Kobe Bryant was supposed to be invincible.
For 20 seasons, he terrorized the NBA, preying on double teams and defensive lapses with an unmatched tenacity historically reserved for a gladiator’s arena. Yet for the self-appointed Black Mamba, basketball was life or death; it was his life’s blood. And without it, we were convinced that the five-time NBA champion would surely perish.
Throughout the years, as we witnessed him vanquish opponent after opponent, survive lackluster rosters and questionable coaching hires, and defy modern medicine by somehow prevailing over a gruesome Achilles tear in the twilight of his career, his invincibility remained unquestioned. Bryant also eluded a sexual assault conviction that threatened to curtail his championship reign.
Then, on January 26, 2020, we all learned the truth.
To our dismay, he was stolen from the friends and family who loved him, the millions of fans who adored him and the city who claimed him as its own. On Monday, at the public memorial held for both Kobe and his 13-year-old daughter, Gigi, at Staples Center in Los Angeles, the world was given the opportunity to collectively grieve its fallen star.
“I know it’s gonna be very emotional and I’m just blessed to be here,” Alex of Whittier, Calif., told The Root. “Kobe is a legend and will always be a legend.”
He continued, “This is devastating for L.A., but I was always inspired by the drive he had, the father figure he was and the role model he was. He was just a great guy, man.”
Jevani Bedward of Fresno, Calif., shared a similar sentiment.
“It’s tough. You feel as though you’ve lost a family member,” Bedward told The Root. “Kobe meant so much to the people of California. You saw how great he was and [how] he pushed himself every day to work even harder even though he’s at the top. So it just motivates you to keep pushing yourself to reach your highest potential.”
Bedward then admitted that he was so distraught by the news of Kobe’s death that he took several days off from work in order to collect himself. And in speaking to others in attendance on Monday, many of them found it difficult to grapple with as well. One person in particular, who requested anonymity, confessed that they had even lost the will to live.
“Kobe was everything to me,” the mourner revealed. “Everything. I’m not gonna lie: I wanted to die too. I would never do that to my family, but I thought about it. It was just too much. It was a rough few days.”
They then expressed how grateful they were to be at the public memorial and how it would finally provide them with some much-needed solace.
“I’m just here to heal,” they said, “to pay my respects to Gigi and Kobe and heal.”
After a brief introduction, the memorial opened with Beyoncé delivering a soul-stirring rendition of “XO” from her 2013 self-titled album. Backed by a lush orchestral arrangement and an equally captivating choir, the 38-year-old wonder encouraged the sold-out crowd—which included the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Kanye West, Queen Latifah and others—to join her in song.
“I’m here because I love Kobe and this was one of his favorite songs,” she told the audience. “I want us to do it all together. And I want you to sing it so loud that [Kobe and Gigi] hear the love.”
She then transitioned into her smash hit “Halo” from 2008’s double-platinum I Am... Sasha Fierce as a final farewell to her long-time friend. Kobe had been a familiar face at her concerts throughout the years and even made a surprise cameo in the music video for Destiny’s Child’s “Bug a Boo.”
Following her performance, there was a brief montage of highlights that chronicled Kobe’s career—set to Maroon 5’s haunting “Memories”—before late-night television giant Jimmy Kimmel took to the stage to both serve as emcee and tearfully pay his respects.
“Everywhere you go, you see his face, his number, Gigi’s face, Gigi’s number, everywhere at every intersection,” he said. “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.”
It was then Vanessa Bryant’s turn.
On the same day she filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the helicopter company reportedly responsible for the deaths of her husband and daughter, she tapped into her quiet strength and reflected on each of their lives.
She started with Gigi, who she described as an “amazingly sweet, gentle soul,” who would’ve blossomed into the best player in the WNBA, before explaining the depth of the bond that her daughter shared with her father.
“Kobe and Gianna naturally gravitated toward each other. She had Kobe’s ability to listen to a song and have all the lyrics memorized after listening to the song a couple of times. It was their secret talent,” Vanessa said.
She continued, “She was very much like her daddy in that they both liked helping people learn new things and master them. They were great teachers.”
Vanessa then moved on to Kobe and recalled the pet names they gave to each other.
“He was Kobe-Kobe, my boo-boo, my bay-boo. My papi chulo,” she said. “I was his Vivi, his principessa, his reina, his Queen Mamba.”
