LOS ANGELES — The service was called “A Celebration of Life” in memorializing Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, who were tragically killed in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26 in Calabasas, California.
But by the end of Monday’s heart-wrenching ceremony at the Staples Center, it could have been amended to “A Reprioritizing of Life.”
It was an occasion in which the stars of stars from the NBA to entertainers to politicians were in attendance to pay their respects. It was a service of two distinct halves.
Early on in the event, basketball highlights of Gigi Bryant were played on the massive center-court screen with upbeat hip-hop tracks serving as the background music. This ran for several minutes. The video showcased her raw, budding talent and displayed the many interactions she had with her father while he was coaching her. It also featured scenes of Kobe traveling the country with his daughter to expose her to the world of women’s collegiate and WNBA basketball.
The highlights demonstrated the gifts the 13-year-old had in store for the world, gifts that we’ll never see fully developed. That realization tugged at your heartstrings, but the accompanying music for the video didn’t allow for an overwhelming explosion of emotions.
For about the first 20 minutes or so, the atmosphere was calm. Many started to wonder if they would be able to exit the arena without shedding a tear.
Then suddenly, a group of people emerged from the tunnel in a single-file line. It was accompanied by Los Angeles Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka. Fans in the lower bowl area quickly recognized it was Kobe’s wife, Vanessa, and three surviving kids. Fans nearby immediately stood up and began clapping.
If you were not in the vicinity of that specific tunnel, you couldn’t make out who was entering the arena bowl. The camera crews running the big screen didn’t catch it.
But word circulated quickly to the higher-bowl seats that it was Vanessa, and within seconds — like a domino effect — the family was greeted to a standing, rousing ovation.
This is when the emotions in the building began to shift.
Jimmy Kimmel, a close friend of Kobe’s, took the stage as the master of ceremony. And upon speaking, his voice cracked. His eyes filled with tears. You saw the hurt on his face as he did the best he could to keep the flow of the service going. He inserted a few jokes, but his tone was on point and respectful. He helped temper the mood at the time, even asking everyone to introduce themselves to the person next to them, because life is too short not to say hello.
However, the mood changed drastically once he introduced the next speaker: Vanessa. The entire arena let out a resounding gasp.
Before she even took the stage, fans, players and media members were bent over in tears. This was the point in which it became overwhelming. She courageously stood up there for 20 minutes, reminiscing and telling stories of the husband and daughter she lost.
Kobe and Gigi were inseparable, and Vanessa put it so eloquently: “God knew they couldn’t be on this earth without each other.”
WNBA legend Diana Turasi, University of Connecticut women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma, University of Oregon basketball star Sabrina Ionescu, Shaquille O’Neal and Michael Jordan gave speeches, but it was Jordan’s speech that provided the appropriate bow to the ceremony.
Jordan is known for not allowing many to get into his inner circle. He rarely does public speaking and most of his written statements are produced following an issue, whether it be professional or social. Kobe’s Mamba Mentality was birthed from Jordan’s point of view: winning at all costs with very little regard for someone else’s feelings.
But this was the rare time we were able to witness a vulnerable side of Jordan, a more human side.
Tears poured throughout his speech as he recalled the many times Kobe pestered him for advice at all hours of the day and night. He admitted to being reluctant to embrace Kobe, initially, because he asked too many questions. Kobe’s perseverance finally caved the walls Jordan put up, walls other stars could not break through.
There are no other players in the history of the game who mirror Jordan’s game like Kobe’s did. There is no Kobe without MJ. Jordan referred to Kobe as his “little brother” and promised to live out the rest of his years as one of the best “girl dads.”
After all these years, Jordan finally showed vulnerability and relatability. Kobe brought that out of him, albeit in death.
The overall message from the memorial service was to cherish what you’re blessed with and maximize your time on this earth. The event ended up being a celebration of life and a celebration of reprioritizing life moving forward.
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