By Agence France-Presse

LeBron James vowed Friday that he and his Los Angeles Lakers teammates would continue the legacy of club icon Kobe Bryant, who died Sunday in a helicopter crash.

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Los Angeles Lakers player LeBron James speaks from center court in honor of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, after he was killed last weekend in a helicopter accident, ahead of a game between Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California on January 31, 2020. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP)

James, his voice fraught with emotion, addressed the Staples Center crowd before the Lakers returned to NBA action for the first time since Bryant’s death.

Flinging away his prepared notes, James said to cheers he would speak from the heart, calling on all present to celebrate Bryant’s life and a career that included five NBA titles in 20 years with the Lakers.

“I know at some point we will have a memorial for Kobe,” he said. “But I look at this as a celebration tonight.

“This is a celebration of the 20 years of the blood, the sweat, the tears, the broken down body, the getting up, sitting down to everything, the countless hours, the determination to be as great as he could be.

“Tonight we celebrate the kid who came here at 18 years of age, retired at 38 and became the best dad we’ve seen over the last three years.

“The fact that I’m here now means so much to me,” James said. “I’m going to continue with my teammates to continue his legacy not only for this year but as long as we can continue to play the game of basketball that we love, because that’s what Kobe Bryant would want.”

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LeBron James pays tribute to Kobe Bryant, the late former Los Angeles Laker after he and 8 others were killed in a helicopter accident on January 26, ahead of the NBA game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trailblazers on January 31. – Trailblazers defeated the Lakers 127-119. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP)

After the game, James said he decided to deviate from his notes “pretty much when I went up there.

“I wanted to make sure I acknowledged all the lives that were lost Sunday morning and I didn’t want to mess that up so I looked at the names on a paper,” James said.

He movingly pronounced the names of all nine people who died in the crash, a somber list that included Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna.

“But when I kind of looked at the notecards I had or that was kind of being insisted on — and some of it was what I wanted to talk about — I decided for me personally just letting the words flow right from the heart and whatever comes out they’re pure — there’s truth to it.”

One truth he’d come to realize, James said, was that the ruthlessly competitive Bryant had blossomed since retiring in 2016 as he focused on creative pursuits and life with his wife, Vanessa, and their four daughters.

“Seeing Kobe play the game of basketball 20 years for the Lakers since he was 18 to 38, and I was like you know it’s crazy, these last three years, out of all the success he had, five rings, multiple MVPs, All-Star Game MVP, first-league everything, all-life, all-world all-basketball — it felt like these last three years was the happiest I’ve ever seen him,” James said.

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