She noted that they had been together since she was 17 years old and that he “loved me more than I could ever express or put into words.”
In giving us a glimpse into the multitude of ways that his love for her manifested, she fawned over how thoughtful and romantic he was and revealed one of her favorite gifts.
“He gave me the actual notebook and the blue dress Rachel McAdams wore in The Notebook movie,” she said. “When I asked him why he chose the blue dress, he said because it was the scene when Allie comes back to Noah. We had hoped to grow old together like the movie.”
She also sang Kobe’s praises for being an attentive father and vouched for his undisputed status as the world’s most valuable #GirlDad before tearfully accepting just how inseparable Gigi and her father truly were.
“God knew they couldn’t be on this earth without each other. He had to bring them home to heaven together,” she said. “We love and miss you booboo and Gigi. May you both rest in peace, and have fun in Heaven until we meet again. We love you both, and miss you. Forever and always, Mommy.”
WNBA legend Diana Taurasi, future WNBA star Sabrina Ionescu and UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma then took turns discussing Kobe’s impact on female athletes, how he recruited each of them to help develop Gigi into a basketball prodigy and how even in death the two of them will inspire generations of men, women and children for years to come.
“Lastly, [Kobe and Gigi’s jersey numbers] No. 24, No. 8 and No. 2, those are basketball numbers. Those are numbers in the past. Those are numbers that we’re not going to get back,” Auriemma said. “[But] what we do have today [are] kids like Diana who have been inspired to do more, to work harder, to strive for more. “And,” he added, “the number...of kids in the future, and women, who are going to be inspired by Gigi’s life. [And the] fathers inspired by Kobe to really be fathers the way a father is supposed to be.”
Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka is known around NBA circles as Kobe’s longtime agent, but many don’t know that he was also Gigi’s godfather and one of Kobe’s dearest friends. So when it was his turn to take the podium, his transparency caught many in the audience and at home off guard.
He revealed that Kobe was texting him from the helicopter mere minutes before it crashed and that he was likely the last person to speak with him in the moments before his death.
“Kobe texted back, explaining his desire to help a friend of his secure a baseball agency internship for one of his [friend’s] young daughters....A handful of minutes later, Kobe and Gianna and seven other beautiful souls ascended into heaven,” Pelinka told the astonished crowd. “Kobe had been texting me from the helicopter. The girl in that text chain that he was wanting to help so badly was Lexi Altobelli, the surviving daughter of coach John Altobelli, who was also on the helicopter.”
Pelinka also told a story about how Kobe once struggled with an extended period of time away from his family and instead of wallowing in his sorrow, he used it as an opportunity to learn to play Beethoven’s iconic “Moonlight Sonata”—by ear.
“When he told me this, I thought there’s no way,” he said. “I knew he wasn’t a trained musician and that was a really difficult piece of music to play. But Kobe’s passion and love for Vanessa, combined with the patience and focus that only the Black Mamba has, made this seemingly impossible goal a reality.”
Pelinka continued, “That next morning Kobe called and played me the first few measures. The next morning, more. By the end of the week, you have the entire piece mastered, and he played it for me over the phone without a mistake. In my heart, I knew that moment was one of Kobe’s greatest feats for his deepest love.”
Alicia Keys then took the stage to perform “Moonlight Sonata,” in honor of Kobe and Vanessa, before NBA hall of famers Shaquille O’Neal and Michael Jordan each delivered their own moving tributes.
While Shaq kept his succinct, a visibly shaken Jordan wept as he mourned the loss of his “little brother.”
“In the game of basketball, in life, as a parent, Kobe left nothing in the tank. He left it all on the floor,” he said.
To the surprise of many, Jordan described how tight of a bond he shared with the Laker legend and how Kobe would pester him at all hours of the night with text messages for advice.
“When Kobe Bryant died, a piece of me died. And as I look in this arena and across the globe, a piece of you died or else you wouldn’t be here,” he said.
To conclude the memorial, Kobe’s Academy Award-winning short film, Dear Basketball, provided a fitting finale as members of his expansive NBA fraternity—former coach Phil Jackson, Golden State Warriors guard Steph Curry, Lakers greats Jerry West and Karem Abdul-Jabbar, and countless other current and former players, coaches and executives—looked on.
It was truly a magical send-off for one of the greatest players and most influential athletes of all-time.
Our thoughts and prayers are with those impacted by this tragedy.