, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven other people died on Sunday when the helicopter they were taking to a girls' basketball tournament crashed in foggy weather on a hillside northwest of Los Angeles.

Although the details of an expected tribute to Bryant at Friday's game at Staples Center have yet to be made public, Lakers coach Frank Vogel said at a Wednesday practice that the heartbroken team wanted to honor one of their greatest-ever players.

"We want to represent what Kobe was about more than anything," Vogel told reporters at the UCLA Health Training Center in El Segundo. "We've always wanted to make him proud and that's not going to be any different."

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NBA legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna
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NBA legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna
TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 14: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers and the Western Conference kisses daughter Gianna Bryant during the NBA All-Star Game 2016 at the Air Canada Centre on February 14, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Former Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna watch during the U.S. national championships swimming meet Thursday, July 26, 2018, in Irvine, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna watch the first half of an NCAA college basketball game between Connecticut and Houston, Saturday, March 2, 2019, in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 29: Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna Bryant attend a basketball game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks at Staples Center on December 29, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 29: Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna Bryant attend a basketball game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks at Staples Center on December 29, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 29: Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna Bryant attend a basketball game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks at Staples Center on December 29, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 17: Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna Bryant attend a basketball game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Atlanta Hawks at Staples Center on November 17, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 17: Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna Bryant attend a basketball game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Atlanta Hawks at Staples Center on November 17, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JULY 27: Gianna Bryant and her father, former NBA player Kobe Bryant, attend the WNBA All-Star Game 2019 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on July 27, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
IRVINE, CA - JULY 26: Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna Bryant watch during day 2 of the Phillips 66 National Swimming Championships at the Woollett Aquatics Center on July 26, 2018 in Irvine, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 14: Gianna Bryant, daughter of Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers and the Western Conference, handles the ball during warm ups before the NBA All-Star Game 2016 at the Air Canada Centre on February 14, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 14: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers and the Western Conference warms up with daughter Gianna Bryant during the NBA All-Star Game 2016 at the Air Canada Centre on February 14, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Following Bryant's death, the National Basketball Association (NBA) canceled a game scheduled for Staples Center on Tuesday between the Lakers and the Los Angles Clippers, citing the need to give the team time to grieve.

Vogel said the tragedy was bringing the Western Conference-leading Lakers, an already tight-knit group, even closer together and credited team leaders LeBron James and Anthony Davis with helping the players manage their emotions.

"I'm heartbroken and devastated my brother!!" James, who was seen in tears at Los Angeles International Airport on the day of Bryant's death, wrote on Instagram on Monday. "I promise you I'll continue your legacy man!"

Davis posted a photo on Instagram of the two sitting side by side at the 2012 Olympics.

Practice on Thursday began with some flag football on an outside field near the Lakers' practice facility in what Vogel called "therapeutic" Southern California sunshine.

"We are striking a balance of trying to make us feel good," Vogel said. "Laughter is always a good remedy for something like this when it's appropriate."

It was not clear if surviving members of Bryant's family would attend Friday's game. His widow, Vanessa, posted a photo of herself with her late husband and four daughters on Instagram on Wednesday, her first public comment since his death.

Vanessa Bryant, 37, in the post described herself and surviving daughters as "completely devastated," and thanked fans for their support.

Although Friday's game against the Portland Trail Blazers will mark the first for the Lakers since his death, Bryant was remembered at Staples Center on Sunday night by performers at the Grammy Awards as fans gathered outside the arena in a spontaneous vigil.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said the Feb. 9 Oscars ceremony would include a salute to Bryant.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles Additional reporting by Rory Carroll Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)

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