LOS ANGELES (AP) — The chants rose in the plaza across from Staples Center. “Kobe!” and “MVP! MVP!” They came from hundreds of fans gathered to mourn the death of Kobe Bryant.
Candles burned alongside hand-lettered messages scrawled on signs and the pavement. Bunches of flowers piled up, some with purple-and-gold balloons attached.
Men, women and children of every ethnicity milled around, drawn to the heart of downtown Los Angeles where they had once celebrated five NBA championships won by Bryant and the Lakers.
This time, they were united in shock and sadness hours after Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others were killed in a helicopter crash northwest of the city on Sunday.
Like many Angelenos, Bryant was a transplant. Born in Philadelphia, he spent some of his earliest years in Italy, where he learned the language while his father played pro basketball. He later returned to the Philadelphia area and starred at suburban Lower Merion High, becoming the top prep player in the country.
But he was most closely identified with LA, where the city’s adopted son thrilled fans with his All-Star moves for the Lakers over 20 seasons.
Bryant came to the NBA straight out of high school, a quiet kid of 17 whose parents had to co-sign his contract until he was able to sign his own when he turned 18. He was so young the Lakers training staff needed permission from his mother to treat him with medication.
At the time, few in Los Angeles thought anyone would assume Magic Johnson’s mantle, he of the “Showtime” Lakers and incandescent smile.
In fact, Bryant was always more Michael Jordan than Johnson. Bryant’s killer instinct, tireless work ethic and intolerance for giving anything less than the best in practice and games most closely hewed to the attitude of his idol Jordan.
Still, Bryant’s audacity appealed to laid-back Angelenos. At times, it clashed with Shaquille O’Neal, who shared an uneasy spotlight with Bryant while winning three NBA championships from 2000 to 2002.
It wasn’t until O’Neal was traded away in 2004 that Bryant took over as the Lakers’ cornerstone, and Johnson endorsed him as a worthy successor. Bryant became his era’s Jordan to his fellow players, while segueing into a beloved icon, embraced across his adopted city.
“He grew up there,” Golden State Warriors general manager Bob Myers said. “He grew up and matured and changed and evolved. I’m sure they felt like they grew up with him.”
Away from the court, Bryant briefly fell from grace in 2003 after being accused of sexual assault at a Colorado hotel. He lost sponsors and fans and his reputation was tarnished. The case was eventually dropped, and Bryant and his accuser settled her civil suit against him.
There were other personal problems. Bryant’s wife, Vanessa, filed for divorce in 2011, but they reconciled a year later. There were disagreements with his parents, too. They initially opposed his marriage and didn’t attend the wedding. Bryant’s mother tried to auction memorabilia of his in 2013, and he successfully challenged her.
Those stumbles only served to humanize Bryant among his fans. If they could have relationship and family problems, so could he.
Some of Bryant’s most storied moments occurred inside Staples, where he scored 81 points on Jan. 22, 2006, second-most in NBA history. He led the Lakers to two more NBA titles, parading the trophy past thousands of rapturous fans in the streets.
Bryant was in the news less than 24 hours before his sudden death. Current Laker LeBron James overtook him as the NBA’s third all-time leading scorer during a road game in Philadelphia. Once famously competitive, Bryant had grown comfortable in the elder statesman’s role, and his last tweet congratulated James on the achievement.
Long before he retired, Bryant and his wife started a foundation with the goal of helping families and children. Bryant said he was prompted to act after seeing homeless people in the streets outside the arena on his way home to Orange County from games.
“He wasn’t just an athlete,” fan Jason Ackerman said outside Staples. “He gave the city hope.”
Ackerman said he was saddened about not being able to see what else Bryant would have done, whether it was in film, charity or owning a local sports team.
Bryant further blurred the lines between sports and entertainment after injuries hastened the end of his playing days in 2016. He immediately switched his laserlike focus to his love of storytelling in film, books and online.
“He was so intense about business,” Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin said. “He would ask 50 different questions in a day about how could he win in business.”
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It didn’t take long for Bryant to make an impact in Hollywood. He won an Oscar for best animated short two years ago as a producer of “Dear Basketball,” based on a poem Bryant wrote before he retired from the court.
He launched Granity Studios, a multimedia company that creates content for young adults. He had begun a publishing career as well. Last year was the debut of his young adult book series that mixed fantasy and sports.
“Kobe’s death is especially wrenching knowing what he was capable of and what he might have accomplished in his post-NBA life,” said Arn Tellem, Bryant’s former longtime agent. “He was already well on his way.”
Steven and Diana Brugge joined the throng outside Staples in their matching Bryant jerseys.
“He was the soul of LA,” Steven Brugge said. “He meant so much to this city, and not just because he won championships.”
Brugge admired the way Bryant carried himself as a person and a professional: “That’s the kind of guy you want representing your city.”
When he wasn’t working, Bryant would pop up at women’s pro and college basketball games in Los Angeles, often with 13-year-old Gianna in tow. The second oldest of Bryant’s four daughters took up her father’s sport, and he proudly coached her AAU team. He talked up the women’s game, too, giving it a boost.
With Staples Center hosting the Grammys on Sunday, fans got as close to the arena as they could, standing under video boards with his face and the message: “In Loving Memory of Kobe Bryant.”
Together, they shared memories in quiet voices. Some shed tears. Others held their head in their hands.
Inside the arena, Bryant’s two retired numbers in the rafters — 8 and 24 — were bathed in light.
“We’re literally standing here heartbroken in the house that Kobe Bryant built,” host Alicia Keys said in opening the Grammy telecast. “We love you, Kobe.”
At Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, not far from the crash site, Renee Tab arrived with her young son, carrying purple and yellow flowers.
“We love Kobe Bryant,” she said. “He is quintessentially LA. Our LA hero, our LA legend.”
Perhaps Leonardo DiCaprio summed it up best.
“LA will never be the same,” the actor tweeted.
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