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Longtime Lakers employees persevered as a family after Kobe Bryant died

Throughout Southern California and around the world, people felt connected to Kobe Bryant as if they knew him personally. It’s why his death on Jan. 26 caused an outpouring of grief, staging of memorials and celebrations of his life.

Inside the Lakers’ facility were people who did know him personally over the 20 years he spent with the team. It’s why the tragedy was felt acutely there. The organization has gone through a great deal of turnover since Bryant retired in 2016, but there are still dozens of people working with the team who overlapped with Bryant, from co-owner Jeanie Buss to mail courier Steven Hernandez. Many of them knew him well.

Without much of a break, they all had to resume work almost right away. It was a task particularly difficult for the front office, which was faced with preparing for the league’s trade deadline, which is Thursday at noon PST.

Lakers ownership has always had close relationships with its players, going back to late owner Jerry Buss, who drafted Magic Johnson and considered him a close friend. Buss’ relationship with Bryant was different, but still close.

“My father loved you like a son,” wrote Jeanie Buss, now the team’s controlling owner, on Instagram last week in a letter to Bryant.

Their whole family got to know Bryant. Joey Buss, now the team’s alternate governor and vice president of research and development, and his brother Jesse, now the team’s assistant general manager and director of scouting, met Bryant when they were children.

Jeanie Buss thought of herself as the team mom of the championship teams on which Bryant played, only in part because she was dating their coach, Phil Jackson. Even after Jackson’s departure from the organization, and the end of their relationship, the ties she had built with players continued.

A few days after Bryant died, she recalled on Instagram about how he helped her after her father died in 2013.

“I was struggling to find motivation and purpose,” she wrote. “Kobe, you brought Gianna with you to spend some time with me. You explained that you wanted to show her that women can be leaders in the NBA, just like the men. At first, it seemed like an action of a devoted father setting an example for his daughter. But in actuality — and I am positively sure you knew EXACTLY what you were doing — what you did was give me the inspiration and strength I was searching for.”

After Bryant’s retirement, he remained close with Buss, though he tried to distance himself from the daily happenings of the organization. But in February 2017, Buss made dramatic changes throughout the organization, firing long-time general manager Mitch Kupchak, her brother Jim, who was the team’s executive vice president of basketball operations, and John Black, vice president of public relations.

She relied on Bryant during that time as a confidante. When she hired Kupchak’s replacement, it was Bryant’s long-time agent Rob Pelinka.

“He’s one of my best friends,” Pelinka said in December 2017. “I always say to people how often do you talk to your best friends? I talk to him a lot.”

Pelinka has gone diving among sharks with Bryant, spent helicopter rides with him, and helped Bryant work through investments and basketball decisions. When Bryant’s second daughter, Gianna, was born, he and his wife made Pelinka her godfather. Gianna, 13, also died in the helicopter crash along with her father and seven others.

“Gigi was pure joy,” Pelinka said in a statement last week. “Her smile brought comfort to any and every occasion. She was brilliant, kind and warm. And, like her dad, when she stepped onto the basketball court, she took on an entirely different nature, and boy could she play. Her basketball destiny was apparent, and the world knew it. She was also an extraordinary, loyal and supportive sister, and a wonderful friend to my children.”

Pelinka wasn’t the only person close to Bryant to be reunited with the organization.

This summer, the Lakers hired Judy Seto as their director of sports performance. She was the Lakers’ head physical therapist from 2011-16, a time when Bryant’s physical condition needed extra care and attention. She worked closely with Bryant for more than a decade.

“Kobe gives me a hard time about finishing various degrees and certifications,” she said in an interview posted on the team website in 2012. “‘So what’s next?’ he’ll ask. ‘You’re always studying for something, what’s up?’ I say, ‘Look who’s talking. You’re always looking to improve yourself, every summer, adding something to your game,’ and he nods. That’s part of why we get along so well.”

They are among the group that developed personal relationships with Bryant. Linda Rambis, the organization’s director of special projects and a close confidante of Jeanie Buss, was close to Bryant, as was her husband Kurt Rambis, who coached Bryant.

Tim Harris, the team’s chief operating officer and president of business operations, has been with the organization for 20 years. Harris, who is also an alternate governor for the Lakers, led a group of grieving co-workers across different departments in executing an extended tribute for Bryant on Friday before and during their first game since his death.

They had Usher sing Amazing Grace, L.A. Philharmonic cellist Ben Hong play Hallelujah, and Boyz II Men sing the national anthem. They placed tributes on the court and roses on the seats where Kobe and Gianna Bryant sat in the final Lakers game they attended.

Lisa Estrada, the team’s vice president of facilities and building operations, has been with the organization for more than 20 years. She created a memorial outside the team facility Sunday night, mere hours after hearing the news.

Their director of media relations, Alison Bogli, started working for the Lakers during the 1998-99 season. She worked closely with Bryant and remained in touch with him after his retirement. She began fielding media requests the day he died.

On the court, the Lakers have used basketball to cope with the tragedy that befell the organization. Off it, the work hasn’t stopped either.

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Update: The Rockets (32-18) are on a three-game winning streak and have won six of their last eight after a four-game losing streak. Houston is expected to have forward Robert Covington in its lineup after his acquisition from Minnesota as part of a four-team trade. Russell Westbrook (sprained thumb) is questionable after he sat out the Rockets’ 125-110 victory over Charlotte on Tuesday.

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