LOS ANGELES — At the LA Lakers’ Staples Center basketball arena on Monday – what many call “The house that Kobe built” – tens of thousands of fans joined Kobe Bryant’s widow and friends to mourn the passing of the basketball legend and his daughter Gianna.
They also used the occasion to celebrate the exceptional legacy he left behind as an inspiring player, husband, father, friend and philanthropist.
Fans flooded the Staples Center and grounds in an undulating sea of purple and gold – the Lakers’ official team colors – to honor and celebrate the fallen giant who helped define the game.
The ceremony, called “A Celebration of Life,” was an outpouring of emotion, that was by turns somber, tearful, touching and loving. It was hosted by late-night television host Jimmy Kimmel, who addressed the capacity crowd with tears in his eyes.
“I don’t think any of us could have imagined this,” Kimmel said. “Everywhere you go, you see his face, his number, Gigi’s face, Gigi’s number at every intersection. There are hundreds of murals painted by artists who were inspired not because he’s a basketball player, but because Kobe was an artist, too.”
“Today we’re joined by Kobe’s teammates and opponents alike, his friends, his family and his fans, as we try to make sense of what happened to these nine beautiful people who were by all accounts so full of life, who left behind parents, friends, coworkers, classmates, siblings and children,” he added.
The emotionally-charged ceremony kicked off with a dynamic In Memoriam performance by superstar Beyonce, who sang her two hit songs, “Halo” and “XO.” Also performing at the event was R&B crooner and pianist Alicia Keys, who rendered Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” in Kobe and Gigi’s honor.
Video highlights of Bryant’s life and career were shown, beginning as an 18-year old high school sports prodigy to five NBA titles, to his post-retirement Mamba and Mambacita Sport Foundation for gifted young athletes. It closed with a screening of his touching, Oscar-winning animated short “Dear Basketball”.
The ceremony was attended by many celebrity guests and other basketball greats, including Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Magic Johnson, Bill Russell, Tim Duncan, Jerry West, Steph Curry, Rick Fox, Dwyane Wade, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kanye West, Alex Rodriguez and Jennifer Lopez.
A tearful Jordan, describing Kobe as “a little brother,” 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.”
O’Neal, Bryant’s former teammate and rival during the Lakers’ historic championship run from 2000 to 2002, took the stage to praise his late teammate.
“As many of you know, Kobe and I had a very complex relationship throughout the years, but not unlike another leadership duo, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, whose creative rivalry led to some of the greatest music of all time, Kobe and I pushed one another and played some of the greatest basketball of all time.”
He added, “I am proud that no other team has accomplished what the ‘three-peat’ Lakers have done since Shaq and the Kobe Lakers did it.”
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when Vanessa Bryant took the stage to extoll the life and virtues of her late husband. “I couldn’t see him as a celebrity or just an incredible basketball player. He was my sweet husband and the beautiful father of our children,” Vanessa said. “He was my everything.”
For her daughter, who wrote school papers defending women and about how the unequal pay difference of the NBA and WNBA leagues wasn’t fair, she predicted “Gigi would have mostly likely become the best player in the WNBA.”
“She would have made a huge difference for women’s basketball. Gigi was motivated to change the way everyone viewed women in sports,” her grieving mother added.
Outside, throngs of fans who couldn’t get tickets to go inside the arena mobbed the grounds and hugged each other to shed their own tears. They came from all over the globe.
One superfan, Kristijan “Kiki” Beslic, who suffers from a condition that keeps him permanently on crutches, came all the way from Germany with his cousin Mimi.
“I’m happy and honored to just be here and to feel the energy with all of these Kobe Bryant fans,” Press-Enterprise.com quoted him as saying.
CBS Sports NBA Insider reporter Bill Reiter admitted that he was unlikely to ever feel the intensity of the emotions welling up at any other ceremony in the future.
Reporting outside surrounded by tearful fans, he said on air, “To love another human being is a remarkable part of being alive, and it’s a testament to the unique greatness that is Kobe Bryant that he is so loved by so many.”
Many people in the crowd told reporters that the memorial helped them to get a sense “of closure” that helped to relieve the “overwhelming grief” and “disbelief” many are still feeling about his shocking death.
Chinese national Shawn Guo, who plays in California’s Chinese Elite Basketball street-baller team, also attended the Kobe memorial and told Xinhua, “Kobe was respected all over the world. He was a top player in the top league in the world who earned his place as the face of the NBA.”
“He traveled a lot to China and inspired many people like me there and everywhere. Passing away too young has doubled the inspiration and the legacy he leaves behind him,” Guo added.
Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Mamba and Mambacita Sports Foundation to carry on Bryant’s charity work supporting opportunities for young male and female basketballers everywhere.