Fans packing the sold-out Staples Center to honor the legacy of Kobe Bryant were welcomed to the arena Monday by no less than one of the biggest pop stars on Earth.
Performing with a band and choir clad in all white, Beyonce invited the audience to sing along with her as she belted out her song, “XO,” which includes the lyrics, “In the darkest night hour, I’ll search through the crowd/Your face is all that I see; I’ll give you everything.”
“I’m here because I love Kobe,” Beyonce told the crowd, “and that was one of his favorite songs.”
Late-night host Jimmy Kimmel took the stage before a sold-out crowd of about 20,000 people, which included basketball luminaries Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, Phil Jackson, Stephen Curry and Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell, who Kimmel pointed out had worn a Bryant jersey to the Lakers-Celtics matchup the night before.
“In places where he would be booed on the court, Kobe is missed,” Kimmel said before introducing Vanessa Bryant.
Bryant’s widow first offered a remembrance of her daughter, Gianna, 13, who was one of the eight people on the helicopter with her 41-year-old father when it crashed in Calabasas last month. She recalled how Gianna and Bryant gravitated to each other and shared a “secret talent” of learning the lyrics to songs after hearing them only a few times.
“She was an incredible athlete. She was great at gymnastics, soccer, softball, dance and basketball,” the girl’s mother said. “Gigi was confident but not in an arrogant way. She loved helping and teaching other people things. At school, she offered the boys’ basketball coaches to help give the boys’ basketball team some pointers — like the triangle offense.”
With many in the arena in tears, she moved on to Bryant, her “soulmate,” and regaled the crowd with stories of his romantic side. He always went big on Valentine’s Day and anniversaries, she said, once gifting her the blue dress actor Rachel McAdams wore in “The Notebook.”
“I couldn’t see him as a celebrity, nor just an incredible basketball player,” she said. “He was my sweet husband and the beautiful father of our children. He was mine. He was my everything. … Kobe loved me more than I could express or put into words.”
Geno Auriemma, coach for the University of Connecticut women’s team, which made Gianna an honorary team member in death, lightened the mood by poking fun at Bryant’s reputation for being a ball hog and not taking instruction during his playing days.
When “the uncoachable one” approached Auriemma for tips on coaching his daughter and her teammates, Auriemma initially thought, “That poor kid,” he said, breaking the solemnity of the moment.
He watched the youngster’s tape, and “on about the third or fourth time she touched the ball, Gianna passed it when she was open. I thought, ‘She’s not listening to her father,'” he said, drawing more laughter.
On Monday morning, South Figueroa Street outside the stadium looked much as it had the night before, with almost every fan wearing a Bryant jersey or some purple-and-gold memorabilia, along with plenty of vendors hawking items for those who did not.
Some fans even decked out their exotic cars — specifically, a Lamborghini and a BMW I-series — in Bryant and Lakers imagery.
Shortly after 8 a.m. (11 a.m. ET), fans with tickets to the memorial began filing into the Staples Center where, organizers say, about 35,000 roses will adorn the main stage from which Bryant and daughter Gianna will be memorialized.
Upon entering the arena, fans received a T-shirt featuring the father and daughter on its front, a KB pin and a “celebration of life” program, the back of which featured a Bryant quote dedicated “to our daughters.”
“It’s not the destination, it’s the journey,” the quote said. “If you guys can understand that, what you’ll see happen is that you won’t accomplish your dreams, your dreams won’t come true, something greater will. And if you guys can understand that, then I’m doing my job as a father.”
Edward Mercado was among the fortunate few to snare tickets. He and his brother got up at 5 a.m. and drove from Riverside, about 60 miles east, to pay their respects. Mercado, 31, was decked in head-to-toe Lakers garb. Even his hair — purple and yellow, with a green snake on his crown — was a tribute to his hero.
“It’s unreal right now, but once I get in there, I know the emotion and tears will come out. … Right now, I’m just holding it in. It’s a blessing to be here. It’s part of history going down right now, and I’ll talk to my sons about this moment.”
Wenona and Carlos Figueroa were fans of Bryant’s “killer instinct” and named their Shih Tzu after him.
Asked about her jersey — a replica of the one Bryant wore in the 2005 All-Star Game in Denver — Wenona Figueroa said it was a reference to the sexual assault allegations against Bryant in Colorado, of which Bryant was cleared criminally.
“We can always transform,” she said. “Whatever happened didn’t identify who he was.”
The two-and-a-half hour event is slated to finish around 1 p.m. The arena is scheduled to host a Los Angeles Clippers game at 7:30 p.m.