SHOW OF EMOTION: The makeshift memorial to Kobe Bryant grew next to Staples Center and L.A. Live in downtown Los Angeles. (Courtesy Staples Center)
The scene surrounding Staples Center on the night of Jan. 26 felt almost like a surrealist film. Patrons dressed in gowns and tuxedos made their way through a maze of barricades down Figueroa Street, West Olympic Boulevard and Chick Hearn Court surrounding the entirety of the L.A. Live complex for the 62nd annual Grammy Awards.
There was a heavy police and media presence, heavier than usual as this Grammys had a taste of controversy tied to it. In the 10 days leading up to “Music’s Greatest Night,” the Recording Academy’s first female CEO was placed on administrative leave following accusations of misconduct, which resulted in countercomplaints of alleged misconduct. Earlier that day, though, something of far greater impact suddenly eclipsed all else, and throngs of despondent sports fans, many wearing purple and gold and holding flowers, handwritten messages and memorabilia, began congregating outside the arena and at L.A. Live to express their grief, paying little attention to celebrity glitz.
“We’re all feeling crazy sadness right now,” Alicia Keys said from the Staples Center stage to introduce the 2020 Grammys. “We’re literally standing here, heartbroken, in the house that Kobe Bryant built.”
Bryant had died at the age of 41 along with his daughter Gianna, 13, and seven other people in a helicopter crash outside Los Angeles.
“In a city of stars, Kobe was the star to the stars,” said Oak View Group co-founder and CEO Tim Leiweke, who became president of the LA Kings in 1996 and built Staples Center owner AEG, leaving the company in 2013. (Oak View Group is the parent company of VenuesNow.)
The scene outside was a poignant reminder that Staples Center is more than just a place to take in an event. It’s the center of civic life in Los Angeles, as evidenced, among others, by past memorials held in the building for Michael Jackson on July 7, 2009, 12 days after his death, and for rapper Nipsey Hussle on April 11, 2019, following his shooting death in South Los Angeles on March 31.
A memorial took place at Staples Center for Kobe and Gianna Bryant on Feb. 24.
A separate memorial was held Feb. 10 at Angels Stadium of Anaheim for three others killed in the helicopter crash: Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, 56; his wife Keri, 46; and their daughter Alyssa, 14, a teammate on Gianna’s basketball team at the Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, where Bryant and the rest of the passengers were headed at the time of the crash.
The others killed were Sarah Chester, 45, and her daughter Payton, 13, another of Gianna’s teammates; coach Christina Mauser, 38; and pilot Ara Zobayan, 50.
Staples Center again took center stage as fans around the world grappled with the sudden loss of a man who came to the Lakers as a teenager straight out of high school and was destined to leave the NBA a legend with five championship rings, a man who propelled the league forward from the Michael Jordan era.
Calling it the house that Kobe built was no exaggeration, Leiweke said.
“If you look at what Jerry West and the Lakers and Dr. (Jerry) Buss pulled off when they were able to trade for Kobe’s rights and get Shaquille O’Neal to come to LA … the combination built a dynasty again for the Lakers and it was the foundation on which Staples Center was built. The momentum it created changed the city forever,” Leiweke said.
That momentum “and the passion and attention and sheer economic power that they created as part of the Lakers organization was the catalyst to change downtown Los Angeles into a real urban center and a real urban core,” he said.
The renaissance of downtown LA, which some had viewed as an after-dark no-go zone, especially after the 1992 riots, continues to this day, Leiweke said.
“It could have been very different,” he said. “We were very fortunate that we had the ability with the Lakers to win championships right off the bat, five of them, which is pretty remarkable, and then the (NHL) Kings came along in ’12 and ’14 and won championships.”
“So if you look at having that kind of demand and mystique, and add the NBA All-Star games, NHL All-Star games and the Democratic National Convention (in 2000), it gave developers, investors, bankers and community leaders a new vision about the vibrancy of downtown Los Angeles.”
Bryant’s 20-year Lakers career roughly coincided with the first two decades of the NBBJ-designed Staples Center, which cost $375 million to build.
Bryant joined the team in 1996 after being drafted as a teenager out of high school by the Charlotte Hornets and quickly traded to the Lakers for popular center Vlade Divac. His NBA career began at the Forum in Inglewood, before the Lakers moved into Staples Center for the 1999-2000 season, which ended with a title.
The golden age of the Lakers may have come during the Magic Johnson era, but its platinum age came after Kobe and Shaquille O’Neal joined the franchise. Bryant was a celebrity in his own right, but he had a blue-collar appeal.
“The majority of people in Los Angeles work incredibly hard and they’re the ones that make that city work and I think to those people, Kobe was a hero,” Leiweke said. “He had a relationship with the average Joe and Jill and a passion for the 15 million people that live in Southern California. He had a way of being a part of the lives of a lot of people.”