LOS ANGELES (CN) – Thousands of mourners gathered at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Monday to commemorate NBA legend Kobe Bryant, his 13-year old daughter Gianna and seven others who were killed when their helicopter crashed in the Santa Monica Mountains last month.
Fans of Bryant’s longtime team the LA Lakers – and sports aficionados worldwide – were stunned by the news of the Jan. 26 crash in the Santa Monica Mountains north of downtown Los Angeles.
Scenes from Bryant’s career, which included five NBA championships with the Lakers and 18 All-Star Game appearances, filled screens inside and outside the fabled basketball arena Monday.
Pop superstar Beyoncé kicked off the memorial service with her song “XO” which she said Kobe, her longtime friend, enjoyed.
Former and current NBA players Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, James Harden, Dwyane Wade and Steve Nash gathered inside the Staples Center along with Bryant’s former teammates Shaquille O’Neal and Lamar Odom.
Jordan, an NBA Hall of Fame player with the Chicago Bulls, told a packed Staples Center crowd he and Bryant shared a close friendship on and off the court. Even though they played for rival teams, Jordan said Kobe would ask him about basketball strategy as well as family and fatherhood – often in conversations that started at 2 a.m.
“When Kobe died, a piece of me died,” said Jordan, adding that he saw Bryant as a young brother figure. “I had a little brother and I tried to help him in any way I could.”
Rob Pelinka, Bryant’s former agent, close friend and current Lakers general manager, said Bryant’s death shifted the “axis of the world.”
Pelinka said he received a text message from Bryant hours before the NBA legend died, asking for help arranging a baseball internship for the daughter of Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli. Altobelli, his wife and another daughter died in the crash with Kobe.
“Kobe’s last human act was heroic,” Pelinka said. “He wanted to use his platform to bless and help shape a young girl’s future.”
Pelinka told a story about Kobe teaching himself to play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” on the piano in order to share the song with his wife Vanessa. After Pelinka spoke, artist Alicia Keys played a rendition of “Moonlight Sonata” for the mourners at the Staples Center.
Vanessa Bryant thanked fans around the world and those in the arena for their love and support. She described her daughter Gianna as a competitor, a gifted basketball player and, above all, a compassionate person who wanted to help others.
“She was confident, but not in an arrogant way,” Vanessa Bryant said, adding that “Gigi” once offered to give her school’s boys basketball team tactical advice. “She never tried to conform, she was always herself.”
Vanessa Bryant described Kobe, with whom she had been since she was 17 years old, as her soulmate and a dedicated father.
“This is truly a loss I don’t understand,” Vanessa Bryant said. “God knew they couldn’t be on this earth without each other. Babe, you take care of our Gigi.”
Outside the basketball arena, thousands of fans clad in gold and purple Lakers colors mixed with hundreds of street vendors and police. Vendors sold T-shirts, posters and paintings with Kobe and Gianna Bryant’s faces as fans bought bacon-wrapped hot dogs.
Street vendor Mauro Martinez said despite the throng of fans, sales were low because police moved most vendors far away from the Staples Center.
San Diego resident George Gossett, who posed for pictures in front of a mural of Kobe and Gianna Bryant, told Courthouse News he drove to LA for the memorial but was unable to purchase tickets. Tickets for the “celebration of life” ranged in price from $24.02 to $224, numbers that commemorate both Kobe’s jersey number with the Lakers (24) and Gianna’s jersey number for her youth basketball team (2).
“I wanted to come out and touch the city and be with the fans,” Gossett said, adding that he’s been a Kobe fan since he was 10 years old. “[Kobe’s] pretty much the reason why I love basketball. He just had an aura around him and when he was on the court you just knew the Lakers had a chance.”
But Gossett and other fans outside the arena struggled with how to celebrate the full complexity of Kobe Bryant’s life, particularly a 2003 rape charge.
At the time, Kobe said at the time he was guilty of adultery but believed the sex was consensual. The NBA star later said he understood the women felt it was not consensual. The charges were eventually dropped after the woman declined to testify at trial.
Outside the arena, co-workers Faith Villanueva, Sheila Sebastian and Vanessa Chen said it would be inappropriate to discuss the issue during this extended period of grieving.
“None of us are in a position to judge anybody, especially on people’s mistakes. It’s not respectful and it’s not honorable,” said Villanueva. “I have strong feelings against sexual assault but it’s bigger than that. Kobe had done a lot to show how great of a person he is, and we can’t focus on one mistake that has gone so public.”
Earlier in the day, attorneys for Vanessa Bryant filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Island Express Helicopters and Island Express Holding Corp., the company that operated the Jan. 26 helicopter flight. Bryant claims Zobayan flew directly into unsafe weather conditions and was authorized to do so by the company operating the flight.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators found no sign of engine failure in debris from the helicopter and are working to determine the cause of the accident, including whether heavy fog may have played a role.
Besides Kobe and Gianna, Zobayan and Jon, Keri and Alyssa Altobelli, the crash killed Bryant friends Christina Mauser, Sarah Chester and Chester’s daughter Payton.