LOS ANGELES —Tears streamed down Vanessa Bryant’s face as she spoke about the similarities between her husband, Kobe Bryant, and their 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and the bond they shared.
Bryant and his daughter both had a knack for writing touching tributes to Vanessa in cards and letters on special occasions. She talked about their passion for family time in the form of movie and game nights, adding that Bryant was a loving dad who always remembered the simple things, like leaving the toilet seat down for his daughters and wife.
“She was thoughtful like him. They were so easy to love. They were happy, funny, silly and they loved life. They were so full of joy and adventure,” she said. “God knew they couldn’t be on this earth without each other. He had to bring them home together.”
Bryant and Gianna were among nine people killed last month when the helicopter they were taking to Bryant’s Mamba Academy for a youth basketball game slammed into a hillside in Calabasas.
Thousands of friends, family members and fans streamed into Staples Center —revered as the house that Kobe built —Monday morning to celebrate Bryant and Gianna. Friends and family members took to the stage at the center of the arena to share memories of the Lakers legend, touching not only on his storied basketball career, but also his roles as a doting husband and father, businessman and a loyal best friend.
Sabrina Ionescu, who plays college basketball for the University of Oregon, spoke about how Kobe helped her improve her game, helping her perfect her step back. Both Ionescu and Vanessa said Gianna, a basketball standout in her own right, was the future of professional women’s basketball and was motivated to change the way women are viewed in sports.
“She had the will and determination to be able to play wherever she wanted … whichever school she would come to choose, it didn’t matter,” Ionescu said. “If I represented the present of women’s basketball, Gigi was the future.”
WNBA great Diana Taurasi said it was Bryant’s greatness and competitive fire that “made this little girl believe she could be a Laker someday.” Taurasi recalled a time when Bryant brought Gianna into the locker room. She said she can still remember the look on the girl’s face.
“It was a look of excitement, a look of belonging, a look of fierce determination,” Taurasi said.
Tears poured down Michael Jordan’s face as he reflected on what Bryant “accomplished as a basketball player, as a businessman and a storyteller and as a father.” He said Bryant was a dear friend and like a little brother.
“In the game of basketball, in life, as a parent, Kobe left nothing in the tank,” Jordan said. “He left it all on the floor.”
He joked that his emotional eulogy could spawn another round of “Crying Jordan” memes, in which a picture tear-stained face is superimposed over another person.
“He wanted to be the best basketball player that he could be and, as I got to know him, I wanted to be the best big brother I could be,” Jordan said. “When Kobe Bryant died, a piece of me died.”
Rob Pelinka, the Lakers general manager, was Bryant’s best friend and godfather to Gianna. The two spoke every day, so it wasn’t unusual that Pelinka received a text message from him the Sunday morning before he died.
In typical fashion for Bryant, he was messaging Pelinka to try to arrange an internship for John Altobelli’s daughter. Moments later, the helicopter crashed, Pelinka said. Altobelli, his wife and their daughter, Alyssa, were also aboard the chopper and were killed.
“Kobe’s last human act was heroic,” Pelinka said. “He wanted to use his platform to bless and shape a young girl’s future. Hasn’t Kobe done that for all of us?”
The memorial opened shortly after 10:30 a.m. with Beyonce —donning a gold pantsuit —singing her 2013 song “XO,” a tribute to Bryant, who loved the song, and her 2008 hit “Halo.” A video tribute to Bryant, highlighting some of the best moments in his two-decade career with the Lakers, including embracing his family after a win, played on a screen overhead.
Following her performance, late-night TV talk show host Jimmy Kimmel opened the vigil.
Jennifer Lopez, Shaquille O’Neal, Stephen Curry, Dwayne Wade, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian were among the 20,000 attendees.
Fans from across the country descended on Los Angeles in the chilly morning air hours before the memorial was set to begin Monday. The crowd outside —many clad in black, purple and gold —was quiet, a stark contrast to the typical excited energy of a game day.
Ray and LaVonna King took the train from San Diego at dawn to celebrate the life of a family hero. The Kings picked up their programs, pins and T-shirts with Bryant’s and Gianna’s numbers on the back before they entered the arena.
“It is just an awesome honor to be able to be here,” said LaVonna King, clad in a T-shirt recapping Bryant’s career statistics.
“But it is a sad day for everyone to come together and say their prayers for the families,” Ray King said. “It is going to be a hard day for everyone involved.”
A month ago, the news of Bryant’s death stunned Los Angeles. For many, the reality of the loss had still not fully sunk in.
“I don’t know if the numbness will ever go away for L.A.,” Bun Garcia said. “At first, people thought maybe they are wrong. Maybe Kobe isn’t dead. Today really brings home the reality.”
