The sky above Staples Center was painted gray, but down below a two-toned sea of purple-and-gold mourning stood out on this gloomy Sunday. All around Los Angeles, murals of Kobe Bryant and the arena where he played most of his 20-year NBA career became shrines of remembrance. Shocked fans dotted the city, gathering to pay their respects to Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, who were two of the nine people who died in a helicopter crash Sunday morning.
One of those fans who made the trek to downtown Los Angeles was Gabi Hernandez, who walked around the area holding a framed picture of Bryant sitting courtside with Gianna at a Lakers game. As soon as Hernandez, a lifelong Lakers fan, heard the news, she printed out two copies of the photo, bought frames for them, and drove 20 miles west from La Puente to place one of the frames at the base of a Kobe mural just a few blocks from the arena, on Lebanon Street, which was filled with people taking pictures. The painting, of Bryant yelling triumphantly in his number 24 Lakers jersey, is right next to a mural of the late rapper Nipsey Hussle.
“It’s a sad day in L.A.” Hernandez said, tearing up while wearing a purple Lakers hoodie underneath a wine-colored no. 33, Bryant’s jersey from Lower Merion High School. “I was in disbelief. I thought the news was fake.”
Less than two years ago, when LeBron James signed with the Lakers, murals of James sprouted around the city but were just as quickly defaced. It was a reminder, some said at the time, that for all of LeBron’s accomplishments, he would never be Kobe—not in L.A.
It was that deep connection to Bryant that brought masses to these paintings around the city Sunday. And it’s that deep connection forged by countless memories over the years that they clung to while struggling to process the tragedy. “We were on Venice Beach and someone said Kobe passed away,” said Noemi Guzman, a Lakers fan visiting from Sacramento. “When we were walking, people were already drawing murals in Venice, saying, ‘Rest in peace.’”
Kyle Yamamoto, 22, works at a thrift store two blocks away from a mural on Melrose Avenue that was painted in commemoration of Bryant’s last game, a 60-point outburst against Utah. The mural shows a cubist Kobe in midair, an artistic rendering of this famous image. Yamamoto had taken a long lunch break after learning the news, and with a pizza box and a bottle of Sprite in hand, he made his way to the Melrose mural, unable to contain his emotions. He walked around the area, eyes red, saying “Fuck!” over and over.
“Whose name do you say out loud when you shoot a ball of paper into a trash can?” Yamamoto asked. He didn’t wait for an answer. “Kobe! Greatest Laker ever.”
The Melrose mural is painted on the side of the store Shoe Palace. The manager of the store, Ruben M. (who declined to give his last name), didn’t want the mural to be marked up upon hearing the news. So he began handing out Post-it notes and a pen to those gathered. Soon, the mural was dotted with various messages on yellow notes.
“RIP to the greatest. Mamba Forever,” said one of the notes.
“Tom Brady has nothing on your dynasty,” said another.
A third simply said, “You were L.A.”
“Everyone here loves him,” said a teary-eyed Linda Xu, who stopped by a farmers market to pick up a bouquet of roses for the mural. “He represents the epitome of L.A. … He stuck with us the whole time.”
Ask anyone in L.A. on Sunday why Kobe resonated with the city, and most begin at the same point: He came, he won, he stayed, and then he won again. As the NBA trends increasingly toward player movement, Kobe looks like one of the last one-town superstars. His career was defined by a mythical level of passion and commitment that bred a unique form of loyalty. His own carefully crafted Hollywood story became a mirror for those who had moved to Los Angeles, worked hard, and made it big, and an inspirational model for those in the process of trying.
“I grew up watching Kobe, and he was just naturally one of my biggest role models growing up,” said Chris Cardona, a Santa Barbara native now living in Hollywood. “The previous generation had MJ; I had Kobe.”
What made Kobe so ubiquitous in L.A., though, is that he transcended generations and cultures. In a city filled with people from all over the world, he was its great unifier; if you hung around his murals for long enough on Sunday, you would have heard not just English being spoken, but Spanish, Hindi, and Korean too. It felt fitting, because, as a number of people reminded me, Kobe spoke a number of different languages himself.
