Kobe Bryant's Memorial Provided A Peek Into Who He Really Was
It was raw, revealing, heart-wrenching and illuminating.
The Celebration of Life for Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna provided a deeply personal and disarmingly unfiltered view into who Kobe was as a man, father and husband from the people who knew him best, including his wife Vanessa, his former agent and best friend Rob Pelinka and Michael Jordan, among others.
When Vanessa arrived to her seats at Staples Center on Monday, the crowd of over 19,000 people stood and clapped. It has been nearly a month since Kobe and Gianna died in a helicopter crash along with seven other people, and Vanessa was about to speak publicly for the first time.
She took deep breaths as she walked onto the stage and paused for a few seconds amid deafening cheers. Vanessa began by talking about her daughter.
My baby girl, she said, before pausing to collect herself.
She went on to describe Gianna as sweet and thoughtful. Gianna would kiss her mother every night before she went to bed and each morning when she woke up. Vanessa called Gianna her best friend and said she likely would've become the best player in the WNBA.
"I'll never get to see my baby girl walk down the aisle, have a father-daughter dance with her daddy, dance on the dance floor with me or have babies of her own," Vanessa said, choking back tears.
Next she talked about Kobe, whom she called her soulmate. She described the fierce love that they shared ever since she was 17 and he was 21.
"Kobe loved me more than I could ever express or put into words," Vanessa said. "He was the early bird and I was the night owl. I was fire and he was ice...We balanced each other out. He would do anything for me."
Vanessa said that Kobe was the romantic of the relationship. He'd plan anniversary trips and buy her special gifts for every year of their marriage, often making the gifts by hand. As a symbol of their everlasting love, he even bought her the blue dress that Rachel McAdams wore in the movie, 'The Notebook.'
"We had hoped to grow old together like the movie," Vanessa said. "We really had an amazing love story. We loved each other with our whole beings. Two perfectly imperfect people making a beautiful family and raising our sweet and amazing girls."
Kobe would worry about Vanessa whenever she was late to one of his games. At the first timeout, he'd ask security about her whereabouts.
"My smart a** would tell him he wasn't going to drop 81 points within the first 10 minutes of the game," Vanessa said.
Before Kobe died, he texted her that he wanted to spend more time together just the two of them without their kids because she was his best friend.
Kobe wanted to renew his vows with Vanessa and he wanted his 17-year-old daughter Natalia to eventually take over his company. The couple had plans to travel the world together. They joked that they would be the fun grandparents one day.
Vanessa said Kobe had a tender heart and loved the movies 'Stepmom,' 'Steel Magnolias' and 'Little Women.' He'd often write sweet cards and poems.
Vanessa went on to call Kobe the MVP of girl dads.
"He never left the toilet seat up," Vanessa said. "He always told the girls how beautiful and smart they are. He taught them how to be brave and how to keep pushing forward when things get tough."
After Kobe retired in 2016 following a 20-season career with the Lakers, he took over picking up his daughters after school. Kobe was late one time, and Vanessa and the girls let him know that Vanessa was never tardy.
"He showed up one hour and twenty minutes early after that," Vanessa said.
Nearly every night, Kobe and Vanessa would bathe three-year-old Bianka and Capri, who was born last summer. He'd sing them silly songs, lather them with lotion and put them to bed. Kobe had a unique ability to put Capri to sleep in only a few minutes, walking her up and down the hallway eight times. Kobe and Natalia shared a love for storytelling and he'd rent out movie theaters and take her to watch 'Star Wars' and 'Harry Potter.'
Vanessa next described the powerful love that Kobe and Gianna shared, calling her 'daddy's girl.' She described them both as in love with life, funny, happy and silly.
They also shared a deep passion for basketball. After retiring, Kobe devoted himself to teaching her his craft. He relived his love of basketball through her eyes. They were always together.
In fact, they were on their way to the Mamba Sports Academy when the helicopter crashed, where Kobe was going to coach Gianna in a basketball game.
"God knew they couldn't be on this earth without each other," Vanessa said. "He had to bring them home to heaven together."
Pelinka, Bryant's longtime agent who became his best friend, revealed that Kobe actually texted him from the helicopter minutes before the crash.
“Do you remember where you were on that foggy, sunless morning of Jan. 26 when the axis of the world seemed to shift forever, for all of us?" Pelinka said. "I was in Sunday church with my family. My phone was deep in the pocket of my jeans when I felt the familiar text buzz. For a second, I ignored the notification because I was in church. For some reason, with this text, I felt a sudden urge to check my phone. I slipped it out of my jeans and discovered the text was from Kobe. There was nothing uncharacteristic or unfamiliar about this. For the last two decades, Kobe and I talked or texted every single day. Because that’s what best friends do."
