RIP Kobe Bryant
The Church in the Canyon was holding its standard Sunday school program this week when the shocking sound of a helicopter crashing into the hillside directly across the street pierced the still morning. Bob Bjerkaas, pastor at the small Presbyterian church in Calabasas, Calif., immediately surmised that the accident was fatal and led his 75-member congregation in a parking-lot prayer. First responders and firefighters quickly arrived, seeking to extinguish a quarter-acre blaze and search for survivors.
Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant; his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna; and seven other passengers were later found to be victims in the crash. That prompted dozens of reporters — including news crews representing TV stations in China, Japan and Mexico — and hundreds of fans to descend on the church in the days that followed.
Bjerkaas and his staff were unprepared for the impromptu vigil’s crowds, which were still present Tuesday afternoon, but they quickly made arrangements. Water, coffee and fruit were made available to mourners. The church opened its restrooms, provided power strips to recharge cellphones and welcomed grieving visitors for prayer services. Bjerkaas counseled fans who wept openly, and a makeshift shrine was erected near the roadside. “Rest in peace Kobe & Gigi” was written across a black Lakers hat that rested atop a pile of candles and purple and gold flowers.
“The Bible says we’re to practice hospitality,” said Bjerkaas, who has been at the church for 13 years. “That’s what we did. We prayed with people who were emotionally overwhelmed, in tears and in open grief. Sometimes all people need is a hug, a ‘God bless you,’ a short prayer and a cup of water. I’ve always believed more good is done in this life if you can get close to the ground and share life with the people around you.”
Scenes like the Calabasas vigil have played out across greater Los Angeles this week as residents cope with the sudden loss of Kobe Bryant, who established himself as one of the region’s most popular athletes during a 20-year career with the Lakers, and the other victims: Gianna Bryant, John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, Alyssa Altobelli, Sarah Chester, Payton Chester, Christina Mauser and Ara Zobayan.
“This is a sad city right now,” Jerry West, the Hall of Fame Lakers player and longtime executive, said during a tribute that aired on TNT. “One man with one name: Kobe. You don’t even need to say his last name. I don’t know if I can get over this. I really don’t.”
While the Lakers’ official store in El Segundo remained closed Tuesday afternoon, a steady stream of fans visited the team’s UCLA Health Training Center practice facility across the street, where members of the organization have been in mourning since Sunday. A large shrine near the front entrance included a wreath, a pair of Bryant’s Nike sneakers, posters, signs and dozens of bouquets of flowers. Hundreds of fans inscribed messages in black pen on a white commemorative wall that stood at least six feet tall.
“Thank you for showing the world what greatness looks like,” one message read. Another: “Thank you for being a part of my childhood. Thank you for never giving less than 100 percent. Thank you for creating the franchise the Lakers are today.”
Bryant’s death continued to be the talk of the town Tuesday. Multiple callers to KSPN (710 AM), ESPN’s local affiliate, broke down in tears while sharing their memories. The barbers and customers at Jag’s, a sports-themed barbershop in Westchester with multiple pictures of Bryant on its walls, discussed their favorite memories and most prized memorabilia.
TNT commentators Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Dwyane Wade were joined by West for an hour-long pregame remembrance of Bryant from the Staples Center court, which was unoccupied because the Lakers’ Tuesday night game against the Los Angeles Clippers was postponed.
“I haven’t felt a pain that sharp in a while,” O’Neal, Bryant’s teammate for three NBA titles, said as tears ran down his cheek. “It was like a triple stabbing to the heart. The last time I talked to him, I asked him to get 50 [points], and he got 60 [in the final game of his career]. It hit all of us out of nowhere. I didn’t want to believe it."
At L.A. Live, the entertainment district outside Staples Center, the piles of tributes to the Bryants were overwhelming, stretching more than 40 feet wide and five feet deep in one spot. In addition to flowers and balloons, thousands of fans left handmade pieces of art, basketballs and jerseys.
One display spelled out “Kobe” and “Gigi” with dozens of candles. A nearby building displayed the names of all nine crash victims, and there were multiple walls bearing handwritten messages, like the one outside the Lakers’ facility. A handwritten poster read, “As you journey to outer space, may the angels help lead the way.” A line of fans shot baskets on a temporary hoop, yelling “Kobe!” as they released their shots.
“I wanted to pay respect to Kobe and everybody on that helicopter,” said Fernando Villa, an East Los Angeles native who wore a Lakers jacket to the Calabasas memorial. “He meant so much to a lot of us. You show love in the good times, and you’ve got to show love in the bad time.”
The Lakers will return to work with their first public media availability Wednesday, and they are set to take the court for the first time since Bryant’s passing when they host the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday. Whether the organization and the city are ready to resume normal basketball activities remains to be seen.
“This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to this city’s basketball community,” said Jordan Richard, a 29-year-old Inland Empire native who has played professionally overseas. “We all thought Kobe was invincible, the equivalent of Superman. ... My friends just turned off their phones when they saw the news. It’s a loss for everyone.”
This post was written by Ben Golliver from the Washington Post.