SHARING THEIR SADNESS: Mourners gather outside Staples Center to pay tribute to Kobe Bryant after his death in a helicopter crash. (Getty Images)

Lee Zeidman on how Staples Center helped a city deal with its grief after Kobe Bryant’s death

Over his 35-year career, Staples Center President Lee Zeidman has coordinated six memorials for sports personalities, musicians and other dignitaries. 

First, it was Los Angeles Lakers play-by-play legend Chick Hearn in 2002, followed by pop icon Michael Jackson (2009), Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss (2013), longtime Grammys producer John Cossette (2014) and rapper Nipsey Hussle (2019).

For Zeidman, though, no tribute had more impact than the one after the death of former Lakers star Kobe Bryant, a future basketball hall of famer and a beloved figure in Los Angeles sports history. Bryant, along with his daughter Gianna and seven others, died Jan. 26 in a helicopter crash. 

Zeidman and Bryant were friends for 24 years, dating to Kobe’s rookie season at the Forum in 1996-97. Zeidman ran the Inglewood arena for 10 years and has done the same at Staples Center since it opened in 1999.

“This one hits hardest because this was his home,” Zeidman said. “Kobe was instrumental in making Staples Center and L.A. Live what they were based on the success his teams had on the court.”  

The week of events that transpired after the tragedy galvanized the folks at AEG, which owns and operates Staples Center and fills the role of developer at L.A. Live, the entertainment district across the street. Together, they put aside their own grief while a few hundred thousand people visited the site to pay their respects to the victims.

A public memorial service took place Feb. 24 at Staples Center.

It all unfolded on the Sunday morning of the Grammy Awards show at Staples Center. The first reports of the accident came about 10:30 a.m. local time during rehearsals inside the arena.

“We were all shocked, and nobody knew if it was true or not,” Zeidman said. “When it was finally confirmed, we went into the mode of ‘What can we do to help the Grammys as a building?’ They obviously changed the show around and wanted to know (Kobe’s) favorite music. We got some of that stuff. They needed jerseys for some of the performers.”

Videoboards near Staples Center recognize Kobe Bryant. (James Zoltak / Staff)

Working together, arena and Grammys officials came up with the idea to display two giant replica jerseys with Bryant’s uniform numbers 8 and 24 at the venue’s north end. A spotlight shined on the display, and it has become a permanent fixture at Staples Center, Zeidman said. 

For AEG, challenges were still to come as an estimated 250,000 to 350,000 people came to pay homage to Kobe over the next seven days, presenting multiple logistical hurdles. There’s no blueprint for how to do these things, Zeidman said. He had experience from other memorials, but nothing compared to what was materializing in downtown Los Angeles.

“We had pretty much been locked down for the Grammys and you couldn’t get near us unless you had a ticket and parking placard, but at 8 p.m., as the Grammys came to a close, people started to descend on the complex,” he said.

Barricades were placed at Xbox Plaza fronting L.A. Live and in front of Staples Center and into Chick Hearn Way to protect the entrances to those properties. A makeshift memorial started to form with flowers, jerseys, basketballs, gym shoes, photos, rosaries, lighted candles and other items piling up outside the building entrances.

“We needed to keep that stuff away from the doors, because at that time, we didn’t know if the Lakers and Clippers were going to play Tuesday night,” Zeidman said. “We watched as this (memorial) organically grew. We felt there would be no major issues because of the respect for Kobe and Gigi and the seven others that lost their lives.”

Los Angeles police provided 24-hour security as part of monitoring the memorial, which grew 3 feet deep outside the arena and entertainment district. People wrote with Sharpies and painted messages on walkways. The videoboards at L.A. Live displayed images of Kobe and Gianna and the names of all nine people who perished in the crash. 

“I worked with our global partnerships division and told them this is bigger than any sponsorship or ad and we’re going to run this until we dismantle the memorial,” Zeidman said.

By Monday morning, people were coming downtown in droves to honor Kobe and things got a bit dangerous on the streets as forklifts moved big Grammys set pieces out of the arena, he said. Barricades were shifted to protect both the mourners and the laborers involved in arena changeovers.

The decision to postpone Tuesday’s game was made late Monday afternoon after AEG told the Lakers, the home team, and the NBA that it needed to let its 2,000 game-day employees know what would happen, Zeidman said.

About that time, arena officials got a call from TNT, asking for permission to honor Kobe by staging their NBA game-day broadcast set on the Staples Center floor for Tuesday’s games across the league. Lakers greats Jerry West and Shaquille O’Neal were among the on-air guests.

“It was pretty surreal to watch that whole thing,” Zeidman said.

Outside the arena, the crowds and the memorial continued to grow and AEG expanded the space permitted for the displays. Large banners were made for fans to fill with messages before being put in storage. Los Angeles Kings and Clippers games went on as scheduled that week.

By Friday night, when the Lakers played their first game since Kobe’s death, the scene unfortunately became a carnival-like setting with illegal vendors hawking everything from bacon-wrapped hot dogs and ice cream to T-shirts, hats and towels memorializing the tragedy. It was the one thing that left a bad taste in Zeidman’s mouth.

“It was really disappointing to me because they were profiting off the loss of life,” he said. “We worked with LAPD to clean that stuff out. Staples Center and L.A. Live is a no-vending zone as designated by City Council a year ago. It was almost like a flea market, it was that bad.”

The sign outside the Forum, where Kobe Bryant played his first three professional seasons with the Lakers, pays tribute. (Timothy Norris / Forum Photos)

The weekend after the tragedy was spent taking down the massive memorial. The Pro Bull Riders tour was coming up at Staples Center, and as part of its contract with AEG, the event had access to Xbox Plaza for sponsor activations. At 8 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday, officials announced that everything would be shut down to start clearing the area.

At 4 a.m. the next day, a group of 50 met to begin the cleanup. The effort was halted for 45 minutes by high winds, which had construction cranes twirling overhead at a nearby development. The thought was that Kobe and Wilt Chamberlain were playing one-on-one in the heavens above, stirring things up in the atmosphere, Zeidman said. 

It took seven hours to clean up most of the memorial, much less than anticipated, he said.

Vanessa Bryant, Kobe’s wife, requested some items as family keepsakes, so AEG catalogued and stored everything in 37 large boxes. All the floral arrangements were thrown in a big dumpster to be composted and at some point will be spread across the campus as fresh landscaping. 

The concept came from Cara Vanderhook, Staples Center’s vice president of marketing and communications. She did some research and found out that the city of Manchester, England, did something similar after the 2017 bombing following an Ariana Grande concert at Manchester Arena. 

“We were trying to remember all the victims and thought that was a great idea,” Vanderhook said.

Said Zeidman: “It allows us to take what fans have brought to the site and keep it alive.”

As of mid-February, cleanup was still going on around the complex. Plus, decisions were to be made about what to do with the 1,300 basketballs, 350 pairs of shoes, thousands of jerseys, shirts and toy animals and hundreds of cards, letters and photos collected from the memorial. Most had heartfelt messages inscribed on them. 

“As I started picking up basketballs, I had to desensitize myself … and not read the things that were left there,” Zeidman said.

The Bryant family and the Lakers will help make those decisions and whether they could be part of a permanent memorial on campus. It was all put in temporary storage at L.A. Live leading up to the memorial service.

“It’s something I’ll never see again in my life,” Zeidman said. “It far surpasses anything we did with Michael Jackson as it relates to the outpouring of sympathy. I’m proud of everybody involved in helping out under pretty emotional circumstances.”  

Editor’s Note: This story has been revised since it was originally posted.


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