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Kobe Bryant fans keep his memory alive one year after his death

Nestor Magana lays flowers in front of a Kobe Bryant mural in downtown L.A. on the one-year anniversary of Bryant's death.
Nestor Magana lays flowers in front of a Kobe Bryant mural in downtown Los Angeles on the one-year anniversary of Bryant’s death.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

It was still dark when Jesus Martinez arrived at Staples Center on Tuesday morning. The 23-year-old placed a wreath of purple, white and yellow flowers in front near the statues of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson. It could be where Kobe Bryant’s statue stands one day.

One year after a helicopter crash killed the former Lakers star, his daughter Gianna and seven others, fans honored Bryant on Tuesday while reflecting on the five-time NBA champion’s legacy.

“It was hard to believe that a year has passed already; it feels like almost yesterday honestly, because of the pandemic,” Martinez said by phone Tuesday. “A lot of emotions. I grew up idolizing Kobe. I basically use his model for my work and personal life.”

A Los Angeles native, Martinez was in awe of Bryant at an early age. His father, a Michael Jordan fan, told Martinez that Bryant moved like Jordan but had even more competitive fire. Martinez bought a portable radio from the 99-Cents Only store in 2009 to listen to the Lakers games while he sold flowers on the street during the team’s championship run.

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“I started getting older, I started understanding the significance of how Kobe’s mentality worked,” Martinez said. “Working on your craft, being the best you can, and just giving your all in everything you do in life. … Kobe wasn’t just basketball.”

Bryant’s work ethic is one of the reasons Martinez wakes up at 4 every morning to run. He continued the tradition Tuesday, running through the 39-degree cold, but he didn’t get up early on Jan. 26, 2020. It was foggy that morning. Martinez didn’t feel motivated to work out. He still traveled from Eagle Rock to the Calabasas area to hike. He noticed a plume of black smoke in the distance.

Josie Alavarez does the sign of the cross before releasing balloons on the one-year anniversary of Kobe Bryant's death.
Josie Alavarez does the sign of the cross before releasing balloons on the one-year anniversary of Kobe Bryant’s death in downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
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“I’ve never been sad like that when I connected the dots,” Martinez said. “Just immense sadness.”

Martinez was one of the thousands of fans who visited Staples Center last year to honor Bryant in an impromptu memorial after his death. Unlike then, when hundreds of items fans left grew to fill the sidewalk, most items left at the arena Tuesday were promptly removed. There was a single bouquet of flowers wrapped in purple paper stuck in the fence around noon. A smattering of fans lingered around the fenced-off arena wearing Bryant jerseys or T-shirts. Johnny Anderson, a Riverside native, set up an elaborate memorial outside Staples Center, honoring Bryant and his daughter

“We miss you Kobe [and] GiGi,” the sign read with two hearts between their names. The large sign was surrounded by cutouts of Kobe and Gianna with angel wings, their jerseys and messages saying “Always in our Hearts,” and “Those we love don’t go away. They walk beside us every day.”

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Tributes extended outside of Los Angeles, showing the basketball star’s far-reaching influence. Olivia Beyer, from New Jersey, started a charity campaign to honor Bryant and Gianna with money going to the family’s Mamba and Mambacita Sports Foundation.

The 24-year-old, who swore her allegiance to the Lakers 20 years ago after winning a video game while playing as Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, hopes to use a video game stream to raise $2,824, an amount selected for its combination of Gianna’s No. 2 jersey and Bryant’s No. 8 and No. 24. She will stream weekly from Tuesday to Aug. 24, Kobe Bryant Day, encouraging viewers to donate through her Charity GoFundMe page or directly through the foundation’s website.

“Kobe is my favorite athlete of all time,” Beyer said by phone. “I just love his mentality and he’s brought me so many great memories.”

Beyer often attended Lakers games when the team made an East Coast trip. She also attended the 2019 WNBA All-Star game in Las Vegas, where Bryant and Gianna were less than 100 feet away from her.

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“Six months later, the whole world changes,” Beyer said. “It still doesn’t feel real.”

A woman cries in front of a Kobe Bryant mural outside Staples Center.
A woman cries in front of a Kobe Bryant mural outside Staples Center on Tuesday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

One year after Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash, sports figures, celebrities and fans took to social media to remember the Lakers icon.

Hearing the news of Bryant’s death was stunning, Beyer said, but hearing that Gianna was also a victim shattered her. Beyer was looking forward to watching Gianna change the WNBA like her father changed the NBA. She hopes her campaign to help the foundation, whose mission is to create “positive impact for underserved athletes and young women in sports,” can help lead to the growth Bryant and Gianna hoped to achieve.

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“The women’s game is growing,” Beyer said. “I hope that people who donate will go and read about the foundation and they’ll see women’s sports in a new light.”


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