A gallery of basketball legends joined thousands of Kobe Bryant fans in Los Angeles on Monday to pay tribute to the transcendent NBA star, his daughter and seven others who died in a helicopter crash last month that shocked the world of sports and beyond.
The “Celebration of Life” memorial at the Staples Center, Bryant’s home arena during most of his storied 20-season career with the Los Angeles Lakers, featured an emotional address by Bryant’s widow Vanessa, who started dating Kobe when she was 17.
She told a rapt audience that included National Basketball Association luminaries and show-business celebrities about the pain of losing her 13-year-old daughter Gianna, “an amazingly sweet and gentle soul,” and the husband she called her “soulmate.”
“He was my everything,” she said of Bryant, who joined the NBA at age 18 straight out of high school, was a five-time champion and fourth-highest scorer in league history with 33,643 points.
“God knew they couldn’t be on this earth without each other,” Vanessa Bryant said, referring to her husband and daughter. “He had to bring them home to heaven together.”
Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and former Bryant teammate Shaquille O’Neal were among the Basketball Hall of Famers who attended the memorial, which opened with a performance by singer Beyonce and a montage of Bryant’s on-court highlights.
“When Kobe Bryant died, a piece of me died,” said Jordan with tears streaming down his face. “And as I look (around) this arena and across the globe, a piece of you died, or else you wouldn’t be here. Those are the memories that we have to live with and we learn from. I promise you from this day forward, I will live with the memories of knowing that little brother that I tried to help in every way I could.
He wanted to be the best basketball player that he could be. And as I got to know him, I wanted to be the best big brother that I could be. Please rest in peace, little brother,” Jordan added.
Bryant, 41, and the others were killed on Jan. 26 in a crash in Calabasas, California, while en route to a youth basketball tournament at which Kobe was planning to coach his daughter and her teammates.
Vanessa Bryant filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the operator of the helicopter. The pilot was one of those killed in the accident.
An avid basketball player herself, Gianna hoped one day to play for the powerhouse collegiate program at the University of Connecticut, and she bonded with her father over their shared love of the game.