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Kobe Bryant fans and Grammy attendees mourn together at Staples Center

Fans gather at a makeshift memorial to Kobe Bryant outside Staples Center
Fans gather around a makeshift memorial outside Staples Center to mourn the death of Kobe Bryant on Sunday.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

They arrived in glitzy gold gowns and tailored tuxedos, silk suits and cheetah-patterned stilettos that would pop on the red carpet.

But they were outnumbered by fans dressed in purple and yellow and white jerseys with the numbers 8 and 24 across their chests and his name — BRYANT — emblazoned across their backs.

As the sun set Sunday, a surreal scene unfolded outside Staples Center, where celebrities who had gathered for the 62nd Grammy Awards mourned alongside devastated fans who flocked to the arena where Lakers legend Kobe Bryant — who died in a helicopter crash Sunday morning — has two jerseys hanging from the rafters.

During a dress rehearsal for the Grammys, people had started to whisper and check their phones. Did you see the news, they asked one another. It’s Kobe. TMZ is saying he’s dead.

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Ariana Grande was finishing a practice run of her lavish performance and Billie Eilish was getting ready to perform an acoustic song with her brother as a deep sadness settled over the arena.

Before long, it was certain: Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, along with seven other people had died in the crash in Calabasas when their helicopter went down in heavy fog.

Crews went up into the massive arena’s rafters and rearranged Bryant’s two retired jerseys — No. 8 and No. 24 — putting them side by side and illuminating them with a floodlight. Reporters dressed in sequined gowns, who had come to Staples to cover the Grammys, rushed outside to interview fans, who were crying, clapping and chanting.

“Thank you, Kobe!”

“We love you, Kobe!”

“MVP!”

Before long, an elaborate memorial had spread across the concrete around Staples: Purple candles and a worn basketball. A pair of yellow sneakers and a poster board with Bryant’s picture and a pair of angel wings. A bouquet of white and purple daisies with a ribbon reading “KOBE WE LOVE YOU R.I.P.” A poster with a child’s handwriting in Sharpie.

“I will miss u FOREVER,” it read.

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“Mamba Lives 24 Forever,” another sign said, using Bryant’s nickname.

Across from Staples Center at L.A. Live, a photo of Bryant beamed down from a Jumbotron screen and fans sobbed as they looked up at the message: “In Loving Memory of Kobe Bryant 1978-2020.” A family of five ate in silence as two boys stared at a phone, watching old highlights of Bryant on the court.

Monty Brianton, 54, glanced at the growing memorial and wiped tears from his eyes. He was headed into work at the Grammy event later, Brianton said, but first he wanted to take a moment to remember Bryant and mourn him.

Moments later, a group of people headed into the Grammys, laughing, cheering and posing for pictures, as if oblivious to the grieving masses.

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One group of fans turned to look at people dressed for the Grammys and started to chant, “Kobe! Kobe! Kobe!” Some wanted to go into the arena, if only to stare up at the jerseys and walk the hardwood floors where Bryant and his teammates had won five NBA championships.

“We deserve to be inside!” a fan yelled.

For many, though, it was enough to just be around other fans.

Herman Pech, 26, said he showed up outside the arena to honor the man he’d worshiped as a child. He dreamed of one day growing as tall as Bryant — at 6 foot 5, he missed by an inch — and he spent hours in the backyard shooting hundreds of baskets. If he had the same stop-at-nothing work ethic, he had told himself, then maybe he could be as good as Bryant.

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“He was first on the court and the last one off,” he said.

When USC student Ryan Apfel heard the news, he was sitting alone in his apartment. He started sobbing and searching frantically for his Bryant jersey. He threw it on and headed downtown.

“I have to go down there,” he thought. “I’m too restless. I have to pay my respects.”

Growing up in L.A., the city felt so big and spread out, Apfel said, but there was one thing that brought everyone together: the Lakers. And above all, he said, it was Bryant. He was like a mentor from afar for a whole city.

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“It’s not just about basketball,” he said. “This is a Kobe town.”

And many of the celebrities arriving for the event Sunday evening felt the same way.

“Downtown right now,” Chrissy Teigen tweeted, “and nothing feels more unimportant than what we are doing today. This is absolutely terrible. Everyone is numb.”

On the red carpet, reporters often prefaced their questions by offering artists a quick congratulations on their nomination but then pivoted to another question: Did you know Bryant?

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When the Grammys began, Lizzo, who was nominated for eight awards, proclaimed that the show was for Bryant.

“This whole week,” she told the crowd, “I’ve been lost in my problems, stressed out, and then in an instant, all of that can go away and your priorities really shift.”

Host Alicia Keys also offered a somber tribute.

“We’re literally standing here, heartbroken, in the house that Kobe Bryant built,” Keys said. “Right now, Kobe and his daughter Gianna and all of those that have been tragically lost today are in our spirit, and our hearts and our prayers.”

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Then, as Keys and Boyz II Men sang a tribute to Bryant, the spotlight shifted inside the arena until it stopped in the rafters.

His two jerseys, side by side.

Times staff writers Steve Saldivar and Jack Harris contributed to this report.


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