LOS ANGELES — The city is still in mourning.
It’s been almost exactly a month since Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others were tragically ripped away from us in a helicopter crash, and the city that adopted Bryant as its favorite son still hasn’t fully healed.
Driving the streets towards the celebration of life for Kobe and Gianna at Staples Center, the open wounds are on full display. Electronic billboards flash with photos and the words “In memory of Kobe Bryant.” The red metro busses display their destinations, alternating with another message in bright orange letters, all caps.
Closer to Staples, the house that Bryant literally helped build with his five titles, people in his jerseys stream towards the memorial. Flecks of black All-Star jerseys or maroon Lower Merion ones with Bryant written on the back dot a sea of purple and yellow-adorned mourners, forum blue and gold blood being pumped towards the heart of a city that must beat on without its most beloved champion.
The line for Bryant’s memorial is longer than any I’ve ever seen to enter the building, stretching well past the statues out front towards the convention center, looping back around that building who knows how much further. Everyone needs a ticket to get in, and it becomes clear that an arena that has the capacity for 18,118 people will scarcely be able to hold everyone there to remember Bryant.
Once inside the building, things are mostly quiet but for soft music and murmurs. A stage is lit up where Bryant used to play, with roses adorning it, one for each of the 33,643 points he scored during his career. The spectacle makes it clear just how many points that was, and how tragic it is that we won’t get to see where Gianna’s tally would have ended up.
Suddenly, Bryant’s voice cuts through the silence. He begins to talk over highlights of his life. His incredible scoring mixed with clips of him as a doting father. The tears are flowing now.
The video ends with a simple message popping up on the jumbotron that displayed so many of Bryant’s best moments throughout his career.
Raucous cheers follow. The city may be mourning what was lost, but it’s also here to celebrate what was.
Highlights of Gianna playing basketball begin to play, with Kobe’s voice speaking to us from beyond the grave again.
“If basketball is the greatest thing I’ve done in my life, I’ve failed,” Bryant narrates.
Photos of Gianna smiling with her friends, and getting buckets with her dad fade in and out, trapped in time forever at just 13 years old. There come those tears again, but they’re cut short by applause and a standing ovation as Vanessa Bryant and her family enter.
Beyonce comes to the stage to sing “XO,” telling the crowd “I’m here because I love Kobe, and this was one of his favorite songs.” She follows it with “Halo.”
After she’s done, Jimmy Kimmel is introduced to emcee the event, and cries as he introduces Vanessa to the stage. And somehow, despite the toll losing a daughter and husband must have taken, she makes it all the way there on her own. Then, something remarkable happens.
In a nearly indescribable feat of emotional strength as incredible under the circumstances as anything Kobe ever did in the building, Vanessa speaks for over 20 minutes about Kobe and Gianna. Her remarks are sad, to be sure, but in one of the few times she’s ever addressed the public, she also shows a side of Bryant that very few got to see. How sweet he was on Valentine’s day. How he got her the blue dress and actual prop notebook from the movie “The Notebook” to signify how he wanted to grow old with her.
She also, inadvertently, gave the city permission to laugh again, cracking jokes about how Kobe was the “MVP of girl dads” for how he never left the seat up on the toilet in a house with five women. How he’d notice if she was late to his games and ask security where she was at the first timeout, to which she’d crack back that he wasn’t going to drop 81 points in the first 10 minutes of the game.
When she went silent at one point, a fan’s voice called out.
“We love you Kobe!”
It kicks off chants of “Ko-be” from the fans in Staples Center, a cacophony of support which seem to fuel Vanessa in the same way it did her husband for 20 years.
She talked about Gianna too, who it should be noted was given completely equal footing in the proceedings with her far more famous father, getting talked about just as much if not more. The tragedy of her loss still hits hard when Vanessa says that Gianna was going to be the best player in WNBA history, and laments how she and Kobe will never get to tell “Gigi” how she looked beautiful on her wedding day. How Gianna and Kobe were inseparable, even to the end.
“God knew they couldn’t be on earth without each other, so he had to bring them home together,” Vanessa said through tears, looking upwards and promising to take care of their other three daughters if Kobe took care of Gianna in heaven. Emotionally spent and receiving a standing ovation, she needed Michael Jordan’s help to walk down from the stage.
