Kenneth Hernandez drove 386 miles from Sacramento. Kim Soo Long took a 12-hour flight from China. Desiree Narvaez just made the short drive downtown. A group of girls from Shanghai spent over $1,000 each for their tickets; they took pictures of themselves, clad in T-shirts with a depiction of Marilyn Monroe biting her Kobe Bryant jersey from the base of the V-neck—the way Kobe used to in his playing days. The girls were interviewed by a TV station—a Portuguese TV station. These were the faces of Kobe fans, from different parts of the world, who made the pilgrimage to Staples Center to watch Bryant step onto center court one more time as his two jerseys—nos. 8 and 24—were retired and raised into the rafters at halftime of the Warriors-Lakers game Monday night.
The L.A. Live area just outside Staples Center was transformed into “Kobeland,” an attraction complete with a Ferris wheel and various Kobe-branded games: corn hole, Nike-sponsored pop-a-shot, a game of Plinko. If you wanted to take a picture with the Kobe MVPuppets, they were seated and available. Five cylindrical pillars lined the walkway down Kobeland, one for each championship Bryant won, depicting the Lakers legend at five different stages of his career.
The packed crowd was reminiscent of a music festival, except this one had only a single act; the assortment of hipster throwback jerseys, typical Coachella attire, here were homed in on all the varieties of jerseys Kobe has ever played in: the classic home gold, the road purple, the Sunday white, the alternate black, the All-Star red, the cobalt retro blue, the baby-blue Minneapolis throwback, the no. 10 Team USA navy, and the rare Lower Merion High wine.
Kobe saw the festival built in his honor driving into the arena. He expressed his disbelief to the media inside Staples Center as he took questions for about 20 minutes, answering in English, Spanish, and Italian. He detailed his daily routine now that he’s away from the NBA grind (he wakes up at 4 a.m., and works out at 5 every day). He admitted, tongue in cheek, to having a preference in jersey number (“8 has something that 24 will never, ever have and that, is the ability to grow hair”). And he talked about what his 20 years in the league add up to, and what he’s left behind.
“The true mark of a legacy,” he said, “is how much it impacts the younger generation.”
Fans root for their franchise's laundry, but seeing so many supporters in Kobe jerseys in all their forms highlighted the fact that, over the past two decades, Kobe was the franchise. And nearly two years removed from his final game, he still might be, if only because no one else has filled the void he left behind. At least not yet.
“Oh my God!” Kobe was standing next to Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and GM Rob Pelinka when he caught sight of Larry Nance Jr.’s poster dunk, a sledgehammer driven straight through Kevin Durant. Bryant winced in celebration, just as the rest of the crowd had. It was a jaw-dropping scene, but even the most promising moments from the Lakers’ youth movement were waved off Monday night. By the time the replay played on the Staples Center Jumbotron, the fans had already turned their attention to Kobe emerging from the northwest tunnel for his jersey retirement ceremony.
For 28 minutes, Johnson, Pelinka, and Lakers owner Jeanie Buss extolled Kobe’s dedication to the game and to the franchise. For 28 minutes, Kobe was once again the face of the franchise. "We're here to celebrate the greatest who has ever worn the purple and gold," Magic Johnson said.
There is no question where Lakers fans’ allegiances still lie. Monday was supposed to be a celebration, but some Lakers fans around the event were using it more as a coping mechanism for the team’s current state, reliving the glory days in order to deal with the present reality.
“I cancelled my Lonzo Ball jersey order,” Hernandez said. The Sacramento native purchased his ticket for the game less than two months ago for just over $400. Back then, he was thrilled at the possibility of Ball, whom the Lakers drafted with the no. 2 pick in June. Now? He’s not so sure. Good thing it was a pre-order; Hernandez was able to get his money back. “Lonzo, it’s good that he’s not selfish, but he needs to be more aggressive,” Hernandez said. “I wish he had more of that Mamba mentality.”
“We definitely don’t have anyone like him anymore. Players now like to pass first, they’re not in the moment and [don’t] want to take over like Kobe did,” Daniel Zormagen said. Zormagen, a lifelong Lakers fan since the days when Magic played with Vlade Divac at the Forum, seemed ready for the team to boast a tried-and-true star. “I think signing a big name, like a Paul George, an Anthony Davis, a DeMarcus Cousins, is going to fill that void. We haven't had that in a long time.”
Other fans are slightly more hopeful there’s someone like Kobe on this roster, even if it isn’t the franchise’s seeming prized possession.
David Pinto, a Lakers fan from Orange County who thinks Lonzo is overrated, and talks about Kobe’s 81-point game with a wide smile on his face, sees some of Kobe’s traits in Kyle Kuzma. “He’s not afraid to take shots,” Pinto told me. “He won’t pass up the big shots, and that was Kobe. Kobe took every shot. I feel like Kuzma can be like that.”
Bay area Lakers fan Moises Osorio, who drove down for the game, bought a Brandon Ingram jersey a day before the game because he’s banking on his ceiling. He picked Ingram over Lonzo because of “potential.” It’s the only jersey he’s bought since Kobe. “We’re not going to have another Kobe,” Osorio said with disappointment. “But Ingram, that’s why I got his jersey. Maybe by the All-Star break, or by next year, he'll solidify his position, and then be the next player to take over.”
Kobe’s night ended on Monday with him walking out of the arena after the Lakers and Warriors tied in regulation. He wouldn’t see it, but in overtime, Durant—who went a Mambaesque 10-for-29 from the field—pulled up for a game-winning shot and drained it. The Lakers’ 116-114 loss to the Warriors—and the commotion surrounding it—was rife with symbolism, a manifestation of how much Kobe still meant to the Lakers franchise. In the midst of it all, Durant served as a buffer between past and present. Lakers fans who came to celebrate Kobe as their former, and even current, hero, got a taste of what they hope the similarly smooth and long-limbed Ingram can become.
The measure of a legacy is in how it impacts the next generation, Kobe said. So it must be a tough pill to swallow watching that influence blossom in other parts of the league, but not where it began. At the moment, celebrating a retired Kobe is the closest the Lakers can get to recapturing the magic.
“We’re still tied to him,” Zormagen said. “It’s hard. Unfortunately, we're still thinking about him. I mean, I wish he could still be on the team.”