LOS ANGELES (REUTERS) – A gallery of basketball legends joined thousands of Kobe Bryant fans in Los Angeles on Monday (Feb 24) to pay homage to the transcendent NBA star, his daughter and seven others who died last month in a helicopter crash that sent shockwaves through the world of sports and beyond.
Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and former Bryant teammate Shaquille O’Neal were among the attendees at the “Celebration of Life” memorial at the Staples Center, Bryant’s home arena during most of his storied, 20-season career with the Los Angeles Lakers.
The event, which opened with a performance by singer Beyonce and a montage of Bryant’s basketball highlights, featured an emotional address by Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, who spoke about losing her 13-year-old daughter Gianna and the husband she called her “soulmate.”
“He was mine. He was my everything,” she said of the man she began dating when she was 17.
Vanessa Bryant recalled how Gianna loved to watch Disney movies with her sisters and enjoyed baking for her family.
“Gianna Bryant is an amazingly sweet and gentle soul,” Vanessa told the crowd through tears. “Her smile was like sunshine. Her smile took up her entire face.”
Late-night television host Jimmy Kimmel cried as he read out the names of all of the deceased and expressed the shock and misery felt by loyal fans of the self-proclaimed “Black Mamba,” who dazzled the Los Angeles community well beyond his time on the court.
“This is a sad day, but it is also a celebration of life, of their lives, and of life itself in the building where those of us who are Lakers fans and Kobe fans celebrated so many of the best times of our lives,” said Kimmel, who had Bryant on his show many times.
Bryant, 41, and the others were killed in the crash while en route to a youth basketball tournament at which Kobe was planning to coach his daughter and her teammates.
Vanessa Bryant filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the operator of the helicopter, according to a report on Monday from the Los Angeles Times. The pilot was one of those killed in the crash.
Fans gathered outside the arena hours before the event started, many of them clad in Lakers purple and gold.
“I have been a Kobe fan for a long, long time. It is so sad, especially with the children. But it has really brought the city together,” said Bubacar Drammeh, who stood outside the venue and planned to watch the memorial on TV.
Inside the Staples Center, the mood was somber. Concession stands were closed and cell phone use discouraged. Attendees were not allowed in if they arrived late and were not allowed to leave early.
Bryant, who joined the National Basketball Association at age 18 straight out of high school, was a five-time NBA champion and fourth-highest scorer in league history with 33,643 points.
The Lakers, where he spent his entire career, retired both of his jersey numbers – 8 and 24, which hang from the arena’s rafters.
Tributes to Bryant have appeared across the city, with his numbers displayed on the Santa Monica Pier Ferris wheel, city buses bearing “RIP Kobe” signs and purple and gold lights added to the pylons at LAX airport.
“Kobe was like a brother to all of us, he was family and this means a lot,” said Henry Martinez, 37, from Los Angeles. “Even though I didn’t get in and the tickets are tight, I’m still going to come out here and show my respects to Kobe Bryant.”
During the annual NBA All-Star weekend three weeks after his death, the league announced its All-Star Game Most Valuable Player honour would be permanently named for the late superstar.