Flowers. There were so many flowers.
And candles whose fragrance competed with bouquets that had been lovingly placed in makeshift memorials along 11th Street, outside Staples Center, and in huge mounds across the street at Xbox Plaza at L.A. Live.
There were balloons and jerseys, smiling teddy bears and scuffed basketballs. But the gut punches were delivered by notes that had been written on paper, cardboard, or greeting cards. Prayerful, adoring or sorrowful, they reflected the jumbled emotions fans are experiencing as they come to grips with the Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash in Calabasas on Sunday alongside his daughter Gianna and seven other people who were bonded by basketball.
Luke Walton, for nine years Bryant’s Lakers teammate and now the coach of the Sacramento Kings, was drawn to the scene at 2 a.m. on Thursday, shortly after his team arrived in Los Angeles. He will forever remember the spontaneous chants of “Kobe” he heard and the humble but heartfelt tributes he saw. “You’re looking around and see how many people he touched and the flowers and candles and the messages, hand-written notes,” Walton said. “It was an emotional setting.”
Later on Thursday a respectful crowd walked from shrine to shrine in the pleasant afternoon sunshine. Some people added flowers to a pile or wrote a few words on massive signs placed in the street to collect messages. A few entrepreneurs sold home-made T-shirts and caps with Bryant’s name. There’s profit in tragedy, apparently.
Robert Zaragoza of Commerce, wearing a Bryant T-shirt, Lakers jacket and cap, took in the scene with a somber expression. He and two friends had become deeply connected by the Showtime Lakers and the Bryant Lakers; Bryant was a constant when they were young, as they married, and as they became parents. Losing Bryant was like losing a piece of his younger self.
“We just wanted to come and commemorate the life of someone that we idolized throughout all these years,” Zaragoza said. “One of my friends is a little older than me — he’s 50 and I’m 44 — and we’re texting and he’s like, ‘I’m embarrassed. I never met Kobe but I’m with my family and I’m crying.’ I told him it’s not just that it’s Kobe, it’s the memories that are tied in with Kobe.
“Every Christmas there’s an expectation of us showing up and watching the Lakers, and all those years it was Kobe playing for the Lakers. It was all those memories tied in and all our childhoods and it just kind of like ends the childhood, you know what I’m saying? It puts some reality to it, especially with the loss of his daughter and the other folks. It’s been tough on us.”
Zaragoza wasn’t planning to go to the Clippers’ game Thursday night, the first NBA game at Staples Center since Bryant’s death. He simply felt compelled to pay his respects to a man who seemed to have so much to accomplish and had every gift but the gift of a long life. “He was 41. I’m 44. I feel I still have a lot to do. I haven’t accomplished a lot and I have my own family and I have goals,” Zaragoza said. “It’s definitely tough for everybody. That’s why we’re here.”
They did one important thing right, though. They decided several years ago to cover the Lakers’ championship banners and retired jerseys with huge photos of their own players during their home games, but on Thursday the Clippers left Bryant’s retired No. 8 and No. 24 on display. The gold jerseys glowed against a black background, vibrantly echoing the energy Bryant had brought to Staples Center over the years. Leaving his jerseys visible for the rest of the season, not just one night, is the right and honorable thing to do.
Clipper players wore shooting shirts with Bryant’s 8 or 24 before the game and the club showed a video that featured Bryant’s achievements as well as photos of each crash victim. Those tributes and the 24-second moment of silence were touching, but the standard in-game entertainment was soon turned back up to deafening levels on a night some restraint would have been welcome. Players were still hurting and so were both coaches.
“Everywhere you go you’re reminded, people come up and want to talk about it,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “I’ve been sent more pictures over the last three days, you know really personal pictures with Kobe and I at dinner, Kobe and I at different stuff, so it’s been a tough week for me, tough week for the whole city.”
Walton was asked what message he had delivered to his players about Bryant. He said he told them to make the most out of every day. “He’s 41,” Walton said, then stopped. “He was 41,” Walton said, still not accustomed to talking about Bryant in the past tense.
Being back at Staples Center so soon after Bryant’s death was a jolt and a blessing for Walton, whose unsteady voice betrayed his emotions. “It definitely hits harder, for sure, which in the long run will be therapeutic,” he said. “It will help get through this. But it’s hitting pretty hard right now.”
The pain felt by those who knew him or knew of him will long outlast the flowers and candles. “Kobe is an icon, and we’re going to feel this for months to come,” Clippers forward Montrezl Harrell said. “There’s no right way to get over what happened. Nine people were taken from this world too soon. People’s fathers, icons, legends in the basketball world, and this is what it is. ...We’re never going to be able to get over that and definitely not able to get over it in a couple of days. It’s as simple as that.”
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