By Rory Carroll
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – 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. “Please rest in peace, little brother.”
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.
Fans gathered outside the arena hours before the ceremony started, many of them clad in Lakers purple and gold.
“I have been a Kobe fan for a long, long time. It is so sad, especially with the children. But it has really brought the city together,” said Bubacar Drammeh, who stood outside the venue and planned to watch the memorial on TV.
Inside the Staples Center, the mood was somber. Concession stands were closed and cell phone use discouraged. Attendees were not allowed in if they arrived late.
The proceedings attracted A-list Hollywood stars, including Jennifer Lopez, Queen Latifah and Spike Lee. Grammy award-winning musician Alicia Keys performed the “Moonlight Sonata.”
Late-night television host Jimmy Kimmel cried as he read out the names of the deceased and expressed the shock felt by loyal fans of the self-proclaimed “Black Mamba,” who dazzled the Los Angeles community well beyond his time on the court, even winning an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film in 2018.
“This is a sad day, but it is also a celebration of life, of their lives,” said Kimmel, who had Bryant on his show many times.
After his 20-year playing career, the Lakers retired both jersey numbers Bryant wore for the team – 8 and 24 – which hang from the arena’s rafters along with the numbers of other Lakers’ greats, including Johnson and O’Neal.
During the annual NBA All-Star weekend three weeks after the crash, the league said it would name its All-Star Game Most Valuable Player honor for Bryant.
Since his death, tributes to Bryant have appeared across the Los Angeles area, with his numbers displayed on the Santa Monica Pier Ferris wheel, city buses bearing “RIP Kobe” signs and purple and gold lights added to the pylons at LAX airport.
“In the game of basketball, in life, as a parent, Kobe left nothing in the tank,” said Jordan, articulating one of the reasons Bryant’s stardom transcended sports. “He left it all on the floor.”
(Reporting By Rory Carroll; additional reporting by Frank Pingue; writing by Amy Tennery; Editing by Frank McGurty and Bill Berkrot)