Other speakers gave us more of a sense of who Gianna was. WNBA star Diana Taurasi talked about how Gianna had mastered her turnaround, joking that LeBron James has barely mastered the skill today. Oregon Ducks guard Sabrina Ionescu — who worked out with Gianna and was mentored by Kobe — said Gianna had a better fadeaway than she did, and remembered that she had a little Mamba fire, too, telling a story of how a player had grabbed Gianna’s jersey during a training session, and Gianna had thrown her to the ground, leading Kobe to remark he had no idea where his daughter had learned that.
“I do,” Ionescu said, laughing at the memory.
Other speakers also highlighted the softer side of Kobe, and how much he wanted to help his daughter and those close to her. His former agent, Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka — who called Kobe his “best friend” multiple times during his speech — described the way Kobe around children as “Santa Claus in regular clothes,” calling him “the baby whisperer” for his ability to instantly calm his infant daughter. How Kobe’s last texts to him were about helping the daughter of Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli — who was among those lost in the crash with Kobe and Gianna — get an internship with a baseball agent Pelinka knew.
UConn Women’s Basketball Head Coach Geno Auriemma remembered being baffled that the “uncoachable” Kobe was calling him to talk about coaching. How he was shocked when watching film of Gianna too see her pass to an open player when she had a shot.
“She’s not listening to her father,” Auriemma joked.
These laughs allowed everyone to mourn, to remember the good times, and not just the sadness. And while plenty went to lengths to hide their tears, with Anthony Davis, James Harden and several other current players wearing shades to obscure their eyes, maybe the most famous crying NBA player of all started weeping nearly the second he got on stage to talk about his “little brother.”
“Now, he’s got me ... I’ll have to look at another crying meme,” said Michael Jordan as tears rushed down his cheeks while detailing a relationship with Kobe that may have been far closer than anyone knew.
“I told my wife I wasn’t going to do this because I didn’t want to see that for the next 3-4 years. That is what Kobe Bryant does to me,” Jordan continued, drawing by far the loudest laughs of the day.
Bryant’s teammates and Lakers contemporaries were there to mourn with the city. Jeanie Buss, Pau Gasol, Phil Jackson, Sasha Vujacic, Lamar Odom, even former team spokesman John Black, who shepherded Bryant’s interviews throughout his 20-year career. And those were just the ones I was able to pick out.
Only Bryant’s most famous teammate, Shaquille O’Neal, actually spoke. He unforgettably detailed their up-and-down relationship over the years, drawing laughs when remembering Bryant’s more competitive side. Perhaps no one had a better view of it.
He remembered the time Kobe told him everyone else in the NBA was playing checkers, and that he was playing chess, with Shaq cracking back “I guess so, because I don’t know how to play chess.” Or the day he said Bryant gained his respect, when their teammates were complaining that he wasn’t passing and asked O’Neal to intervene.
“Kobe, there’s no ‘I’ in ‘team,’” O’Neal remembered telling a young Bryant. “And Kobe said ‘I know, but there is an m-e in that motherfucker.’”
When O’Neal is done talking, there is only one speaker left, the man perhaps best suited to discuss Kobe’s love of the game that led to him being so beloved in Los Angeles: Kobe himself.
His Oscar-winning short film “Dear Basketball” begins to play, filling Staples Center with Bryant’s voice, one final time. His words take on a new poignancy now that he’s gone.
“I’m ready to let you go,” Bryant narrates, originally to say goodbye to basketball, but now to bid farewell to all of us.
I want you to know now
So we both can savor every moment we have left together.
The good and the bad.
We have given each other
All that we have.
And we both know, no matter what I do next
I’ll always be that kid
With the rolled up socks
Garbage can in the corner
:05 seconds on the clock
Ball in my hands.
5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1
Love you always,
After the video is done playing, Kimmel walks to to stage to let everyone know the bittersweet celebration is over, and to thank the crowd for coming.
But Los Angeles isn’t done saying goodbye yet. A single voice rings out, then quickly multiplies to become legion.
“Ko-be! Ko-be! Ko-be!” the crowd chants.
The city will always love him, too.
You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.