Vanessa Bryant took the stage in front of about 20,000 people Monday in Staples Center to talk about two loves in her life, her 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and her husband, Kobe, one of the greatest basketball players of all time.
With tears in her eyes, but a steadfast voice, she spoke of him as a fierce competitor on the basketball court. He was the Black Mamba. A Lakers legend. A writer. An Oscar winner. A celebrity.
But to this young widow he was her “Kobe-Kobe, my boo-boo, my bae-boo, my papi chulo,” she said to the stage-side celebrities and everyday fans in seats high above. “I was his Vivi, his principessa, his reina, his Queen Mamba.... I couldn’t see him as a celebrity, nor just an incredible basketball player. He was my sweet husband, and the beautiful father of our children. He was mine.”
For more that two hours, his memory was alive in the arena revered as the “House That Kobe Built.” Vanessa’s eulogy during the nationally televised memorial was her first public address since the deaths last month of her daughter and husband. Gianna and Bryant were among nine people killed when the helicopter they were taking to Bryant’s Mamba Academy in Thousand Oaks for a youth basketball game slammed into a hillside in Calabasas.
In the audience, Jennifer Lopez and Michael Jordan wept. Outside, just beyond the tight security and the barricades surrounding L.A. Live, fans honored Bryant in ways small and big, wearing jerseys with his No. 24, releasing doves, and showing off a custom purple Lamborghini featuring a mural of his face.
On the stage — surrounded by more than 33,000 red roses, one for each point Bryant, 41, scored — speakers painted an intimate portrait of the man as a husband, father, friend and intense competitor. Even the memorial’s date, Feb. 24, or 2-24, was a tribute to Bryant’s and Gianna’s jersey numbers. She wore No. 2, and he wore No. 24 in the latter portion of his 20-year career with the Lakers.
“He wanted to be the best basketball player that he could be,” Michael Jordan said. “And as I got to know him, I wanted to be the best big brother that I could be. To do that, you had to put up with the aggravation, the late-night calls or the dumb questions. I took great pride as I got to know Kobe Bryant that he was just trying to be a better person, a better basketball player.”
Jimmy Kimmel, his voice cracking, asked the crowd to greet each other — something that typically happens at church and at sporting events “when perfect strangers who love the same team are suddenly hugging and high-fiving each other.”
In the stands, they yelled, “Ko-be! Ko-be! Ko-be!”
Wearing a gold suit and backed by a choir dressed in white, Beyoncé sang what she said was one of Kobe’s favorite songs, titled “XO.”
In the darkest night hour / I’ll search through the crowd / Your face is all that I see / I’ll give you everything / Baby, love me lights out.
But it was Vanessa whose words moved many to weep.
She described how she and Kobe dreamed of getting old together, of being “the fun grandparents” to their daughters’ future children. They had planned to renew their wedding vows, and he recently told her in a text that he wanted to spend more time alone together, just husband and wife.
“We never got the chance to do it,” she said.
The Bryants had been together since she was 17, and she described their relationship as “two perfectly imperfect people making a beautiful family.”
She said Kobe, the romantic, gave her the actual notebook and blue dress that actress Rachel McAdams wore in the movie “The Notebook.” He learned how to play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” on the piano for her. He did carpool at his daughters’ school, sang silly songs in the shower and never left the toilet seat up in his house full of ladies.
Kobe and 17-year-old daughter Natalia were movie buffs and he loved taking 3-year-old Bianka to Fashion Island shopping center in Newport Beach to see the koi pond, she said. They had done that the night before his death.
And she was grateful that he had heard infant daughter Capri, who was born in June, say “dada.”
Her daughter Gianna was a “daddy’s girl, but I know she loves her mama,” Vanessa said.
Gianna kissed her mom goodnight and good morning every day, without fail.
“There were a few occasions where I was absolutely tired from being up with Bianca and Capri,” Vanessa said. “And I thought she had left for school without saying goodbye. I would text and say, “No kiss?” And Gianna would reply with, “Mama, I kissed you. You were asleep, and I didn’t want to wake you.’”
