Huge photos of the former LA Lakers star were displayed on monitors outside the arena, where Bryant played for the majority of his NBA career. Fans in Bryant jackets and jerseys shouted, “Thank you, Kobe!” and “MVP!” Some blasted Bryant interviews on speakers as others held moments of silence around a growing memorial of bouquets.
“He was like a family member in our household,” said Jerson Castillo, 41, in tears as he talked about the basketball star. “I kept praying it was all fake news. I’m not going to be able to accept this for a long time.”
Castillo said he was painting his house when he saw the news, dropping everything and immediately rushing to the arena. He still had white paint on his hands when he spoke to the Guardian: “I needed to be here. This will always be his home.”
Edgar Ruiz, 24, said he was so distraught he had to pull over while driving when he heard the news.
“The city is bleeding right now,” said Ruiz, who used to work in security at Staples Center and got a few opportunities to shake Bryant’s hand. “I always felt the energy when he was in the building. That was my idol. Fans were inspired by his work ethic … It’s hard to take in because he had such a big impact in our community, he did so many great things in LA.”
Bryant was always kind to everyone at Staples, including janitors, baristas and security workers, Ruiz added: “He would say ‘Hi’ to everyone. He really was a person for the people.”
Staples Center turned into a somber gathering spot Sunday afternoon just hours before the Grammys were scheduled to begin on site.
Bryant fans were also distraught to learn 13-year-old Gianna, one of his four daughters, known as Gigi and an aspiring basketball star herself, had died in the crash. Fans chanted: “Gigi! Gigi!” in her honor and placed flowers on the ground spelling out her and her father’s names.
“I’m heartbroken for his daughter, who had such a promising future and wanted to be the best in the WNBA. For that to be cut short is very sad,” said Castillo.
Gennesys Cabral, a 28-year-old insurance broker who lives down the street from Staples, said he also rushed to the arena when he heard the news: “I woke up in shock. I was panicking and started crying.”
The diehard fan said he spent $2,000 to be at Bryant’s last game before he retired in 2016: “I don’t make a lot of money, but I had to be there.”
Cabral said Bryant was an inspiration: “He made me believe things that weren’t possible are possible.”
Oleina Brown also lives near Staples and called friends and family and told them to join the impromptu gathering, which was soon building into a sizable, distraught crowd. “I’m just devastated. I feel like a piece of my soul has been ripped away from me.”
Ernest Washington, a 59-year-old artist, came to the memorial with a sketch he had drawn of Bryant and had fans sign his poster. He said he would never forget Bryant scoring 81 points on his birthday in January 2006 in a game considered one of the greatest performances in NBA history: “It’s so sad, just like that, his life is over,” he said.
As mourning fans began creating small, impromptu memorials outside the arena, other arrived.
“If you’re an LA sports fan, you must be here and pay your respects,” added Alexander M Gomez, 44, who grew up near the Staples Center and wore his Lakers jersey. “Everyone looked up to him around the world. Who wasn’t a Kobe fan?”