LOS ANGELES -- The first words came shortly after 10 a.m. through a previously recorded video of his life that was replayed and reminded everyone why they were there:
“Once upon a time,” Kobe Bryant began, “there was a boy who wanted to be really good at basketball.”
Every word that followed and flowed throughout Staples Center, the first official day of Kobe closure, was designed to cause throats to swell and eyes to moisten. Designed to draw laughter to disrupt the angst and pull sweet memories back to the surface. The memorial of Bryant and his daughter Gianna served up a concoction of emotion, tonic for a heartbroken city and basketball world that still refuses to accept the events of Jan. 26 actually happened.
The depth of a person and his life and how much he resonated in the world is sometimes quantified only in death. Then you learn more about him and discover and notice the breadth of his reach. And so, this is what the tragic passing of Bryant and his daughter and their subsequent celebration of life managed to do on Monday, which was symbolically 2-24 on the calendar -- her uniform number and his.
It brought tears from surprise guest speaker Michael Jordan, famous for his strength and unbreakable spirit in the most critical of moments, who didn’t reach for a hanky until his shoes were wet.
It gave way to performances by Beyoncé, Alicia Keys and Christina Aguilera; that’s 240 million sold records and 44 Grammys worth of voice in your ear.
In addition to Jordan, it brought a combined 32 total MVP awards to one room: Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, Magic Johnson, Steve Nash, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Stephen Curry and LeBron James, even James Harden and Russell Westbrook, who had five hours to fly back to Houston for a game that night. Plus, WNBA stars Candace Parker, Diana Taurasi and the top player in college basketball, Sabrina Ionescu, showing support not only for Kobe but also his daughter. As Geno Auriemma, the women’s coach at Connecticut, put it: “This is the greatest collection of talent I’ve ever been around.”
And it measured the courage of Vanessa Bryant, a widow and now a mother of three, who somehow showed her Mamba mentality by standing before a sellout crowd and discussing her losses and managing to hold it together, save for a few understandable cracks and quivers.
It was Vanessa who provided private home videos of Kobe the dad shooting hoops with his daughter and on family vacations, and of “Gigi” breaking ankles during youth league games. This was Vanessa’s production, her rare venture into the public which she previously preferred to keep to Kobe, her way of revealing how Kobe was more than an NBA star while Gigi was actually your typical 13-year-old, albeit with her father’s blood-thirst on the basketball court.
This was her heartfelt "thank you" to scores of Kobe admirers worldwide and especially those in Los Angeles, the ones who elevated him to immortal status and practically adopted Gigi as their own.
Generating that amount of star power at a memorial, getting 19,000 fans to take the morning off from work -- and there would’ve been more if this were held at the LA Memorial Coliseum, for instance -- is difficult without touching the lives of so many others across every conceivable cultural line.
Anyone who watched the ceremony on TV or was lucky enough to snag the toughest ticket in town surely came away wanting to head to the nearest gym and put up 1,000 shots and then go home and squeeze their loved ones a little tighter than usual. That was the Kobe-inspired motivation for nearly three hours.
But really, this was a culmination of an unfathomable month that saw a public outpouring perhaps unprecedented for any athlete, at least in L.A. Kobe gave the city and the Lakers five championships, 20 years of basketball bliss, the numbers 81 and 60 and 8 and 24, countless thrilling individual feats and a work ethic to be admired, if not copied. He made people feel good in their escape from the routine. That, and his fatherly presence around Gigi while teaching her the game and throwing his weight behind women’s sports, and the awfulness of a crash that cut down seven others in their prime, well, it’s just too much, even now.
“I don’t think any of us could have imagined this,” said Jimmy Kimmel, who hosted the memorial. “Everywhere you go, you see his face, his number, Gigi’s face, Gigi’s number.”
Yes, still. All around, there are Kobe hats and Kobe shirts, Kobe jerseys and Kobe sneakers, Kobe pictured celebrating a big victory and Kobe with his arm around Gigi. Those are the images that run through town, on the sides of buildings, on fresh tattoos, certainly in the heads of many. There had to be as many red roses surrounding the stage at Staples as points scored by Kobe.
Everyone is with Kobe and Gianna and the Lakers. That includes Steve Ballmer, owner of the Clippers, who sat among the team Monday. And Jerry West, who left the Lakers organization years ago with frayed feelings, yet returned to honor the player he brilliantly acquired in a draft-day trade when Kobe was 17. And Phil Jackson, the 11-time champion coach and Kobe’s favorite, temporarily halting a reclusive life in Montana. And Celtics great Bill Russell, getting a standing ovation from the House of Lakers for his presence at the memorial and also for wearing a Kobe jersey the day before.