The teenager was a budding basketball star, “competitive like her daddy” and “confident but not in an arrogant way.” She told the boys’ basketball coaches at her school that she was willing to give the boys some pointers.
Gianna had an infectious smile, a sarcastic sense of humor. She spoke Mandarin and Spanish. She loved dancing on TikTok videos and had a signature style: white T-shirt, black leggings, denim jacket, white high-top Converse shoes and a flannel shirt tied around her waist.
Vanessa said she knew Kobe and Gianna were together in the afterlife.
“We love and miss you, boo-boo and Gigi,” she said to them. “May you both rest in peace, and have fun in heaven.”
During the memorial, video highlights of Bryant’s career played overhead and his voice resonated from the loudspeakers:
“Those times when you stay up late and you work hard, those times when you don’t feel like working, you’re too tired, you don’t want to push yourself but you do it anyway, that is actually the dream,” he said.
Friends spoke of Bryant’s intensity in the game — and in relationships.
Jordan said Bryant “used to call me, text me, 11:30, 2:30, 3 in the morning” to talk about different moves on the court. At first, it was annoying, but eventually Jordan realized that “this kid had passion that you would never know.”
Tears streamed down his face as he spoke. He joked that he was going to have another “crying meme,” poking fun at the oft-used photo of himself, cheeks glistening, as he was being inducted into basketball’s Hall of Fame.
“That is what Kobe Bryant does to me,” he said of the fresh tears, adding that “he knows how to get to you in a way that affects you personally, even though he’s being a pain in the ass. But you have a sense of love for him in the way that he can bring out the best in you.”
Shaquille O’Neal recalled his complex relationship with his former teammate, comparing it to the Beatles’ John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “whose creative rivalry led to some of the greatest music of all time.”
O’Neal said Bryant gained his respect after their teammates complained that Bryant wasn’t passing the ball. O’Neal said he would talk to him.
“I said, ‘Kobe, there’s no ‘I’ in team,’” O’Neal recalled. “He said, ‘I know, but there’s an ‘M-E’ in that [expletive].”
O’Neal went back to his teammates and said, “Just get the rebound. He’s not passing it.”
The crowd roared with laughter.
Sabrina Ionescu, a star at the University of Oregon, told of how Bryant helped her improve her game, and of how she marveled at Gianna’s skill on the court.
Bryant, she said, kept in touch with her. If she had a triple-double in a game, he texted her. Another triple-double, he’d text again, sending the arm-flexing emoji. Another game, another text: “Yo, Beast Mode!”
She still texts him, even after his death. She says thank you. She says to rest easy.
“The texts go through, but no response,” Ionescu said. “It still feels like he’s there on the other end, that the next time I pick up my phone, he would have hit me back. Sometimes I find myself still waiting.”
More than 80,000 people applied for the lottery for tickets to the memorial, which ranged in price from $24.02 to $224, with proceeds to be donated to the Mamba and Mambacita Sports Foundation. The event sold out quickly.
Many standing outside Staples Center said Bryant’s death felt like the loss of a family member.
“It’s so hard to explain why we are so emotional about someone we never knew personally, but he was a part of our family life,” said Star Dodd of Rancho Palos Verdes.
Ozzie Arnold captured much of the crowd’s attention outside Staples Center as he drove his personalized golf cart with a lift kit and large tires with purple and yellow rims. The cart’s purple base had a Lakers logo and, on the hood, Nos. 32 and 24, the jersey numbers of Magic Johnson and Bryant.
Arnold, 66, said he was devastated the day Bryant died, but he hoped the spectacle would lighten the mood a bit.
“It’s Kobe Day,” he said. “It’s the last day we have to celebrate his life. It’s a sad day, but it’s a happy day.”
Hannah Fry, Gale Holland and Ruben Vives contributed to this report.