LOS ANGELES — Even on the day of a tragedy, Los Angeles is still beautiful. Calabasas, amid a throng of police sirens, harried reporters and traffic blockades, is still pristine, proper and neatly trimmed. Malibu Canyon Road still winds beautifully through the Santa Monica Mountains, where passersby can stop for photos in front of dramatic backdrops while the ocean slices through the peaks. The Pacific Coast Highway still offers breathtaking views of its namesake ocean, even on a cloudy, hazy day, Topanga Beach crowded as any other weekend.
Kobe Bryant, 41, and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, died Sunday morning in a helicopter crash. The LA County Sheriff’s Office and Fire Department held a press conference that same afternoon, refusing to disclose the names of those involved, but detailing some of the particulars of the accident. It took 56 firefighters about an hour to put out the resulting blaze, which was still smoldering hours later. The fire covered nearly a quarter acre of land. There were nine people aboard the helicopter, all of whom had perished by the time paramedics arrived at the scene.
Even when it’s laid out so clinically, the loss of Bryant still doesn’t feel real, not when everything else looks the same. It’s impossible news to comprehend. Not after only weeks ago Bryant was talking hoops with Gianna on the sidelines at Staples Center. Not only one night after he congratulated LeBron James for passing him on the all-time scoring list. Bryant’s shocking, sudden and frankly graphic demise makes it nearly inconceivable to comprehend.
It doesn’t feel real, but it also doesn’t feel fake. Not to the die-hard, bleed-purple-and-gold Laker fans throughout Los Angeles, Southern California, and the world. The grieving began Sunday. Mourners fled to downtown L.A., Bryant’s sports academy or murals of him around the city to pay their respects. The acts were a small token of a faithful public who looked at Bryant like a deity, the kind of player worth driving hours to fight a stranger for. The Lakers have always been Los Angeles’ team, and for 20 years, Bryant was both a shield and bridge.
Whatever struggles the Lakers went through as a team, the response was always, “We have Kobe.” With him, anything was possible. The critics of his legacy only emboldened those who considered him the franchise’s savior. And Bryant connected all parts of L.A. His jersey was owned by the kids who lived in mansions in the hills whose parents could afford courtside seats, as well as the immigrants east of downtown selling tacos for $2.25. All of those people had the Lakers—and Kobe—in common.
That was the power of a dogged competitor who both inspired and infuriated. One of the many, deeply hurtful aspects of Kobe’s untimely passing is that he wasn’t even given a chance to fight. A man who made his name for his ability to seemingly outwork any obstacle was put in a situation he had no control over. He was snatched away unfairly, and the fans who saw him climb mountain after mountain didn’t get a chance to see him take on another challenge.
Bryant’s legacy, of course, isn’t tidy. His public persona as a fighter, as someone who could overcome any issue through sheer force of will, was intertwined with his professional comeback from a 2003 sexual assault charge. Nearly 17 years ago, society was too eager to forgive and not quick enough to question in these circumstances—or at least the men who largely dominated the narrative. The conversation surrounding Bryant’s legacy in the days to come will in some way mirror the aftermath of his death. It will be messy. It will be uncomfortable. And people will have disagreements. We’re all still figuring this out. There’s room to grieve and also room for acceptance for those who may not be fully ready to do so.
In Los Angeles, the mourning will continue in earnest. The impact Bryant had globally, on people who played basketball and people who only watched alike, can still be felt the most here. Los Angeles is where Bryant had his most fervent supporters, on his best and worst days. Los Angeles is the city where his legacy will be strengthened even in his absence, by his surviving family, the Lakers and the fans who will tell his story with even more passion than before.
Los Angeles will still look beautiful the day after Kobe Bryant’s death, even if a sense of eeriness lingers over the city. The forecast is for sunny skies. The beaches will look picturesque. The sunset will cast a striking orange glow across the entire city. And from El Segundo to every corner of the city, everyone will be wearing their Kobe jerseys.
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