Shaq is with Kobe, his teammate for three straight titles. O’Neal admitted their relationship was “complex” but compared it to Beatles greats Lennon and McCarthy and said he and Bryant “made beautiful basketball together.” There was a deep respect between them, and Shaq promised to look after the family and expose the game to Kobe’s other daughters while promising not to “teach them my free throw technique.”
Auriemma is with Kobe, revealing how Kobe once picked his brain for tips on coaching Gigi, and then when Auriemma saw Gigi pass up a shot to feed a teammate, said: “She’s not listening to her father.”
Rob Pelinka is with Kobe, his friend and former agent for decades and godfather to Gigi. Now serving as VP of Basketball Operations and General Manager, the Lakers executive revealed that he exchanged texts with Kobe on the helicopter just minutes before the crash, when Kobe sought Pelinka’s help to set up a daughter of John Altobelli, the college baseball coach who perished in the crash, with a baseball internship.
“Kobe’s last human act,” Pelinka said, “was heroic.”
Joe and Pam Bryant are with Kobe. The parents and the son had an infamously fractured relationship during his NBA career and weren’t in attendance together during some of Kobe’s major moments. Yet father and mother sat in the front row Monday, along with Kobe’s sisters, quashing all suspense.
And Jordan is with Kobe. When Kobe first had his first taste of the NBA, he mimicked everything about Jordan by wearing a wristband on the forearm, strutting with a swagger down court, even sticking a tongue out at times. Kobe was bombarded by “wanna-be-Jordan” wisecracks and yet imitation is flattering, even to Jordan, who took a liking to Kobe’s approach to work and desire to win, though not to the phone calls at 2 a.m. and sometimes 3.
“At first it was an aggravation,” Jordan recalled. “Then it turned into passion. This kid had passion like you never knew. He wanted to be the best basketball player he could be. I wanted to be the best big brother that I could be, and to do that you’ve got to take the aggravation, the late night calls and the dumb questions.”
There is no chance Kobe’s career would’ve even come close to Jordan’s had he not tried to be as good as Jordan, or even better.
Jordan also remembered how he first met Kobe by walking into Phil Jackson’s office, seeing a kid put all protocol aside by saying: “Did you bring your sneakers?”
The sight and sound of Jordan sniffling while saying “when Kobe died, a piece of me died” was enough to turn your stomach in knots.
Then came relief in the form of belly-aching laughter when Jordan, his face soaked, said: “Now he got me … I’ll have to look at another crying meme.”
And everyone is with Gigi. The innocence of an eighth-grader, her life barely started, with so much more to give, connects with everyone who has kids. While her mother lamented that she’ll never see a father-daughter dance at Gigi’s wedding nor have a chance to teach her how to drive, the impact of Gigi already has raised more awareness of youth and women’s sports. It was not by accident that there were as many, if not more, Gigi highlights as Kobe highlights that played Monday on the big screen.
Nor was it merely a coincidence that Taurasi, Auriemma and Ionescu were selected to speak. This was as much about a movement within one gender of players as it was another.
“(Gianna) would’ve made a huge difference in women’s basketball,” Vanessa Bryant said.
Her daughter once asked the nearby high school coach if she could give some pointers to the boy’s team. Her favorite phrase: “I got this.”
Mostly, though: “She was an amazingly sweet and gentle soul. She was always thoughtful. She always kissed me good night and kissed me good morning … she knew how much her morning and evening kisses meant to me.”
As for “Koko,” her pet name for Kobe, Vanessa Bryant mentioned how she had pick-up duties for the kids from school and always arrived an hour early. When Kobe retired, it was his turn, but one day, he arrived late and his family never let him forget it. True to form, Kobe made a point to arrive an hour and 20 minutes early, one-upping his wife. Kobe always looked to see if Vanessa was in her seat at tipoff for home games, and was rattled when she was running late.
Her reply: “He wasn’t going to drop 81 points within the first 10 minutes of the game.”
And with a wife and four daughters, she also said this of her thoughtful man of the house: “He never left the toilet seat up.”
This is the Kobe we didn’t really know, the husband and father belying the sinister expression on the court, the Kobe that everyone close to him is now willing to share because all that’s left are memories. That’s why the Kobe jerseys are in short supply, unlike the “Ko-be” chants, which come frequently at Laker games, without warning and certainly without explanation.
Eventually if not gradually, normalcy will beckon and take over L.A. and other places that celebrate Kobe. As Jimmy Kimmel said: “Everyone seems to hug each other … this only seems to happen at church or sporting events.”
Of course, there will never be normal anymore in the Bryant household, now minus two. As Vanessa Bryant readies for a new life while taking on an added role, she had one request for a husband and father who just happened to be an 18-time All-Star and former MVP:
“Babe, you take care of our Gigi.”
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