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Column: How Staples Center officials hustled to put on Kobe Bryant’s memorial

Kobe & Gianna Bryant Celebration of Life
Vanessa Bryant speaks at the Kobe and Gianna Bryant public memorial Monday at Staples Center.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

As the president of Staples Center, Microsoft Theater and L.A. Live, Lee Zeidman was at Staples Center preparing for the Grammy Awards when he found out Kobe Bryant, his 13-year old daughter, Gianna, and seven others were killed in a helicopter crash.

“Shortly after the tragedy we started to hear rumors about a funeral, memorial or celebration of life,” Zeidman said. “As a venue, we had done all three but there was speculation that Staples Center might be too small to hold the event and maybe it would be held at the Coliseum, Rose Bowl, Dodger Stadium or Banc of California Stadium.”

In 2009, Staples Center had held Michael Jackson’s memorial 12 days after his passing and last year held Nipsey Hussle’s memorial 11 days after the rapper was shot and killed. Zeidman didn’t know when Bryant’s memorial would be but he knew there was no place more fitting than Staples Center.

In a two-hour event filled with basketball royalty, entertainment icons, and 35,000 roses, it was the simple words of Vanessa Bryant that captured the moment.
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“I told the Lakers that whatever you and the Bryant family choose to do, we will be willing to assist but as it relates to the venue, we believe Staples Center is the best venue,” he said. “Kobe spent 20 years playing for the Lakers and 17 of those years were at Staples Center. Two of his jerseys are retired in the rafters at Staples Center and five of his championship banners are up here as well. In our mind, Kobe was instrumental in building Staples Center and putting it on the map.”

On Jan. 29, representatives of the Bryant family reached out to Zeidman to see if the memorial could be held at Staples Center on Feb. 24.

“Obviously that date — 2-24-20 — is very significant in Vanessa’s life as 2 was Gianna’s number, 24 was Kobe’s number and 20 was the number of years Kobe played for the Lakers,” Zeidman said. “I said we could do an event of that magnitude and nature here on that day but it would have to be in the morning or early afternoon due to the fact that the Clippers had a game scheduled against the Memphis Grizzlies. While we could turn over the arena quickly, we needed to secure permission from the Clippers first.”

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Zeidman contacted Gillian Zucker, president of business operations for the Clippers, and told her about the proposed memorial.

“I told her we would do the event from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and we could turn over the building to you no later than 3:30 p.m.,” Zeidman said. “She said, ‘Absolutely. We want to help out.’ She got back to me later that day with the official approval and I reached back to the representatives of the Bryant family and said we are good to go on 2-24 if that is what you want to do.”

Zeidman recommended a center stage for the event to “maximize more seats and it would help us do a quicker turnaround with the conversion to the Clippers game that night.” The stage was set up after the Kings played the Edmonton Oilers on Sunday night and was ready Monday morning for rehearsals before the doors opened at 8:30 a.m. There was no time to rehearse there before Monday because Staples Center hosted doubleheaders Saturday and Sunday and games on Thursday and Friday.

The Lakers and AEG worked with Ken Ehrlich Productions to put on Bryant’s “Celebration of Life.” Ehrlich has produced the Grammy Awards since 1980. He was the one who delivered the news to Alicia Keys after dress rehearsal and changed the opening to honor Bryant. Ehrlich assisted in contacting and staging the musical performances by Beyoncé, Keys and Christina Aguilera.

Michael Jordan was tearful while eulogizing Kobe Bryant, who at one time aggravated him with all his questions. Then Jordan realized Bryant’s passion.

“It was a fluid event as it related to the performers,” Zeidman said. “We made the connection with Ken Ehrlich Productions and we felt Ken would be a great conduit to reach out to some of the artists Vanessa was interested in.”

Vanessa Bryant worked closely with the Lakers on planning every facet of the event from handpicking the personal photos in the program, selecting the speakers and the musical performers and the order each would go on. She also worked with the team on the ticket prices, with proceeds from ticket sales going to Mamba and Mambacita Sports Foundation. The plan initially was to have a 24-foot-by-24-foot stage surrounded by 33,643 red roses, one for every point Bryant scored during his Lakers career, but the circular stage ended up being slightly larger to accommodate the musical performers and there were more roses than originally planned.

“The florist told me Monday morning that there were over 35,000 roses on stage,” Zeidman said. “Afterward the bulk of the roses were saved and added to the tens of thousands of flowers we saved from the makeshift memorial at L.A. Live and we’re going to add them to the composting and mulch that will be spread around the landscaping at LA Live and Staples Center.”

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Tears streamed down Jennifer Lopez’s face as Vanessa Bryant spoke at Monday’s memorial for Kobe Bryant. Lopez was one of many celebs spotted in the crowd.

The “Celebration of Life” started at 10:30 a.m. and ended at 12:30 p.m. and the conversion to the Clippers game started immediately after guests cleared the floor. It was ready at 2:45 p.m. for the 7:45 p.m. Clippers-Grizzlies game.

“It was eerie being on the floor for the Clippers game that night,” Zeidman said. “I looked around and just eight hours prior Vanessa Bryant was addressing the world on what it meant to lose Kobe and Gianna. There were a lot of options that the Lakers and the Bryant family had for the venue but we were honored and humbled Vanessa and the Lakers chose Staples Center.”


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