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Fans gather at Staples Center for final day of memorials for Lakers legend Kobe Bryant

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Fans gather at a memorial for Kobe Bryant in front of Staples Center on Sunday.
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

They came to share a moment together.

Family. Friends. Fans.

A week after Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others were killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, thousands once again swarmed the streets around Staples Center on Sunday to pay their respects to the legendary Laker.

They scrawled messages of love on large display panels, sidewalks and banners. Bouquets and votive candles decorated the plaza in front of the arena. Someone set up a boombox and played “To Live and Die in L.A.”

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Sunday was the last day for people to leave behind jerseys, flowers and artwork at one of several makeshift memorials that sprang up around the sports arena, where Bryant made sports history by helping the Lakers win five NBA championships.

Officials said they would begin dismantling the displays after Sunday’s Super Bowl. The city is planning an official memorial event at a later date. Bryant’s wife, Vanessa, will be given some of the items left behind by fans, while perishables will be composted and spread around the Staples Center complex.

“That made us want to come even more,” said Linda Mazariegos, 33, who made the hour-and-a-half trek from Victorville with her mother and left behind a collage of photographs.

The atmosphere Sunday was equal parts memorial, festival and swap meet. Vendors crowded the sidewalks, selling T-shirts, balloons, elote, churros and hot dogs that one enterprising salesman touted as “Kobe dogs.”

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Metro buses beeped as they drove by, their LED displays flashing “RIP Kobe.” Outside the arena, a line of fans waited to photograph themselves in front of a set of Lakers nesting dolls that Jerry Montero bought at a swap meet.

“I brought these down here for everybody to love,” said Montero, 53, of Lakewood.

Montero headed to Staples Center last Sunday, as soon as he heard news of Bryant’s death. He wanted to catch one more glimpse of the memorials before they were removed.

Like many of those in attendance, he saw Bryant as an inspiration.

“He encouraged us to believe in ourselves, too,” Montero said. “That’s what made me love him so much.”

Giovanna Castro, 30, said that when she was hospitalized with lupus, her brother would continually ask her what he could bring to make her happy.

“I would be like, ‘Bring me Kobe Bryant,’” Castro said. “And he would just look at me and we would all laugh.”

Watching Bryant play with the Lakers was just about the only thing that could take her mind off her illness, she said.

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“That was always my happiness,” she said. “I could be feeling really sick and watch a game and see Kobe and everything he did, it was just — it would make me happy. And at the time, I was really sick and I needed him right there when I was really bad.”

These days she’s feeling better, but she still draws on Bryant’s example on the court as a source of strength.

“It sucks that this happened and everything but his words, still, it’s there, what he would tell us and everything,” Castro said. “Like whatever you want, you got to go get it. And every day I wake up and I’m like, ‘Let’s do this,’ the same as Kobe.”

Many fans brought their children, pushing them in strollers or boosting them onto their shoulders to get a glimpse at the outpouring of condolences.

They were there to pay tribute not to Bryant the basketball star but to Bryant the father.

“In Hispanic culture, deaths, I think it’s a different point of view because it’s a family matter,” said Andrea Orellana Fernandez, 57, of Orange County. “The culture … you take it more personal. You make them a part of you.”

Delfino Delrio, 51, of Downey took his son to Lakers playoff games during their championship seasons in the early 2000s. He was at the memorial with his grandsons, Jacob, 6, and Jonathan, 8.

“I wanted to express to them what that meant to me, sharing that moment with their dad,” he said. “Now I’m sharing this moment with them. It’s generation to generation.”

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Delrio said he felt as though he watched Bryant grow up, transforming from a young hothead into a mature role model.

“I’ve seen him come a long way,” he said. “I’ve seen him be a jerk. I’ve seen him be the hero, the villain. And then I’ve seen him be a compassionate, loving father.”

That’s the example he wanted to pass on to his grandchildren.

“That’s what I want them to know,” he said. “You don’t have to be a jerk.”

Ruben Montemayor, 45, of Covina and three of his children — Raylene, 3, Rayden, 6, and Roy, 8 — hung a large paper banner that read, “RIP Kobe & Gigi. ... God’s Angels.”

Montemayor said that when his dad retired as an employee with the city of Los Angeles, Bryant personally presented him with a commemorative jersey. His father passed away in 2014 and left the jersey to him.

“We’re just paying our respects,” Montemayor said. He said he believes that Bryant’s family will take solace in the sheer number of people who have come out to do so.

“It seems like it’s busier here than a regular basketball game,” he said.

The displays of mourning were, at times, loud and public.

Every so often, a murmur of “Kobe, Kobe” welled up from the crowd and spread until the entire plaza outside Staples Center was chanting his name.

Ryan Rice, 37, was leading the cheers. He traveled from Stockton with his daughter Adalynn, 5, and her mother, Jennifer Villegas, 38.

“We’re fighters, too, just like the Mamba was,” Rice said.

At the edge of the memorial, he placed a pair of Nike sneakers signed with his family members’ names and inscribed with Bryant’s numbers, 8 and 24, as well as Gianna’s #2 and “forever in our hearts.”

Between sharing hugs and shaking hands with other fans, Rice gestured to the crowd behind him.

“Look at this,” he said. “It’s brought the whole city together. We’re way closer. And all we’re yelling is ‘Kobe’ right now.”


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