Kobe texted Pelinka to ask if he knew a certain baseball agent in Southern California. He wanted to put John Altobelli's eldest daughter Lexi, 16, in touch with him to help secure her an internship. Altobelli died in the crash along with his wife Keri and youngest daughter Alyssa, 13.
Even though Pelinka was in church, he texted Kobe back, saying he felt an "otherworldly nudge" to get back to him right away.
“Kobe’s last human act was heroic," Pelinka said. "He wanted to use his platform to bless and shape a young girl’s future. Hasn’t Kobe done that for all of us.”
Pelinka and his family would sometimes travel with the Bryants. He talked about a glamping trip they took together in Montana, where they all went fly fishing. Kobe wouldn't allow any shortcuts and made everyone learn to tie their own flies and stand in the stream with heavy weighted boots.
The families also took a trip together to Cabo when Kobe turned 40, a year before he died.
"What was the one thing Kobe wanted to do in this heavenly setting?" Pelinka said. "Watch Team Mamba game film with Gigi and me, of course, breaking down every play."
Pelinka marveled at the love Kobe and Vanessa shared. During a long stretch of time away from Vanessa, Kobe called Pelinka and said he couldn't sleep because he was missing his wife and girls too much. Kobe then vowed to teach himself by ear Beethoven's 'Moonlight Sonata' to play for Vanessa.
Pelinka didn't believe that he could do it. He wasn't a trained musician. But by the end of the week, Kobe had mastered the piece.
"In my heart I knew that moment was one of Kobe’s greatest feats for his deepest love," Pelinka said.
Michael Jordan called Kobe his little brother and said that they were very close friends. But he acknowledged that Kobe irritated him at first.
"He used to call me, text me, 11:30, 2:30, 3 o’clock in the morning talking about post up moves, footwork, and sometimes the training," Jordan said. "At first, it was an aggravation. But then it turned into a certain passion. This kid had passion that you would never know."
As Jordan spoke, tears streamed down his face. Jordan went on to poke fun at himself.
"Now he’s got me," Jordan said. "I’ll have to look at another crying meme for the next ---." Before he could finish that sentence, Jordan was cut by uproarious laughter and applause from the crowd.
Jordan recalled Kobe recently reaching out to him because he wanted to teach Gianna some moves when she was 12 years old. He asked Jordan what he practiced at that age.
"I said, '12, I was trying to play baseball,'" Jordan said. "He sends me a text back saying, 'Laughing my ass off.'"
Jordan also recalled running into Kobe in 1999 or 2000 when he was visiting Phil Jackson. Jordan was wearing a suit, but the first question out of Kobe's mouth was, “Did you bring your shoes?” Jordan recalled.
Jordan said he never saw someone live with as much passion as Bryant.
"When Kobe Bryant died, a piece of me died," Jordan said. "And as I look in this arena and across the globe, a piece of you died or else you wouldn’t be here...I had a little brother that I tried to help in every way I could. Please rest in peace, little brother."
Shaquille O'Neal acknowledged that he and Bryant had a complicated relationship when they played together on the Lakers from 1996-2004, but he said there was always a brotherhood underneath it all.
"Not unlike another leadership duo, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, whose creative rivalry led to some of the greatest music of all time, Kobe and I pushed one another to play some of the greatest basketball of all time," said O'Neal, who won championships alongside Kobe in 2000, 2001 and 2002. "And I am proud that no other team has accomplished what the three-peat Lakers have done since the Shaq and Kobe Lakers did it."
O'Neal said even when they bickered, they always shared a deep mutual respect.
"Sometimes like immature kids, we argued, we fought, we bantered, we assaulted each other with offhand remarks on the field," O'Neal said. "Make no mistake, even when folks thought we were on bad terms, when the cameras are turned off, he and I would throw a wink at each other and say, let’s go whoop some ass."
O'Neal said there was one moment in particular when he really gained respect for Kobe. It happened after some of their teammates were complaining that Kobe wasn't passing enough, so O'Neal agreed to have a chat with him.
"I said, 'Kobe, there’s no ‘I’ in ‘team,'" O'Neal said. "He said, 'I know, but there’s an ‘M-E’ in that, motherf—.'"
Jimmy Kimmel, Geno Auriemma, Sabrina Ionescu and Diana Taurasi also spoke. There were multiple musical performances, including Beyonce singing 'XO' and 'Halo,' Alicia Keys playing 'Moonlight Sonata' and Christina Aguilera singing 'Ave Maria.'
It was an incredible three-hour event that truly honored the lives of Kobe and Gianna.
Kobe was a five-time NBA champion, an 18-time All-Star, a two-time Finals MVP and a one-time regular season MVP in 2008. He was an Oscar winner. He was a storyteller.
But he was so much more.
Bryant always fiercely protected his family and his private life. But on Monday, we were let in.
Our larger-than-life idol became human.
And it made his loss that much more unimaginable.