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24 grieving fans talk about losing their hero: ‘This is a Kobe town’

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Fans gather at Las Virgenes Road and Willow Glen Street in Calabasas, near the site of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, daughter Gianna and seven others.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles is a city in mourning.

Makeshift memorials continue to pop up, from Thousand Oaks to Newport Beach.

Fans converged on Staples Center, the Lakers training center in El Segundo, on Melrose Avenue and in Calabasas, where Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven others were killed in a helicopter crash Sunday.

Bryant’s jersey number — 24 — already had special meaning, commemorating his 20 seasons with the Lakers. Many teams now say no one else will ever wear that number.

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Here is what 24 Angelenos had to say about No. 24:

Kyle Robinson, 28

“It made me sick, absolutely sick,” said Robinson, a lifelong Lakers fan.

“Initially, you’re like, ‘It’s not true,’ ” he said. “Now that it’s real, it sucks. He was a legend in this city. He taught us that, with hard work, you can be the best at anything. All those videos showing him in the gym, late nights, it was empowering, it was inspiring.”

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Ryan Apfel, USC student

“I was at my apartment by myself, and I broke down crying. I looked for my Kobe jersey and said, ‘I have to go down there. I’m too restless. I have to pay my respects.’

“Growing up in L.A., it’s such a big, diverse, spread-out city,” said Apfel, who lives in Redondo Beach and played high school basketball. “One of the things that I realized growing up here that brought us together was the Lakers and Kobe. I think part of that was because of the way he approached the game. I think a lot of people grew up with Kobe as their mentor from afar. It’s not just about basketball. It’s been about how you approach life in general. A lot of people from L.A. take that to heart. Even after he retired, this is a Kobe town.”

Herman Pech, 26

Growing up, Pech said he wanted to be as tall as Bryant but stopped an inch short at 6-foot-5. He used to shoot 100 baskets a day at his house, hoping to play like Bryant, who he said distinguished himself with his work ethic.

“Nowadays, there’s load management and players sitting out” games, the Baldwin Park resident noted, whereas Bryant went out and played with a fractured hand.

Shon Benjamin

“It don’t seem real,” Benjamin said. “That’s our Michael Jordan. There’s many memories of him in my living room and his jersey on my body. He was the hero of L.A.

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“Michael Jordan made it a business. Kobe made it a passion,” the Inglewood resident said.

Benjamin said his 21-year-old son was at home “in tears, in a puddle.”

Giancarlos Malave, 19

Malave said his friend texted him about the crash on Sunday. His heart pounded, and he told himself it couldn’t be true.

The timing felt surreal, Malave said. He was born in Glendale but moved to Kentucky as a baby, and this was his first trip back to Southern California since he had moved.

“I have to show homage,” he said, pointing at the jersey he’d borrowed from his sister. “To mourn, to represent.”

Sam Krutonog, 19

“I started crying. This is a day I’ll never forget. ... It’s bigger than basketball,” said Krutonog, of Studio City. “I called my grandpa. My grandpa is 82 and just had two heart attacks, and he was crying on the phone. It’s just so terrible.

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“I just remember, if Kobe was on the TV, I’m turning the TV on, no matter what.”

Hugo Flores, 29

Flores recalls his friends talking about how Bryant reminds them of their immigrant parents.

“They had multiple jobs and worked like crazy, but they never made excuses,” the Anaheim resident said. “That was Kobe. He’d play with broken fingers and torn ligaments and would never say a thing. He set that example, and so we had to do the same.

“We see that mentality in our culture — eres el más chingón [you’re the biggest badass],” Flores added. “That was Kobe every night, every day.”

Irvin Guillermo

“Kobe has done so much for our city, our community and our county. He did so many things more than play great basketball,” the Northridge resident said.

“I would have never thought of something like this happening. This guy won an Oscar. He had so much more to offer.”

Laker Kyle Kuzma

“Damn, I’ve been messed up all day….” Kuzma wrote on Instagram. “I grew up trying to be like you. I would watch YouTube highlights as a kid trying to mimic you (and I still do). I would go to the gym as a kid and shoot fade-aways for hours acting as if every shot I took was at the buzzer just like you. Then 3 years ago I became a Laker. You became family & a mentor to me.”

Josh Leith

After hearing the news in the morning, the resident of Newport Beach — where Bryant had a home — said he walked over to a poster hanging in his house. It’s one of Bryant, emblazoned with the word “invincible.”

“I thought about it for a second and I thought, well, he is invincible because of what he did for us by his drive and his motivation and his inspiration and who he was as a person,” Leith said.

Juliana Bañuelos

“Kobe was like a brother or a cousin, someone that you would invite to a family get-together,” the Orange resident said. “You didn’t even have to like basketball, and you still liked that he respected and loved Mexican culture.”

Leslie Agan, 38

Agan keeps in her safe a carry-out tray signed “Kobe 8” that he autographed for her in 2000 when she was a cashier at the AMC 30 theater in Orange.

