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."

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)