Tens of thousands of Kobe Bryant fans flooded the Staples Center grounds on Friday before his former team's first game since his death in a helicopter crash earlier this week that stunned basketball fans in the city and around the world.
Fans wearing Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers jerseys laid flowers, wrote messages on temporarily erected white walls, and told stories about the 41-year-old who died on January 26, along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others came.
"Kobe Bryant meant a lot to me. I've been watching him for 20 years since he's been in the league and I just love him, ”said Lakers fan Karina Mendoza. "I want to thank him for everything he did for us here in LA."
"It is a sad and beautiful day. You can see all the people here and all Lakers fans. We are like family. I love you Kobe, I love you Gigi and all families. "
In the arena, where tributes were expected during the game, Kobe and Gianna jerseys were placed on the two seats on the sidelines where the pair sat when the Lakers last played. "I was surprised to see how much it affected me when I got here and saw these makeshift monuments," said 71-year-old Lakers fan Jim Bendat. “My children grew up with Kobe and Kobe meant so much to all three of my children. So I experienced it all with my children. It's almost like losing a child in a way. "
Bryant and the eight others died when the helicopter they took to a girls' basketball tournament crashed in fog on a hill northwest of Los Angeles, plunging fans into mourning and sending shock waves through the sports world.
After Bryant's death, the National Basketball Association (NBA) canceled a game planned for the Staples Center between the Lakers and the Los Angles Clippers on Tuesday, noting the need to give the team time to mourn.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel said earlier this week that the tragedy would bring the Western Conference's leading Lakers, an already closely-knit group, closer together, and recognized team leaders LeBron James and Anthony Davis as helpful in helping players deal with their emotions ,
Training on Thursday started with a flag soccer game on an outfield near the Lakers practice area in the so-called "therapeutic" sun of Southern California. "We strive to make us feel good," said Vogel. "Laughter is always a good remedy for something like this when it is appropriate."
It was not clear whether surviving members of Bryant's family would attend the Friday game.
Although Friday's game against the Portland Trail Blazers will be the first for the Lakers since his death, Bryant was reminded on Sunday evening by the cast of the Grammy Awards at the Staples Center as fans gathered outside the arena in a spontaneous vigil ,
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said the February 9th Academy Awards would include a greeting to Bryant.