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LOS ANGELES — The line began to form hours before the public memorial service began.
Thousands of heartbroken Lakers fans respectfully waited outside the House that Kobe Built in subdued silence to say a final farewell to their fallen hero and his 13-year-old daughter.
Many wore Kobe Bryant jerseys bearing the Nos. 8 and 24 he donned during his illustrious Lakers career. Others came dressed in homemade T-shirts featuring the faces of Kobe and Gianna or their jersey numbers adorned with halos and angel wings. They did not chant or shout, only offering subdued applause when the Staples Center doors opened at last at 8:30 a.m. PT.
Once inside the arena, attendees received a black T-shirt with images of Kobe and Gianna, a celebration of life booklet with an assortment of pictures of Kobe and his family, and a commemorative ticket and pin. Every ticket had the same seat number: Section 8, Row 24, Seat 2.
Pictures of Kobe and Gianna flashed across the video board as fans took their seats. Where the basketball floor would normally be sat a square black stage adorned with 33,643 red roses, one for every point Kobe scored in his NBA career.
Just before the memorial began at 10:28 a.m., Vanessa Bryant walked in with her three surviving daughters to a standing ovation, then took a seat near the stage. Moments later, Beyonce started the “Celebration of Life,” singing “XO.”
“I’m here because I love Kobe,” Beyonce said, “and this is one of his favorite songs.”
The public memorial capped weeks of tributes across Los Angeles and beyond. It has been 29 days since a helicopter crashed into a Calabasas, California, hillside on a foggy Sunday morning, 29 days since the lives of Kobe, Gianna and seven others ended stunningly and tragically.
Those in attendance were a who’s who of basketball luminaries and beyond: Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Phil Jackson, Stephen Curry, Alex Rodriguez, Jennifer Lopez, Snoop Dogg, and on and on and on.
Twenty minutes in, as host Jimmy Kimmel fought back tears, the first chant of “Kobe! Kobe! Kobe!” broke out.
And then Vanessa Bryant took the stage, first telling stories of Gigi — a daddy’s girl, she called her, who never left for school without giving her a kiss goodbye.
“Gigi would have probably become the best player in the WNBA,” she said. “She would have made a huge difference for women’s basketball.”
“Kobe was the MVD of girl dads,” Vanessa said. “He never left the toilet seat up. Always told the girls how beautiful and smart they are.”
She talked about how he’d never get to walk his daughters down the aisle, wouldn’t get to be the fun grandpa, how they couldn’t grow old together like they’d dreamed.
“God knew they couldn’t be on this earth without each other,” she concluded. “... Babe, you take care of our Gigi, and I’ve got Nani, BB and Coco.”
"We're still the best team."
Vanessa Bryant remembers her husband, Kobe ❤️pic.twitter.com/rlYAsoYrk0
— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) February 24, 2020
Then came Diana Taurasi, considered the greatest player in WNBA history, followed by Sabrina Ionescu, the best player in women’s college basketball, and Geno Auriemma, the greatest coach in women’s basketball history.
Kobe had risen to prominence in the NBA, but it’s been made abundantly clear that his future focus was on the women’s game — coaching his daughter, mentoring young players like Ionescu, building the game.
"I still text him now even though he’s not here," Ionescu said.
When it was Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka's turn to speak, he revealed that Kobe had been texting him from the helicopter minutes before the crash. Kobe asked if Pelinka, his former agent and best friend, knew a particular baseball agent because he wanted to help the eldest daughter of fellow helicopter passenger John Altobelli secure an internship with an agency.
"Kobe's last human act was heroic," Pelinka said.
Shaq spoke about their complicated relationship, explaining they were always brothers despite all the banter and noise.
Jordan told of 2 a.m. text messages he’d get from Kobe asking about how to get better, then joked that, with tears streaming down his face, he was about to become another meme.
Two hours the memorial service lasted, finishing with “Dear Basketball,” the animated short film that won Kobe an Oscar in 2017.
As 20,000 mourners filed out of Staples Center, many with red, tear-stained eyes, they left with a greater understanding and appreciation for the Lakers legend. They heard about Kobe the father, Kobe the husband, Kobe the competitor and Kobe the friend.
One last Kobe chant echoed through Staples Center as Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable" fittingly played in the background.
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