LOS ANGELES – For two hours Monday, greater Los Angeles seemed to come to a silent halt, folks pausing long enough to clear the fog of mourning and gaze at TV screens set to different channels but showing the same program.
The Kobe Channel. Once again, perhaps for the last time, Kobe Bryant was uniting a region infamous for its divisions and cliques.
For a ceremony billed “A Celebration of Life,” speakers lined up to address 20,000 people inside Staples Center, along with millions of viewers in Southern California, across the country and around the world. It became apparent over the last four weeks and on this day that Kobe’s tragic death at 41 had stripped away many of his sharp edges.
But each one of those edges was softened, too, by the fact that he was living and dying alongside his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.
For as much as Kobe was admired for his unbridled bravado and ability to rise to the moment, he also had detractors. Of course, he did. It’s the lot of all superstars who dare to be so brazen in their desire to crush the spirits of foes. It what comes with trying to push teammates beyond their self-imposed limits.
A level of antipathy also is a natural outcome for a man who faces sexual assault allegations and later, after charges are dropped, acknowledges committing adultery.
That was Kobe in 2003, three years before the birth of Gianna “Gigi” Bryant. Her death was such a blow that it fractured hearts – particularly those of mothers sympathizing with Kobe’s widow, Vanessa – still cool to Kobe.
"Kobe was the MVP of girl dads,” Vanessa Bryant said. “He never left the toilet seat up. He always told the girls how beautiful and smart they are."
The phrase “girl dad,” has been uttered more frequently since Jan. 26 than perhaps the previous 100 years. Kobe used it, was proud of it and now it’s a trend.
A trend that on Monday reached Michael Jordan, a middle-age man known for ruthlessness. The tides of his tear ducts were rising as he approached the podium and as he started speaking, they were sliding down both sides of his nose, and finally over his top lip and into his mouth. But MJ continued on, and he was magnificent.
“I am inspired by what he’s done and what he shared with Vanessa and what he shared with his kids,” Jordan said near the end of his 10-minute speech. “I have daughter who is 30; I became a grandparent. And I have two twins that are 6. I can’t wait to get home to become a girl dad. And to hug them and to see the love and the smiles that they bring to us as parents.
“He taught me that, just by looking at this tonight. Looking at how he responded and reacted to the people he actually loved. These are the things that we will continue to learn about Kobe Bryant.”
Kobe’s commitment to women goes beyond his wife and their daughters, Natalia, Bianka and Capri. He was coaching Gianna’s team. He followed the WNBA. He took Gianna to Connecticut to see the UConn women’s team play.
The only coach to speak on this day was Geno Auriemma, the leader of the fabled UConn women’s basketball program. The only collegiate player to speak was University of Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu. The only active pro player to speak was Diana Taurasi, who takes particular pride in having the “White Mamba” nickname bestowed upon her by Kobe.
Kobe reached out to women athletes, making them feel special. He may have done it for himself, simply as another of the many layers of his life. He surely did it for his daughter.
“The same passion we all recognized in Kobe, obviously Gigi inherited,” Taurasi said. “Her skill was undeniable at an early age. I mean, who has a turnaround fadeaway jumper at 11?"
It was profoundly evident that the man who was sentenced to a measure of time as America’s most polarizing athlete had all these years later become a unifying force, bringing together male and female athletes. He was bond that connected a region notorious for conflicts between races, ethnic groups and neighborhoods, as well as economic disparity.
Kobe is the reason Celtics legend and Hall of Famer Bill Russell on Sunday put on a Lakers jersey, No. 24, with the name “Bryant” on the back – and wore it to a Lakers-Celtics game. In LA.
For two hours Monday, Kobe and Gianna had millions riveted to TV screens. That was the power of the man, and it gained authority through the relationship he had with his daughter, who few really knew but now is as immortalized as her father.