LOS ANGELES – The greatest collection of basketball players past and present assembled Monday morning to say farewell to one of their princes. While it’s been 29 days since Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others passed away in a tragic helicopter crash, the pain, shock, and anguish from the tragedy permeated the Staples Center.
And there was not a dry eye or a seated guest when Vanessa Bryant made her first public appearance since the incident and eulogized her daughter and then husband.
Many of the former and current NBA players and Hall-of-Famers were tearing up; several wore black sunglasses in the nocturnal setting to camouflage their emotions. For the first time, many of these players had the opportunity to push aside basketball or other responsibilities and concentrate on Kobe and their grief.
It was tabbed a “Celebration of Life” and in many ways it was. There were funny Kobe stories, such as UConn coach Geno Auriemma detailing a conversation he had with Kobe about teaching defense to his AAU basketball team. Kobe wanted college-style drills for his girls and asked Auriemma’s advice.
Auriemma suggested Kobe simply teach his 13-year-old team to try not to let the other players get past them. It was a little too early for a 2-2-1 zone trap.
Vanessa Bryant fought through her speech. At times she was overcome with emotion, unspeakable pain of having to bury her husband and one of her four daughters.
“She loved putting a smile on everyone’s face,” Vanessa said of her daughter Gianna. “She was daddy’s girl but I know she loved her mama. She was one of my very best friends. Gigi was very competitive like her daddy, but she also had a sweet grace about her.”
As Vanessa Bryant continued her eulogy, her words became more heartbreaking and saddening.
“We will not be able to see Gigi go to high school,” she said. “We didn’t get a chance to teach her how to drive a car. We won’t able to tell her how gorgeous she looks on her wedding day. We’ll never see my baby girl walk down the aisle or having father-daughter dance with her daddy.”
About her husband and daughter, she said: “God knew they couldn’t be on this Earth without each other.”
The audience was star-studded with Michael Jordan, Celtics great Bill Russell, Jerry West, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, NBA commissioner Adam Silver, as well as Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Carsen Edwards, Romeo Langford, Marcus Smart, and Daniel Theis from the Celtics.
Current stars Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, and Kyrie Irving were there. Former Kobe adversaries Paul Pierce and Tony Allen were also in attendance, as were as Spurs legend Tim Duncan and coach Gregg Popovich.
There were performances by Beyonce, Alicia Keys, and Christina Aguilera. Jimmy Kimmel hosted and set the tone for the event by fighting off tears in his opening comments. Nobody disguised their emotion. It was OK to cry.
The speakers were limited in the roughly two-hour ceremony. Auriemma, WNBA star Diana Taurasi, and current University of Oregon guard Sabrina Ionescu, who all talked about Bryant’s love and support for women’s basketball.
Bryant’s former agent and current Lakers president Rob Pelinka spoke of their 20-year friendship and Bryant’s philanthropic efforts that were mostly never publicized. Shaquille O’Neal spoke on his complex relationship with Bryant and ended with a profane joke that summarized Bryant’s competitiveness.
Following Vanessa Bryant’s comments, the most moving reflections came from Jordan, who rarely speaks publicly but described his close relationship with Bryant that developed over the years.
The player who is considered the greatest of all time offered insight into his friendship with the player who sought to emulate him. What was first the 18-year-old Bryant wearing out the 33-year-old future Hall-of-Famer with basketball questions turned into a bond, where they shared conversations about business, life, and fatherhood.
Bryant transformed himself from the pesky admirer into a Jordan confidant, and Jordan walked to the stage with his face already drenched with tears.
“In the game of basketball, in life and as a parent, Kobe left nothing in the tank,” Jordan said. “He left it all on the floor. This kid had passion like you never know. What Kobe Bryant was for me, was the inspiration that someone truly cared about the way I played the game or the way he wanted to play the game. He was just trying to be a better person.”
With tears streaming down his face, Jordan said: “Now he’s got me, I’ll have to look at another crying meme for the next . . . I told my wife I wouldn’t do this [speech] because I didn’t want to see that for the next three or four years.”
It was the highlight of a difficult afternoon, the crowd laughed loudly. Jordan made fun of himself, unlocking and releasing a personality the public has rarely seen. But Kobe was the perfect reason for Jordan to reveal another side of himself, to express his emotions because we all are emotional.
Los Angeles remains heavily grieving, with posters, signs and even cars painted with Kobe and Gianna’s image all over the city. More than 19,000 people squeezed into Staples Center to honor the prince of Los Angeles, one of the greatest Lakers, who played all 20 of his seasons for the franchise.
You didn’t have to love Kobe Bryant but you had to respect him, and the world showed their love and respect Monday. It was a melancholy service and it was supposed to be. The sadness, grief, and tears won’t stop here.
“When Kobe Bryant died, a piece of me died,” Jordan said. “As I look in this arena and across the globe, a piece of you died or else you wouldn’t be here. Those are the memories that we have to live with and learn from. I promise you from this day forward, I will with the memories of knowing that I had a little brother I tried to help in any way I can.”
Correction: Because of a reporter’s error, an earlier version of this story misstated the name of the NBA commissioner who attended the Kobe Bryant memorial service. Adam Silver was in attendance.