The last Saturday of Kobe Bryant’s life came and went like any typical weekend at home for the retired Lakers superstar.
He took one daughter to the mall. Accompanied another to a basketball game. Planned a Sunday morning trip with friends.
And slept with his family at their house in Orange County.
For nearly 20 years, one of the most famous names in sports lived a surprisingly public life in this unlikeliest of places.
He lived in Newport Coast, a gated community with multimillion-dollar views of the Pacific Ocean, in a custom-built 15,760 square-foot, four-story home within its own set of gates. The commute from there to the Lakers facility in El Segundo and home games at the Staples Center was so inconvenient that Bryant famously chartered choppers as often as possible. It’s far from the publishing houses and Hollywood studios Bryant sought to conquer in post-retirement.
It was his safe space.
It was where Bryant transformed from basketball’s enfant terrible, one hounded by accusations of rape and marital discord, into the doting dad. The eternal kid who liked to visit Disneyland. Who had his favorite Mexican restaurant.
It was from Orange County that Bryant took his final flight, before the helicopter carrying him, his daughter Gianna, 13, and seven other people in Bryant’s league orbit crashed in Calabasas, killing all aboard.
The tragedy hit the world hard, but nowhere harder than Newport, where seven of the victims lived.
A community frequently derided as frou-frou and out of touch with the rest of Orange County ached and remembered, in places expected and not.
On social media, Chris Trumpour shared a photo that his wife took of Bryant at a basketball tournament in Seal Beach in September in which the daughters of Bryant and Trumpour played.
“He was just being a typical dad,” the Orange resident said. “Like the rest of us.”
During a candlelight vigil Sunday night at nearby Newport Ridge Community Park, Jill Yank remembered how her 23-year-old son, named Kobe, once went to the pickup counter at the local Starbucks at the same time as the more-famous Kobe. Another time Bryant helped carry Yank’s mother’s groceries to their car, and for 15 minutes they talked about their shared hometown of Philadelphia.
“We all know him as just Kobe, a person,” Yank said.
Mario Nunes hung his Bryant jersey from one of the tables in front of the Pavilions grocery store in the Newport Coast Shopping Center on Monday morning. The 50-year-old said he used to see Bryant at the store every few weeks.
“He was always cool with me,” he said. “He was always friendly. He signed a couple basketballs here and there.”
Nunes whipped out his phone to show some of the pictures he’d taken with Bryant over the years — including one he said was from shortly after the Lakers’ won their last championship in 2010.
“That’s him, the one and only,” exclaimed Michael Young, who was standing nearby.
Young, 40, said he also would see Bryant periodically during the three years he’d worked as a courtesy clerk at the Pavilions. When he heard the news about Bryant’s death, Young said, his first reaction was “‘No way.’ I was crying.”
Even though he was a common sight, both Young and Nunes said the shock of seeing the superstar in the flesh never completely wore off — no matter how many times he came to Pavilions or made a run to the Starbucks in the same shopping complex.
“It’s like he’s still here,” Young said. “His spirit is all around us.”
The coastal communities and southern cities in Orange County have long drawn athletes attracted to large houses and privacy. But many who bought homes here did so after retirement, as an investment, or as a temporary abode while playing for Southern California’s professional sports teams.
Kobe Bryant settled here because of love.
His wife, Vanessa Laine Bryant, was the daughter of a Mexican immigrant who raised her in Anaheim and Garden Grove, older towns far removed in geography and atmosphere from Newport Coast.
Laine began to date Bryant while a junior at Marina High in Huntington Beach, after the two met during the filming of a music video for the shooting guard’s never-released rap album. The relationship proved so distracting to campus life that school officials asked her to spend her senior year home on independent study.
They were married just before she turned 19.
In 2002, Bryant purchased a $4-million home in Newport Coast. The couple went through ups and downs — a rape allegation filed against Bryant in 2003 by a Colorado hotel worker, a 2009 lawsuit by a former maid who alleged workplace abuse at the Bryant household (the case was settled and dismissed), a divorce filing that was eventually dropped — heavily covered by the national media.
But locally, no one seemed to care.
Instead, tales of Kobe’s personal kindness reigned.
On Monday morning, Maria Paun, 81, used her walker to deliver an assortment of pink flowers to the front of Harbor Day School in Corona del Mar, depositing them on a bench. It was years ago, she said, that she sat with Bryant on a bench at the school when he was waiting to pick up one of his daughters. She was waiting for her granddaughter.
“He gave me a hug and he said, ‘I like your accent, Grandma,’” she said. “He was tall, and he was somebody and I’m nobody, but he bent down to give me a hug. And I never forget this hug.”
Paun said it was no accident that she wore a purple sweater Monday morning. She did so because “he liked the color.”
“It’s hard for me, and it’s hard for everyone,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion.
Everyone seemed to have a Bryant story, and knew at least one site that he frequented. There was the AMC 30 theater in Orange. El Camino Real in Fullerton for Mexican food, and Javier’s at the Crystal Cove Promenade for a night out. The private terminal at John Wayne Airport, where Bryant regularly took off.
At the Anteater Recreation Center on the campus of UC Irvine, staff and students were taking the news of Bryant’s passing “pretty hard,” according to Campus recreation director Greg Rothberg. Bryant had trained alongside undergrads for years.
“I think that it just speaks to him thinking of himself as an everyman as [much as] possible,” Rothberg said. “He was happy to more or less hang out with students and experience that life.”
By Monday afternoon, a sweeping collection of tokens from well-wishers spilled across the lawn in front of the gates that lead to Bryant’s neighborhood. Those who visited the makeshift memorial came bearing flowers, candles, balloons, basketball, jerseys — even a bottle of Ancient Age bourbon.
One woman, upon seeing the accumulation, immediately burst into tears.
“It’s surreal,” said Alan Throckmorton, 57, of San Clemente. “It’s just a surreal sadness.”