“I saw him just about every weekend at my first job, and he was always extremely kind and considerate,” she said. “The death of Kobe Bryant feels exactly like losing a childhood friend. There will never be another.”

Alex Kim, 47

“He’s one of these athletes that transcend race and nationality — I’ve been following him since he graduated from high school and went straight to the NBA,” Kim said. “The fact that the team participated in outreach to our community only made them more popular. It showed that they and the business decision-makers really support fans from all cultures.”

Kim said multiple friends texted him news of the crash, which sent him rushing to social media. “This is like the day Michael Jackson, the king of pop, was all of a sudden gone, since [Bryant] is the king of basketball. Man, just wow, just shocked.”

Steve Alford, 57

Alford recalled running into Bryant at a local Starbucks in Newport Beach.

“He wasn’t anybody special in his mind when he was walking in the store, and it was just really, really refreshing,” said Alford, who is not the former UCLA men’s basketball coach with the same name. “And I think he felt very comfortable here in Newport Coast, and everybody treated him with respect.”

Jill Yank

The Newport Beach woman’s 23-year-old son is also named Kobe — a coincidence as he was born before Bryant achieved fame.

Once, her Kobe was at Starbucks at the same time as Bryant, and they both went to the pickup counter when their name was called. This delighted Kobe Yank-Jacobs, and afterward when he visited the coffee shop he hoped to re-create the comical moment.

Another time, Bryant helped carry Yank’s mother’s groceries to their car. For 15 minutes, they talked about their shared hometown of Philadelphia.

“We all know him as just Kobe, a person,” Yank said.

Daryl Vaskerville

At a memorial on Melrose Avenue, there was a bouquet of flowers, black-and-gold Nike shoes and a gathering of people wearing Bryant jerseys and growing emotional. Vaskerville added a single red rose and three candles.

“He described in depth what it meant to be a champion,” said the Los Angeles resident.

Richard Bettencourt, 41, and his daughter, Jazmyn Bettencourt, 15

“The rock just dropped on everybody,” Bettencourt said. “Then, when you thought that was bad, as a father hearing that his daughter was on the helicopter as well, it brings it closer to home than you think.”

“He was a good guy who did what he could for the people,” his daughter Jazmyn said. “Knowing that there was someone like him who did a lot of stuff for others, when there’s other people who have enough but won’t do anything, it’s nice to see that.”

Filmmaker Ava DuVernay

“I remember Kobe bringing his daughters to the “Wrinkle in Time” premiere and talking about its meaning for him as a father. He loved his girls so. L.A. weeps today, as do fans around the world. Goodbye, Kobe and Gianna. Our memories of you will live on and on.”

Wendy Walker, 40

Walker grew up following Bryant.

“I was part of the era when he started playing. There at a lot of memories watching him on television celebrating at the parades,” she said.

“I didn’t think you could feel that sad about someone you never met.”

She was in church when a friend texted that Bryant had died, and she thought it was “fake news.”

Now, she is devastated.

Al Beck, 75

Beck, of Redondo Beach, was watching golf Sunday morning and switched channels to check for the latest on President Trump’s impeachment trial when he saw news of Bryant’s death.

The retired FedEx worker often stands at the corner of Grant Avenue and Aviation Boulevard, exercising his freedom of speech by holding up political signs. After hearing news of Bryant’s death, he covered up his political sign with a Kobe sign and rushed to his usual corner.

Beck, who like Bryant is originally from Philadelphia, initially didn’t like watching the young basketball phenom play, thinking he was a ball hog.

It took him a few years to realize that was part of Bryant’s brilliance on the court.

“Fly, Kobe, fly,” he said, wiping his eyes.

Giselle Mejia, 33

Mejia placed her hand over her mouth, her face flushed and eyes teary. She was thinking of Bryant’s family. They had lost a father and a sister. “That hits home — I have a daughter,” the L.A. resident said.

Mejia was having breakfast with her friend, Marcela Vasquez, 33, when she noticed a series of missed calls. There were messages: Are you OK?

Her sister called. She picked up and learned what the rest of the world already knew: Bryant had died in a helicopter crash, and one of his daughters was on board.

“I was shocked,” Mejia said. “I still don’t know how to react.”

Jesse Hiram

The news left the Santa Ana resident devastated.

“Kobe represented the Southland and brought such positivity to us,” he said.

Hiram said he worked for a couple of months as a security guard at Bryant’s gated community in Newport Coast in 2007.

“He’d see we were sad or bored, so Kobe would usually bring us Jack-in-the-Box tacos, or leave us big tips. He was just so nice.”

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti

“Kobe Bryant was a giant who inspired, amazed and thrilled people everywhere with his incomparable skill on the court — and awed us with his intellect and humility as a father, husband, creative genius and ambassador for the game he loved. He will live forever in the heart of Los Angeles and will be remembered through the ages as one of our greatest heroes. This is a moment that leaves us struggling to find words that express the magnitude of shock and sorrow we are all feeling right now, and I am keeping Kobe’s entire family in my prayers at this time of unimaginable grief.”


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