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Garcia and his mother, Berly Schwartz, stood together among the crowd outside the venue, sharing memories of watching Bryant beat competitors during his two-decade career with the Lakers. Her voice broke as she recalled attending games with her late husband, Sam Schwartz, who died two years ago.
“I am just so emotional. I came to Kobe’s games with my husband. He loved Kobe and the Lakers,” she said. “I think of the families. It is so hard for them.”
Out of respect for the families of those who died in the Jan. 26 helicopter crash, fans were being urged by police to stay away from Staples Center during the memorial unless they had a ticket.
LAPD Chief Michel Moore said Friday that unless visitors to the downtown L.A. site were among the 20,000 ticketed mourners for the memorial, which begins at 10 a.m., they would not be allowed into the surrounding area, including L.A. Live. Anyone trying to breach the police lines will face arrest, he said.
The massive video screens outside the L.A. Live complex were turned off.
Officials said all tickets —which ranged in price from $24.02 to $224 —had been distributed before the event. More than 80,000 applied for the ticket lottery, whose proceeds will be donated to the Mamba and Mambacita Sports Foundation.
Jerrod Mustaf, 50, and his 14-year-old son, Jaeden, booked their flight from Maryland to bid Bryant farewell before they knew they needed tickets.
Mustaf, a first-round NBA draft pick for the New York Knicks in 1990, said he chose Bryant as a role model for his son, the leading scorer on his middle school basketball team. It wasn’t just because of Bryant’s athletic supremacy, he said.
“He epitomized great character,” Mustaf said.
Mustaf flipped through his phone to a photo of Jaeden at age 3 in a backpack with the words “Lil Kobe” on the back. Jaeden has worn No. 24 since he was a baby, his father said.
Ben Morrison drove to Staples Center from Newport Beach to attend the service, which he said felt extremely personal to him. The 21-year-old attended Bryant’s church and remembers seeing him often, but he said he didn’t talk to him as much as he wanted.
The one personal interaction he had with Bryant happened during one 4th of July, when he saw Bryant buy $40 worth of fireworks. Morrison said Bryant gave the cashier a $100 bill and told him, “Keep the change.”
“He was a baller,” Morrison said as he walked toward Staples Center in a yellow No. 8 Lakers jersey. Morrison got one of the $24.02 tickets and said it was important to come so he could get closure.
“I think it’s powerful to come here with so many different people who are feeling the same way I’m feeling,” he said.
Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, previously noted on Instagram the significance of the date of the memorial: 2-24-20: Daughter Gianna, who also was killed in the helicopter crash, wore No. 2 while playing basketball, while her husband wore No. 24. The “20” denoting the current year also is the number of years Bryant played for the Lakers.
Many standing outside Staples Center said Bryant’s death felt like the loss of a family member.
“It’s so hard to explain why we are so emotional about someone we never knew personally, but he was a part of our family life,” said Star Dodd of Rancho Palos Verdes.
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Ozzie Arnold captured much of the crowd’s attention outside Staples Center as he drove his personalized golf cart with a lift kit and large tires with purple-and-yellow rims. The cart’s purple base had a Lakers logo and, on the hood, Nos. 32 and 24, the jersey numbers of Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant.
Arnold, 66, said he was devastated the day Bryant died. He had been working on the golf cart for about six years but never had had a chance to ride it around in public.
“This is the one day I could do this,” he said. “Every other day, it’s covered up.”
He hoped the spectacle would lighten the mood a bit.
“It’s Kobe Day,” he said. “It’s the last day we have to celebrate his life. It’s a sad day, but it’s a happy day.”
The memorial is expected to end about 1 p.m. The venue will then be turned around to host a Clippers game against the Memphis Grizzlies at 7:30 p.m.
Fans who couldn’t make it to downtown Los Angeles gathered elsewhere in Southern California, including Orange County —which Bryant and his family have called home for years —to watch the memorial and pay tribute.
After dropping off his wife at the airport, Scott Rubin decided the next thing he wanted to do was take a photo of a Bryant mural. His search brought him to downtown Santa Ana.
At 4th Street and Spurgeon Street, he took a selfie in front of a wall with a sprayed-painted portrait of Bryant and the Lakers star’s nickname, “Black Mamba,” spelled out in purple, yellow and black.
Rubin said he planned to watch the memorial with a friend at home. Although he doesn’t call himself a Lakers fan, he said he was touched by Bryant’s death.
“He was more than a basketball player,” Rubin said. “He was human. He was a dad.”
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During his remarks, Pelinka shared a message that Bryant had written for him in a Wizenard novel, a young adult fantasy sports book that Bryant created.
To RP, my brother. May you always remember to enjoy the road, especially when it’s a hard one. Love, Kobe.
“Kobe wrote these words just a few months ago, now I realize these words were perhaps for us all,” Pelinka said.