LOS ANGELES — This was the first step for a city whose own mayor described it as “broken” just a few days earlier, and this is truth: Eric Garcetti wasn’t falling back on hyperbole. All week, this city of 503 square miles has felt like the world’s largest open-air funeral parlor, its citizens deep in mourning, profoundly grieving nine of their own who’d died in a helicopter crash last Sunday.
Only one of them was famous, but Kobe Bryant’s reach and his personality were so great that every conversation, every talk-radio bit, almost every segment of the local news on TV has been about him, and his basketball legacy, and his family, and his daughter, Gianna, who perished alongside him in the hills of Calabasas.
Friday night, 19,068 of them gathered inside Staples Center for something else.
“I look at this as a celebration tonight,” LeBron James said, and the roar that circulated around the arena was enough to make your heart stop. “This is a celebration of the 20 years of the blood, the sweat, the tears and the broken down body, the getting down and getting up, and the determination to be as great as he could be.”
James had written some prepared remarks, but just after listing the names of all nine victims of Sunday’s horror in the hillside, he tossed the notes away.
“I’d be selling y’all short if I read off this,” he said, “so I’m going to speak straight from the heart.”
And that was truly what the people had come here for, to open their hears, to help repair them, to be amid and among each other. Outside, as they tried to slither their way in through the doors a couple of hours earlier, they’d waved their tickets above their heads like kids waving golden tickets hoping to get into Willy Wonka’s factory.
At last, there was joy in their eyes. They had ached for this night all week, ever since the impossible news reached them. And joy there would be. At 7:04 p.m. came the first chats of “KOBE! KOBE!’ followed by equally fervent choruses of “MVP! MVP!”
When the lights went down, rendering the arena pitch black, thousands of fans responded by clicking on their cellphone flashlights. In an eerie second, Staples Center on this night channeled the Los Angeles Coliseum on May 7, 1959, when 93,103 people gathered at that old stadium 3 ½ miles south of here on Figueroa Street, lit 93,103 cigarette lighters, and saluted another fallen hero named Roy Campanella.
Surely they could have sold 93,103 tickets for Friday night’s cathartic basketball game, and whenever they hold a public memorial for Kobe, they’ll probably keep that in mind when they decide on a proper setting.
Here, there were 19,068 of them who simply tried to sound like 93,103. There were two seats set aside courtside, both with bouquets of roses, one with a yellow No. 24 Lakers jersey, the other with a black No. 2 Mamba Sports Academy jersey.
Father and daughter were similarly acknowledged by 24.2 seconds of silence. And once the game began, the teams engaged in the tribute that most of the NBA had already engaged in: the Lakers took the opening tip and took a self-imposed 24-second shot clock violation. Then Portland’s Damon Lillard held the ball and whipped it around his waist until he was called for an 8-second half-court penalty.
This was about more than symbolism, though. This was a real, and a palpable, cleansing, after a week of civic sadness that is hard to fathom unless you talked to the people all week. Heading into Staples Friday night was Salvatore Leo, who said, “I know people wonder how we can love a celebrity, and be torn apart the way we were. I get that. But Kobe was one of the best who ever played the game. He belonged to the world. But also to us. Always to us.”
After Usher sang “Amazing Grace,” a cellist named Ben Hong played a long version of “Hallelujah,” and on the screen overhead Kobe Bryant appeared as he ever had, smiling, confident, full of life, full of ideas, full of the future.
“Once upon a time there was a young basketball player who had dreams of being the best basketball player of all time,” Bryant said, and the roar made your eardrums bounce. “Anything outside of that lane, I didn’t have time for. But now, all I want is to be a great husband, a great father, and a goofball to my kids.”
James said: “The last three years, he became the best father you ever saw.”
And then said: “In the words of Kobe: ‘Mamba Out.’ But in the words of us: Not forgotten. Live long, brother.”
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