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Kobe Bryant’s Memorial Fills in the Details Behind the Myths

With NBA greats past and present in attendance, Vanessa Bryant, Michael Jordan, and others shared fond memories and intimate details of Kobe’s and his daughter Gianna’s lives

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The last time Kobe Bryant’s basketball career was celebrated at Staples Center, the street parallel to the arena, Chick Hearn Court, was closed to host a party. The area became Kobeland, complete with a Ferris wheel, Kobe-themed arcade games, and fans wearing Bryant’s many jerseys, and the game that night became a de facto reunion in which Lakers legends commemorated Kobe’s playing career.

On Monday, Chick Hearn Court was closed again, but the tenor of the celebration was different. Nearly a month after Kobe, his daughter Gianna, and seven others died in a helicopter accident, the area around the arena was weighed down by a somber mood. Despite the number of people, there was no frenzy—people wearing Kobe jerseys shuffled quietly from their cars into lines that would lead them to the memorial inside the arena. The words “celebration of life” appeared everywhere—on screens above and around L.A. Live, the plaza across from Staples Center, and in programs and on commemorative tickets (all listed as “section 8, row 24, seat 2”). Thousands of fans and NBA legends showed up, only this time to mourn and celebrate the lives of Kobe and his daughter Gigi.

Photos by Paolo Uggetti

At 8:24 a.m., a group of fans waiting in line broke out into a “Ko-be” chant that echoed throughout the area. When the Bryant family—Vanessa Bryant and her three other daughters, Natalia, Bianka, and Capri—walked into the arena and passed by a stage surrounded by some of the 33,643 roses (one for each of Kobe’s career points), fans gave a standing ovation. Beyoncé Knowles performed “XO”—“Kobe’s favorite song,” she said—and “Halo” before Jimmy Kimmel, the host of the event, tearfully read the names of the victims. The camera darted around the arena, revealing the scope of Bryant’s impact on basketball.

Monday’s memorial (held on February 24, or 2/24, in honor of Gigi’s and Kobe’s jersey numbers) was practically a convention of basketball greats—past and present, from the women’s and the men’s game. WNBA legend Diana Taurasi spoke, as did Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu—both of whom had developed relationships not just with Kobe, but with Gianna, a basketball player herself with dreams of going pro. James Harden and Russell Westbrook, who were scheduled to play in Houston just hours after the memorial, sat near each other, both wearing black sunglasses. Devin Booker, who suited up to play in Utah a few hours later, was there. Kyrie Irving, Steph Curry, Draymond Green, DeMar DeRozan, and Rudy Gay were all also in attendance, along with Kyle Kuzma, Anthony Davis, and other Lakers. It was the Kobe generation.

Near them sat NBA legends—from Magic Johnson to Bill Russell, Jerry West to Michael Jordan. The players in attendance created a timeline of modern NBA history.

After Vanessa Bryant delivered powerful eulogies for her daughter and her husband, Jordan offered a hand and helped her off the stage. And after Taurasi and Ionescu spoke, and Lakers GM Rob Pelinka recounted personal stories of his time as Kobe’s friend and agent, Jordan stepped up to the mic.

“In the game of basketball, in life, as a parent, Kobe left nothing in the tank. He left it all on the floor,” Jordan said, tears immediately streaking down his cheeks.

Like Bryant, Jordan is, and always will be, an omnipresent figure in basketball. Unlike Bryant, Jordan hasn’t stayed in the public eye in retirement. Even though he owns one of the NBA’s 30 teams, we rarely hear from him outside of a prepared statement or as a way to market a shoe. He appears in our day-to-day lives mostly in meme form.

But Jordan revealed a different side to himself on stage—and at one point even joked that he provided more meme fodder with his tears. We have heard time and again that Bryant was driven to live up to the standard set by Jordan, and indeed Jordan provided a closer look at how that aspiration played out between the two of them: Jordan said Kobe began as a nuisance for him, someone who would call him early in the morning to talk about footwork and drills. But then Jordan described how his feelings toward Bryant quickly turned into love, and that he began to appreciate how Kobe’s passion for the game resembled his own.

“Maybe it surprised people that Kobe and I were very close friends,” Jordan said. “But we were very close friends. Kobe was my dear friend, he was like a little brother.”

While some stories touched on Bryant’s famous traits—Shaq said he once tried to tell Kobe to pass the ball more by saying “There’s no ‘I’ in team,” only for Kobe to respond, “I know but there’s a ‘M-E’ in that mothafucka”—most of the speakers filled in the gaps around the Kobe mythology with intimate stories from his private life. Vanessa said Kobe bought her a dress and the notebook from The Notebook. Pelinka talked about tennis matches they played together and how Kobe learned Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” by ear to play for Vanessa. Ionescu noted how Kobe would send her texts of encouragement, after good games and bad ones, and UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma and Taurasi described how invested he was in Gigi’s game and the women’s game as a whole. Jordan, meanwhile, revealed how deep his bond was with Kobe.

“What Kobe Bryant was to me was the inspiration that someone truly cared about the way that I played the game or the way that he wanted to play the game,” Jordan said. “He wanted to be the best basketball player that he could be. And as I got to know him, I wanted to be the best big brother that I could be.”

The competitive nature that Bryant and Jordan shared is also what kept them removed from some of their peers. Yet Monday’s memorial showed just how deep Kobe’s impact was on the NBA’s past and present. For the likes of Booker, Harden, and Westbrook, Kobe is their Jordan. And after years of chasing Jordan and trying to live up to his legacy, Kobe ultimately became not only Jordan’s peer, but his friend.

“He knows how to get to you in a way that affects you personally, even though he’s being a pain in the ass,” Jordan said to laughs. “But you have a sense of love for him in the way that he can bring out the best in you.”

Throughout the ceremony, speakers, Jordan included, would slip into present tense when talking about Kobe and Gianna. And that’s the hard part about celebrating a life lost: To celebrate them you have to remember them, but to remember them also means remembering that they’re gone. That feeling permeated the arena Monday. The fans cheered and cried; the speakers recalled fond memories while lamenting that there will be no new ones.

The week of Kobe’s death, fans left countless personal messages and mementos at a makeshift memorial at L.A. Live. When Monday’s proceedings began, that site had been polished clean. But as fans exited the building, many wanted to leave something behind. While they waited for the long lines to lead them out, they wrote emotional messages right on the pavement of Chick Hearn Court. The speakers inside the arena got to tell their memories of Kobe and Gigi and say goodbye one last time; this was a way for fans to say theirs.