“[Bryant] knows how to get to you in a way that affects you personally,” said Jordan, who famously was Bryant’s childhood idol. “Even if he’s being a pain in the ass.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver; Hall of Famers Bill Russell, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; current stars Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving; and dozens of other prominent athletes and entertainers descended on Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles to attend the celebration of life in Bryant’s honor. The event, which was held in the wake of a Jan. 26 helicopter crash that left nine people, including Bryant and his daughter Gianna, dead, brought the basketball world to a halt.
Tens of thousands of Lakers fans, many of whom donned his jerseys and chanted his name, looked down on a stage that was decorated with red roses and that hosted musical tributes from Beyoncé and Alicia Keys. ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel served as the master of ceremonies for the event, which was held Feb. 24 — a reference to the No. 2 and No. 24 jerseys worn by Gianna and Kobe Bryant, respectively.
Vanessa Bryant, a 37-year-old widow and mother of Bryant’s four daughters, was poised throughout her extended tributes to Bryant, who died at 41, and to Gianna, who was 13. Calling Gianna her “baby girl,” Vanessa remembered her daughter’s love for basketball, cooking shows and Disney movies and her “infectious” laugh.
“Gianna never tried to conform,” said Vanessa Bryant, who had not spoken publicly since the fatal helicopter crash. “She was always herself. Wearing a white T, black leggings, a denim jacket, white high-top Converse and a flannel tied around her waist, with straight hair, was her go-to style.”
Gianna, Vanessa Bryant continued, was fluent in Mandarin and Spanish, and mother and daughter had a ritual of kissing each other every morning and night. Vanessa described her second-oldest daughter as a “daddy’s girl who I know loved her mama.”
“Gigi was sunshine. She brightened up my day, every day,” Vanessa Bryant continued. “I won’t be able to tell her how gorgeous she looks on her wedding day. I’ll never get to see my baby girl walk down the aisle or have a father-daughter dance with her daddy. Gianna would have been an amazing mommy. She was very maternal ever since she was little. Gigi most likely would have been the best player in the WNBA.”
Vanessa Bryant remembered her husband as a hopeless romantic, whom she called “Kob Kob” and “boo boo.” They met when she was 17, and she called herself Bryant’s “first girlfriend, his first love, his wife, his best friend, his confidant and protector.” She hailed Kobe Bryant as the “MVP of girl dads” for his deep devotion to his four daughters and his special bond over basketball with Gianna.
“He never left the toilet seat up, he always told the girls how beautiful and smart they are, and he taught them how to be brave and how to keep pushing forward when things got tough,” Vanessa Bryant said. “God knew [Kobe and Gianna] couldn’t be on this Earth without each other. He had to bring them home to have them together.”
Jordan offered Vanessa Bryant a hand as she left the stage to applause, and soon it was the former Chicago Bulls superstar’s turn to take the microphone. Now 57, Jordan fondly remembered Bryant as a “little brother” whose inquisitive nature was initially a “nuisance.” Jordan was the NBA’s premier player when Bryant entered the league in 1996, and the future Hall of Famer recalled getting questions from Bryant about his signature moves and his dedication to his craft at all hours of the night.
“That nuisance turned into love,” Jordan said. “The questions, wanting to know every little detail. He used to call me at 3 o’clock in the morning [to talk about] post-up moves, footwork, the triangle [offense]. At first it was an aggravation. But then it turned into a certain passion. This kid had passion like you would never know.”
Tears ran down Jordan’s face throughout his speech. At one point, he paused to make a self-deprecating reference to his tearful 2009 Hall of Fame speech, which prompted years of viral memes at his expense.
“Now [Kobe’s] got me [crying], and I’ve got to look at another crying meme,” Jordan joked to loud laughter throughout the crowd. “I told my wife I wasn’t going to do this because I don’t want to see this for the next three to four years.”
Jordan credited Bryant’s drive to “be the best basketball player he could be” with his own desire to “be the best big brother I could be.” They had exchanged text messages recently about Gianna’s budding basketball career, with Jordan noting that he still wanted to play baseball when he was Gianna’s age.
It was Bryant’s relentless pursuit of self-improvement that stuck with Jordan.
“Kobe never left anything on the court,” he said. “I think that’s what he would want for us to do. No one knows how much time we have. That’s why we must live in the moment, enjoy the moment. We must spend as much time as we can with our family and friends. When Kobe Bryant died, a piece of me died. When I look in this arena, or across the globe, a piece of you died. Those are the memories that we live with and learn from.”
O’Neal and Bryant teamed up for the first three of Bryant’s five championships with the Lakers, but they are often painted as adversaries rather than teammates because of their falling out in 2004. Although the Hall of Fame center noted that he and Bryant shared a private mutual respect that they chose to hide from the media when they were teammates, he laughed at one memorable interaction with the notoriously stubborn Bryant.
As O’Neal recalled, his Lakers teammates were complaining that Bryant wasn’t passing the ball. O’Neal confronted Bryant, telling the younger star that there is “no 'I' in team.” Bryant’s retort: “I know, but there’s an ‘m-e’ in that motherf-----.”
“I told [Rick Fox and Robert Horry] to just get the rebound,” O’Neal deadpanned. “He’s not passing.”
O’Neal hailed Bryant as “Heaven’s MVP” on a day that was filled with musical and multimedia tributes. Beyoncé opened the program by singing “XO” and “Halo” — two of Bryant’s favorites. Keys performed Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” a piece that Kobe Bryant had taught himself to play for his wife.
Women’s basketball stars Diana Taurasi and Sabrina Ionescu thanked Bryant for motivating them and for supporting the women’s game, and both spoke glowingly of Gianna’s future as a player.
“Her skill was undeniable at an early age,” said Taurasi, a three-time WNBA champion who said she had developed “early-onset Mamba Mentality” while watching Bryant’s Lakers as a child. “Who has a turnaround fadeaway jumper at 11? LeBron [James has] barely got it today.”
Ionescu, the University of Oregon star who worked out with Gianna on multiple occasions last summer, said: “She had a fadeaway that was better than mine. If I represent the present of the women’s game, Gigi was the future, and Kobe knew it.”
While tribute videos of Bryant’s on-court highlights were sprinkled throughout, the memorial sought to capture all aspects of his life. Bryant’s Oscar-winning “Dear Basketball” short film was aired in full to close the program, and Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka, Bryant’s longtime agent, spoke about their close friendship, which included fly-fishing trips and conversations about parenting.
Pelinka revealed that he had been exchanging text messages with Bryant on the morning of Jan. 26, while Bryant was in the helicopter just moments before the fatal crash. Bryant had asked Pelinka for a baseball agent’s contact information because he was trying to help one of the daughters of John and Keri Altobelli, two of the crash victims, land an internship.
“Kobe’s last human act was heroic,” Pelinka said. “He wanted to use his platform to bless and shape a young girl’s future.”
As he described his painful grief over the past four weeks, Pelinka said he had turned to an inscribed book that Bryant had gifted to him for comfort. Bryant’s inscription read, in part, “May you always remember to enjoy the road, especially when it’s a hard one.”
“He wrote the words just a few months ago,” Pelinka said. “I realize that perhaps they were meant for us all.”
— Ben Golliver
Find live updates from Monday’s memorial service, by Ben Golliver in Los Angeles and Cindy Boren in Washington, below.