To say Los Angeles has been grieving since the death of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna would be an understatement. A definite pall had been cast upon the city. Makeshift memorials and neighborhood murals had sprung up, heartfelt tributes to the iconic Los Angeles Lakers superstar. It has been a month of tears and disbelief.
“I don’t think any of us could have imagined this,” Jimmy Kimmel said Monday. “Everywhere you go, you see his face, his number, Gigi’s face, Gigi’s number.”
What the city has needed was permission to move on, to be happy, to feel it was OK to resume life as it was before that helicopter slammed into a hillside on Jan. 26, killing all nine people on board.
“It’s just been a very heavy month. It’s everywhere,” Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers said of Los Angeles late last week. “There’s days you get away from it – like, the games are great now because you’re focused on the games – but you know, it’s just … it’s broken or just brokenhearted.
“It’s been a brokenhearted city. Probably something I’ve never seen before, ever, anywhere, and it’s still there a little bit, for sure. But today will help.”
Rivers was speaking of what went on at Staples Center on Monday. Some of the greatest names in basketball history, and the ordinary fans who worship them, packed the place to say a final goodbye to Bryant and his daughter.
They were all there: Magic Johnson and Phil Jackson, Stephen Curry and Anthony Davis, Tim Duncan and Steve Nash, Jerry West and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Michael Jordan.
“This is the greatest collection of talent I’ve ever been around,” said UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma during his speech at the ceremony.
And they were faces in a crowd that spent most of the three-hour service wiping tears from their eyes as the mourners spoke and the music played.
“This morning was beautiful,” Rivers told reporters on Monday. “It was emotional … you know, what was interesting as you just looked around at all those people – it just brought people together. You can want to beat someone’s brains out and still respect them, and you saw that today. You saw all these adversaries all through the arena. Heck, the (Sacramento) Kings were sitting right behind me after they just beat us the other night.”
At the center of it all was Kobe’s wife, Gianna’s mother, Vanessa Bryant.
“We cannot celebrate the lives of Kobe and Gigi and all the people we lost without honoring the woman Kobe and Gigi loved most,” Kimmel said in introducing her.
Summoning all of her strength, she began the tribute with a heartbreaking 20-minute tribute to them. How difficult must that have been, how raw and wrenching, to open your heart to 19,000 people in an arena and millions more watching at home.
“God knew they couldn’t be on this earth without each other,” Vanessa said. “He had to bring them home to have them together. Babe, you take care of our Gigi.”
After the ceremony was over, Rivers reacted with amazement at Vanessa Bryant’s strength and courage.
“I don’t know how Vanessa did it,” Rivers said. “I don’t know how that was possible.”
Some of the players were in Los Angeles knowing they had games to play on Monday night in other cities. Westbrook and Harden flew immediately back to Houston for their game against the New York Knicks. Harden then scored 37 in an 11-point win.
“Obviously, it’s a tough time for them, the entire world,” Harden told reporters in Houston. “So it was a must that I be there, show my respects. Numerous times [Bryant] talked about your path and the road that you’re on, and there’s always going to be tough times, times when you don’t want to work hard, and you just don’t feel like it. Those are the times you just have to push through.”
Kimmel welcomed the crowd and he too was often overwhelmed with tears as he tried to move the tribute along. It all began with Beyonce singing “XO” and “Halo.”
“Her (Gianna’s) smile was like sunshine,” Vanessa said. “Her smile took up her entire face. Like me. Kobe always said she was like me. She had my fire, my personality and sarcasm, she was tender and loving on the inside. She had the best laugh, she had the best laugh. It was infectious. It was pure and genuine.
“He was the most amazing husband. Kobe loved me more than I could ever express or put into words. I was fire. He was ice. Vice versa at times. … He was my everything.”
Like many of the NBA tributes that preceded Monday’s service, great thought was put into the day. That’s why the tribute was held on Feb. 24 (2-24) symbolizing Gianna’s No. 2 and Bryant’s 24. Even the stage at center court had meaning – it was constructed to be 24-foot-by-24-foot.
Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal highlighted the speakers, which also included Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka (Gianna’s godfather), WNBA superstar Diana Taurasi, women’s college basketball’s reigning player of the year, Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu, and Auriemma, the man Gianna Bryant dreamed of playing for in college.
“What Kobe Bryant was to me, was the inspiration that someone truly cared about the way either I played the game, or the way that he wanted to play the game,” Jordan said. “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 that I could be.”
“When Kobe died, a piece of me died.”
There was even a moment of riotous laughter when O’Neal strayed off the prim and proper by telling a story about the day his Lakers teammates implored him to speak to Bryant about passing the ball more.
“I mentioned to Kobe that there was no “I” in team,” O’Neal said. “He (Bryant) said, ‘I know, but there’s a ‘M-E’ in that motherf—er.’”
And with the that, the city seemed to understand that it was OK to smile again.