“Even not knowing him, everyone feels close to Kobe,” said Leigh Kakaty, 44. “Part of our youth passed away.”
As 35-year-old Chris Chavkin pointed out near the mural on Melrose, Kobe’s career also stretched from the early internet era to a digital world. That, Chavkin believes, bolstered Bryant’s passionate fan base and helped him edge out Magic Johnson as the most beloved Lakers legend.
Many Angelenos can mark their lives by Kobe’s two decades in the league. Chavkin remembers where he was for Kobe’s greatest highlights and titles, and he remembers where he was in 2003, when Kobe was charged with sexual assault in Colorado. (The case was later dropped, and a civil suit was settled out of court.) As Chavkin entered adulthood, he watched Kobe do the same.
“You’re talking about a person who grew up with the city of L.A.,” Chavkin said. “He started in the league at 18 years old. He grew up with people who grew up with him at the same time, and we all grew into the social media age so the connection there was always so great.”
Heather Velasquez from Monterey Park also feels like she grew up with Kobe. At age 6, she started watching basketball as he entered the league and fell in love with the game because of him. It’s why when she identifies herself, she says she is a Kobe fan who likes the Lakers.
Many of the memories of Kobe’s career that Velasquez recounted echoed those of the other fans I spoke to on Sunday. The 81-point masterpiece, the titles, the buzzer-beaters, the final game. But perhaps no game did more for Kobe’s legacy than when he tore his Achilles in 2013 and stayed on the court to shoot and make two free throws.
“No other player was like Kobe,” said Velasquez, who was covered from head to toe in Kobe and Lakers gear while standing in the plaza at L.A. Live, across from Staples Center. “He played injured and still produced results.”
The scene at Staples Center resembled a massive church service. The digital screens around the plaza all displayed a picture of Kobe with the message “In Loving Memory of Kobe Bryant.” People in fancy suits and dresses were ushered into the arena for the Grammys as helicopters hovered above and fans in Kobe jerseys walked around holding up large poster boards featuring images of him. Chants of “Kobe!” broke out on the 24-minute mark every hour. Those gathered made makeshift circles around collections of flowers, candles, letters, paintings, and drawings of Kobe, which turned into small monuments with flickering lights as the sun went down and the area emptied out. In between the chants, you could hear people utter phrases like “Gigi was going to play in the WNBA” or “I still can’t believe it.” Current Laker Quinn Cook showed up:
On Melrose, the scene was far more intimate. Cars drove by with the news of the crash playing on their radios, and a smaller group stared at the mural with red faces and glassy eyes. Many took pictures and immediately uploaded them to social media. Some placed flowers, candles, and notes on the ground alongside worn pairs of Kobe shoes. By 2 p.m. PT, the Shoe Palace had sold out of all of Kobe’s sneakers, even after the store limited purchases to two pairs per person and eventually to just one.
“He was bigger than the Lakers. He was the Lakers,” said 16-year-old David Atterton, a Lakers fan who took pictures of the Melrose mural while wearing a Giannis Bucks jersey. He wrote, “Thank you for what you did for L.A.” on his Post-it note.
Later in the afternoon, everything slowed for a moment. An Uber driver pulled up to the mural, lowered the windows of his dark gray Nissan Sentra and began playing Kobe’s speech from his jersey retirement ceremony in 2017. Everyone paused to look up at the mural as Kobe’s voice blared from the car’s speakers. “Lastly our daughters, Natalia, Bianca, and Gianna. You guys know that if you do the work, you work hard enough, dreams come true …”
In a crowded intersection, it was a moment of silence. The Uber driver teared up. Others took video. Some simply watched and listened. Suddenly, there was a honk—the car behind the Uber driver wanted to get through traffic. The moment ended, the driver pulled away, but the remembrance continued. In Los Angeles, it will be a long time before it stops.