/Sad, surreal scene in Los Angeles before Lakers first game since Kobe Bryants death

Sad, surreal scene in Los Angeles before Lakers first game since Kobe Bryants death

LOS ANGELES — The heartsick scene here at the Staples Center on Friday seemed to keep getting bigger and sadder and more surreal.  

A few hours before the Lakers played the Portland Trail Blazers, a flock of doves flew up from the plaza outside.

Down below, a quiet congregation of basketball fans gathered again to mourn, writing messages to their perished hero on the ground and offering pieces of art as gifts to the grieving.

“Tonight, I’m not going to the game,” said impressionist painter Reza Safa. “I’m just going to paint.”

He painted as people watched, adding careful strokes to a work he called “Carry Me Dad.” It depicted Gianna Bryant on the shoulders of her father Kobe, the Lakers legend, both of whom died Sunday with seven other people in a helicopter crash in Calabasas — an accident that sent shockwaves of sadness the world over.

This was the first time the Lakers played since that tragic accident. And it felt like a state funeral, dwarfing in emotional importance the game itself.

At 7:25 p.m. PT, the lights went off inside the area, sparking chants of “MVP!” and a star-studded tribute to Bryant. Singer Usher Raymond started it, belting out a soulful rendition of “Amazing Grace” as he stood on the court between two giant displays of Bryant’s two Laker jersey Nos. 8 and 24.

Cellist Ben Hong then took Usher’s place and played for the crowd as a video of Bryant played on the screens above the court.

“You guys will always be in my heart,” Kobe said in it. “Thank you, thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

Next was the national anthem, sung by Boyz II Men, and then Lakers star LeBron James, who took the microphone at midcourt and spoke publicly for the first time since the tragedy.

“I look at this as a celebration tonight,” James said. He finished by saying Bryant was “not forgotten. Live on brother.”

Fans without tickets came from hours away just to honor Bryant, including Chris Huitron, his wife Monique and their daughter, age 5. They got married on “8-24” last year because of their shared love for Bryant. Chris Huitron said he felt he owed it to Kobe because of how he helped him through a challenging childhood of moving around to different schools. Wearing his Kobe jersey to school helped him break the ice with strangers.

“I was making friends because of that,” said Huitron, who drove down from Nipomo, about two hours north. “I was the new guy in school and had no friends. People saw I was a Kobe fan and a Lakers fan, and it helped me make new friends.”

He said tickets for the game were too expensive, but Friday was their only day off. “We made a trip just to pay our respects,” he said.

LOOK:Never-before-seen photos of Kobe Bryant in high school

‘NOT READY TO DEAL’:Carmelo Anthony won’t play vs. Lakers

NBA ALL-STAR GAME:Teams will honor Kobe and Gianna Bryant with special game jerseys

Fans left tributes on sidewalks outside Staples Center and on walkways at L.A. Live honoring Kobe Bryant before the Lakers' first game since his death.

Others wore their Lakers jerseys, wrote messages on poster boards and observed piles of memorabilia and gifts on the ground outside, including shoes, photos, candles, flowers and basketballs.

This is the next step in a long wake for Los Angeles, whose loving bond with Kobe was unlike that of any other celebrity. It was almost like he was a city superhero, having started his pro career here in 1996 at age 18 and then growing up, up and away but never leaving. He played for only one NBA team, the Lakers, for an entire generation — 20 straight years — and won five NBA championships, generating countless indelible memories for fans.

By contrast, in baseball, the Angels in Anaheim and the Dodgers in L.A. haven’t won a championship since 2002 and 1988, respectively. The NFL’s Rams didn’t return to L.A. until 2016 — after 21 years without any NFL football in Los Angeles. The Kings in hockey won an NHL title in 2014 but don’t capture the public’s attention the way the Lakers do when they’re winning.

“He was a cocky young man, but he always backed it up,” said Jason Nguyen, who brought a floral arrangement in purple and gold and stood it up next to the growing pile of gifts on the ground outside the arena. “We’ve just seen him grow and grow and grow. And you’d see progress and maturity. He just exploded. He just took over and brought us championships.”

Before Kobe, Lakers legends Magic Johnson, 60, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 72, were among the few who might have occupied the same stratosphere in terms of success and tenure in Los Angeles. Perhaps that’s why news of Kobe’s death reminded some of Johnson’s shocking announcement in 1991 that he was retiring immediately because he had tested positive for HIV. 

Like Kobe, Johnson then was in the prime of his life and a transcendent star in “The City of Angels.” He was only 32 at the time, when HIV was considered a death sentence. Back then, it seemed like a sad warning that his days were especially numbered. But in this case, there was no warning, and everybody’s still trying to process it. Kobe was only 41. He leaves behind a wife, Vanessa, and three other daughters.

“I wish I could just hand this to Vanessa,” said Lisa Jackson, an artist who held a plaque made of clay depicting Bryant and his daughter. Jackson said she started making the piece when she found out about Bryant’s death Sunday.

“I really don’t even have a plan for it,” she said. “I’m just out here with it. Whatever happens, happens. You know, I just felt that this is where I put my tears in.”

Another Kobe fan from nearby Orange County stopped to write a message on the white poster board outside. He said he wanted to express how Kobe gave his family a reason to get together regularly before he retired from the Lakers in 2016.

“One big thing for us all to do together was to watch the game,” said Matt Bucaro of Yorba Linda.

Now they came together to grieve, each trying to contribute something as the Lakers warmed up inside. Yellow T-shirts were placed on all the seats in the arena before fans were allowed in. They bore Bryant’s name and numbers, one side with an 8 and the other with a 24.

On the plaza outside, the painter said he needed more time to perfect his piece: “Carry Me Dad.”

“This one I started right after the incident,” Safa said. “It’s got a long way to go. It needs a few more days.”

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer.E-mail: bschrotenb@usatoday.com