LOS ANGELES—On Monday morning, the sidewalks of downtown Los Angeles transformed into makeshift merch stores, bus signs flashed purple, and for a few hours, local traffic meant people on foot, not in cars.
Tens of thousands of admirers flocked to the Staples Center for Kobe Bryant’s memorial, a “Celebration of Life” for the late basketball player and his daughter Gianna. The two-hour event came nearly a month after a helicopter carrying Bryant, 13-year-old Gianna, and seven other passengers crashed into the hills over Calabasas, killing everyone on board.
Bryant was 41, and just a few years removed from the final chapter of a spectacular basketball career that set a new bar for greatness, and was also marred by controversy. The service Monday gave Bryant’s fans and admirers a chance to further cement a legacy Bryant had been unusually skilled at shaping himself.
Long before people lined up to enter the stadium at 10 a.m., the streets were effectively plastered in purple and gold. Shirts, shorts, cigarette lighters, digital metro maps, chalkboard restaurant specials, and street-side buskers’ drums glowed with Lakers’ colors. One woman wore a full length purple gown dotted with Bryant’s face. Others donned more permanent costumes: One father and son pair who called themselves Big Jacob and Little Jacob, both wearing black shirts screened with Bryant’s silhouette, stood pressed against a police barrier. Big Jacob, a tattoo artist, recalled giving 15 to 20 Kobe Bryant tattoos in the past month alone.
“Kobe means hard work,” Big Jacob said. “He had the drive.” Little Jacob cut him off: “And the dedication.”
Bryant, the NBA’s loner, rule breaker, and most “uncoachable player,” as the University of Connecticut women’s basketball head coach Geno Auriemma put it in his speech, achieved a rare singularity in the world of team sports. As many murals across Los Angeles now illustrate, he was an icon in its most straightforward form. The former Laker’s jerseys, No. 8 and 24, his daughter (who wore No. 2), and his team colors, purple and gold, were, of course, all inescapable motifs. Tickets sold for $24.02 to $224; purple and gold butterflies dotted the invitation; even the memorial date held meaning: 2-24-20.
When Beyoncé opened the service with “XO” and “Halo,” two of Bryant’s favorite songs, she wore a gold lamé pantsuit with massive lapels. When Alicia Keys took the stage later, she played “The Piano and I” in a puff-sleeved purple blazer. And speakers from Auriemma to Jimmy Kimmel to Diana “White Mamba” Taurasi talked about the crowd’s relationship to Kobe as a kind of team bond. Kimmel borrowed from a Catholic tradition of sharing peace, directing the audience to greet each other as teammates. “We’re always teammates, you know, we’re always on a team,” Auriemma echoed. Shaquille O’Neal, who had a famously fraught relationship with Bryant even as they won three titles in a row together, took a more teasing approach. He recalled a day when he had scolded Bryant for not passing the ball. “I said, “Kobe, there’s no ‘I’ in ‘team,’” O’Neal laughed. “[Bryant] said, ‘I know, but there’s an ‘M-E’ in that motherfucker.’”
Bryant wasn’t just an incredible athlete—or a polarizing one. He was also, as Louisa Thomas observed in The New Yorker, a storyteller. Bryant chronicled his life both in a literal sense—through his book, The Mamba Mentality: How I Play, and Oscar-award winning short, Dear Basketball—and more broadly, in the invention of his own lore, spinning personal victories and failures into a larger fable, at times arrogant or ugly, at others warm and paternal. It was a story, as Thomas wrote, about “the narrative power of sports, its ability to transform an inner struggle into an outer one.”
But Bryant was no longer there to historicize himself. The strongest moments of the service emerged when speakers tried telling his stories for him instead. Bryant’s wife, Vanessa, recalled how, one Valentine’s Day, he bought her the actual blue dress Rachel McAdams wore in The Notebook. He had chosen it, she explained, because McAdams wore it in the scene when she reunites with her lover. “We had hoped to grow old together,” Vanessa said, “like the movie.”
Michael Jordan spoke not long later, tears welling, as he remembered thinking of Bryant first as a “nuisance,” that little sibling who always got “in your stuff, your closet, your shoes, everything.” Like most siblings, he said, over time and after constant late-night texts, “that nuisance turned into love.” The pestering questions stemmed from Bryant’s admiration, Jordan said, his desire to know “every little detail” about the sport they shared. “He’s got me,” Jordan said, sobbing through his speech. “Now I’ll have to look at another crying meme for the next... three or four years.”
Outside, onlookers swapped their own Bryant stories. Near the stadium, a father and daughter named Jay Jones and Soriya Sims sat on a bench in Lakers gear. Sims wore purple; Jones wore gold. Both had flown to Los Angeles on Monday morning from St. George, Utah. Jones has been a Lakers fan since 1981, when he watched his first basketball game with an older cousin. “My cousin turned on the game—it was the Celtics and the Lakers playing,” Jones said. “He liked the Celtics, so I chose the other team.” Jones had passed on his love for the Lakers to 17-year-old Sims, who had just finished her latest basketball season, which she’d played since fourth grade. “What’s your number?” Jones said. Sims blushed: “24.”
The darkest parts of Bryant’s story—the frequent squabbles, the alleged affairs, the credible rape allegation—didn’t make it into any speeches. Some attendees suggested Bryant had been falsely accused. Others thought he had just put his complicated past behind him. “The thing is, people make mistakes in their life,” Jones said outside the arena, adding, “I just don’t think we should tie the two together. We celebrate life and achievements. We just keep pressing on.”
Over 88,000 people had registered for the chance to pay their respects in person. But the Lakers’ home court could only accommodate 20,000 attendees. Instead, those without tickets honored him in Lakers’ team colors, watching the live-streamed service wherever possible—from phone speakers in a Hollywood coffee shop, on the stoop of a Sunset Boulevard storefront, or out the windows of a silver Kia Optima getting off the 101 Freeway.
“I was born and raised in L.A.,” said Eddie, an Uber driver and the driver of that Kia Optima, who declined to give his last name. “I’ve been a Lakers fan my whole life. I came down here just to feel the energy, to see everyone, to say goodbye.”