LOS ANGELES (AP) — Fans call it The House that Kobe Built, and since Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash mourners by the thousands have gathered daily outside the arena where the Los Angeles Lakers’ legend made basketball history.
Admirers, including some from as far away as China, continued to crowd the plaza leading to the Staples Center for a third day Tuesday as arena officials opened adjacent Chick Hearn Court to pedestrian traffic to allow the placement of still more memorials of flowers, balloons, photos, paintings, jerseys, hats, basketballs and thousands of heartfelt written messages.
While most recognized Bryant, many also paid tribute to his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna. They were among the nine people killed when their helicopter crashed Sunday morning. Giant electronic signs across from Staples Center flashed a photo of Bryant and his daughter with the words, “Forever in Our Hearts” and the names of all who died.
Michael Velasco kneeled in prayer Tuesday before leaving a basketball he’d carried from central California.
He had grown up in Sacramento Kings territory but recalled switching basketball allegiances after seeing Bryant score more than 30 points early in his career against Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.
“I said he’s going to be better than Jordan some day,” recalled Velasco, dressed in Bryant’s purple-and-gold No. 8 jersey. He wore Bryant’s other number, 24, when he played basketball in high school. Some in the crowd arrived in replica jerseys with 33 on them, Bryant’s number when he played at suburban Philadelphia’s Lower Merion High School.
The Staples Center set up more than a half-dozen large white billboards with the words, “In Loving Memory of Kobe Bryant” for people to write messages. Three of them were covered before noon.
Most visitors said they’d never met Bryant or, if they had, only fleetingly. Others had only watched him play on television. Still, many said they felt like they knew him and not just through his brilliant basketball career, but in the books he’d written, the Oscar-winning short film he’d produced and other endeavors since he’d retired in 2016.
“He meant a lot to the sports world and then he tied it in with being a good family man,” said 23-year-old Bob Nam who grew up in Los Angeles watching Bryant play. “I think he’s probably inspired more people than anyone can imagine and it’s just so crazy that one day he’s here and the next he’s gone.”
Feng Liu, vacationing from China, said Bryant was his favorite NBA player and the Lakers were his favorite team. He and his wife had planned to attend Tuesday night’s game between the Lakers and rival Los Angeles Clippers before it was postponed in light of the tragedy.
Tickets to Friday’s home game against the Portland Trail Blazers were selling Tuesday on StubHub for about $700 to $1,000 for the cheapest seats. Those closer to the action were offered at prices ranging from $3,500 to $9,000, and the ticket agency promised to donate all of its fees to the Kobe and Vanessa Bryant Family Foundation.
On the streets near Staples Center, vendors were doing a brisk business selling memorial T-shirts and calendars with Bryant’s image and words like “Legends Never Die” for $10 apiece. At Nike’s website the link to Kobe Bryant gear led simply to a memorial tribute that concluded with the words, “We will miss him greatly. Mamba forever.”
Michelle Rodriguez of Los Angeles wiped a tear as she gazed at photos of Bryant with his daughter and his teammates. “I think everyone could say we loved the team as a whole, but it was different when you saw Kobe play,” she said.
“And he was such an awesome man outside of basketball too,” she added. “All the work he did in the community, he’s a hero to this city.”
“I left my shoe for him,” said Louie Guerrero of Los Angeles, who arrived Monday pushing a stroller with his 2-year-old daughter, Lexie, decked out in a Lakers uniform. He had decided to add one of his official Lakers basketball shoes to the memorial after scribbling on it, “We Love You, Kobe.”
He walked away with only a sock on his left foot.
“The memories that he gave us as a family were great memories,” said Lawrence Perez or North Hollywood, who visited the memorial Monday with his wife, Maureen, and 15-year-old daughter, Desiree, all in Lakers gear.
“The greatest moment was when I got his autograph his rookie year,” Perez said. He said he had planned to bring the autographed ball to Bryant’s Hall of Fame induction, expected later this year, and ask him to sign it again.
“But that’s not going to happen now,” he said softly.