Inside Poignant Kobe Bryant Memorial: He "Showed Us How to Never Settle, No Matter the Challenge"

A packed Staples Center cheered, cried and laughed throughout the two-and-a-half-hour Celebration of Life honoring the late NBA legend.

At one point during the public memorial service Monday for Kobe and Gianna Bryant and the seven others who died Jan. 26 in a tragic helicopter accident, fellow basketball legend — and Bryant “big brother” — Michael Jordan tearfully noted, “When Kobe died, a piece of me died. And a piece of you died...or you wouldn’t be here.”

Indeed, a packed Staples Center cheered, cried and laughed throughout the two-and-a-half-hour Celebration of Life that for most of the 20,000 inside still seemed too surreal to be happening. A 20-year season-ticket holder shared with Billboard that she’s “still way emotional but trying to hold it together” nearly a month after the tragedy. “But it’s been fabulous watching the Lakers all this time, especially watching Kobe develop and become a great leader, husband, father and coach.”

Another fan had flown in from Atlanta to accompany his aunt who had won a coveted pair of tickets in the lottery. “The way Kobe played basketball and approached everything with an unlimited drive...he never quit,” said the 31-year-old fan. “And I’ve been applying that to my life.”

Fans began lining up outside Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles as early as 6 a.m. PT. Signs placed along the walkways on behalf of the Lakers, the venue and L.A. Live asked attendees to refrain from bringing flowers and other memorabilia and instead make donations to Bryant’s Mamba and Mambacita Sports Foundation. By 8 a.m. (when the doors were set to open), Chick Hearn Court at the front of the venue had morphed into a literal sea of yellow and purple on fans both young, seasoned and in-between: Bryant's No. 8 and No. 24 jerseys, Lakers hoodies, jackets and caps, among other paraphernalia. And while the Staples doors didn’t officially open until nearly 8:35 a.m., the crowd kept its cool, even when former NBA player and ESPN analyst Paul Pierce and retired NFL quarterback Mark Sanchez were seen on the concourse as queues of fans steadily inched their way inside.

Once inside, after ticket bar codes were processed through everyone’s cellphones, each attendee was given a black T-shirt emblazoned with three color photos of Bryant and Gianna, a 26-page 5-by-7 booklet brimming with photos of Bryant on and off the court and with his wife and daughters — but no order of service. A physical version of the hard-sought memorial ticket was also enclosed, sporting photos of Bryant and Gianna with Psalm 23 printed on the back and a memorable seat location on the front: Sec. 8, Row 24, Seat 2. The final piece of memorabilia was a circular black pin with the initials K and B positioned in the center, outlined in gold.

One attendee said she’d heard a rumor that President Obama might be in the house that Bryant built when the service convened. And while that didn’t happen, there was an audible gasp when Beyoncé was announced and stepped forward to powerfully deliver “one of Kobe’s favorite songs,” “XO,” in a medley that also featured the fitting “Halo.”

During the wait time until the service began at 10:05 a.m., attendees were treated to songs by Stevie Wonder (“Ribbon in the Sky”), The Beatles (“Yesterday”), John Lennon (“Imagine”), Brockhampton (“Sugar”) and Migos (“Stir Fry”). But while some fans may no doubt have been expecting at least one rapper to perform (LL Cool J and Kanye West were among the celebrities spotted inside), that didn’t happen. 

The service’s two additional performances were given by two women: Alicia Keys (Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”) and Christina Aguilera (“Ave Maria”). As with Beyoncé, the massive Staples Center was so quiet that you could hear the proverbial pin drop. Attendees were particularly moved by the Beethoven piece, as Bryant’s longtime friend/agent and Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka had earlier recalled the time when Bryant declared he was going to teach himself to play the Beethoven movement in a week so he could surprise the love of his life, wife Vanessa. In fact, one of the memorial’s most poignant moments — among many — was captured on the scoreboard’s video screen as Beyoncé, sitting behind Vanessa, squeezed the latter’s arm to give the teary widow encouraging support as Keys began playing the first notes of the piece.

While the performances elicited rousing standing ovations, and more insight about the man behind the hoops star — so did the guest speakers. In addition to Jordan, there were? Shaquille O’Neal (who likened the competitive rivalry/disagreements between him and Bryant to the creative differences between The Beatles’ Paul McCartney and John Lennon) and memorial host/friend Jimmy Kimmel. But by far the most resounding welcome was given to Vanessa herself as the audience was both surprised and touched by her brave decision to speak.

A lot of audible sniffing could be heard as Vanessa recalled unforgettable memories about her “soul mate” and “MVP of girl dads” Kobe and “baby girl” Gianna, like the pair’s “special talent” for being able to listen to a song only a couple of times before knowing it by heart. “God knew they couldn’t be on this earth without each other,” she ended. “He had to bring them home to have them together.”

Among other poignant moments: Oregon Ducks basketball star Sabrina Ionescu noting that she still texts Bryant and that Gianna was “a sun just starting to rise”; Phoenix Mercury’s Diana Taurasi, whom Bryant nicknamed "the white Mamba," giving her own moving tribute as high in the background cameras caught the backlit silhouettes of Bryant’s retired 8 and 24 jerseys. Also spotted in the audience were a host of NBA players past and present as well as other special guests such as Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and wife Cookie Johnson, Scottie Pippen, Russell Westbrook, Snoop Dogg, Steph Curry, Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union, Kim Kardashian, Lakers executive Jerry West and former coach Phil Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.

Filing out to the apropos Nat King Cole classic “Unforgettable,” attendees were overheard talking about how sad and moving — but also joyous — the memorial service had been. “Kobe was more than just a basketball player,” noted a 24-year-old male fan before exiting Staples Center. “He was a once-in-a-generation talent as well as a leader who showed us how to never settle no matter the challenge that stands in front of you. RIP Kobe.”

This story was originally published by Billboard