When trying to hold a celebration of life after the torrid tragedy that killed Kobe Bryant, his teenage prodigy daughter Gianna Bryant and seven others, laughter seemed necessary.
So, Jimmy Kimmel led the service and made the first speech of the memorial.
But when even the man whose job it is to make people laugh for a living began to cry, the gravity of the occasion became undeniable.
“I can only imagine how painful it is for them,” Kimmel said about the suffering families, after naming the seven other victims of the tragedy.
“Everywhere you go, you see his face, his number—Gigi’s face, Gigi’s number,” the funny man wept in front of a packed house. “Everywhere, at every intersection.”
Staples Center shed tears along with the man who was meant to guide along the service. As Kimmel spoke about the hundreds of murals and the global inspiration that Kobe Bryant had been, he managed to get a couple jokes in to break the ice in the room—at Boston’s expense, no less.
After a sobbing start, Kimmel began to steady the ship. In between the tears, laughter was a necessary medicine on this occasion, and he helped provide that pepper.
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The late night talk show host asked everyone to look around and say hello and express gratitude at being present. It was a beautiful moment, as 20,000 people carrying enough water in their eyes to sink the Titanic turned to complete strangers, gave hugs, shook hands, said hello and expressed—at the least—a kind greeting.
Then, without warning, Kimmel went back up to the mic and metaphorically dropped it by introducing Vanessa Bryant.
The strength of this woman to speak in front of that crowd explained why she had been the perfect match for Kobe Bryant for all these years.
Yes, Beyonce gracefully sang to open the memorial, Alicia Keys played a perfect rendition of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” on the piano and Christina Aguilera’s angelic lungs sang in Italian, but Vanessa Bryant’s strength to speak shook the arena.
Her voice provided perspective that her loss was greater than the city’s ever could be, or the world could experience. She had suffered unspeakable sorrow, but less than a month after the crash that took away her husband and daughter, she spoke.
Somehow, Vanessa Bryant found the strength to speak for 20 minutes and 24 seconds—that has to be a sign from above.
The first part of her speech was dedicated to “Gigi.”
“Gianna was daddy’s girl, but I know how much she loved her mama,” Vanessa said about her “baby girl,” who kissed her mother twice every day—once in the morning and once in the evening.
The loving mother proudly detailed not only the achievements of her mandarin speaking superstar athlete-daughter, but also the little details about Gianna’s personality, habits and goofy quirks that made heart aches even more than they already did.
“We loved each other so much. I miss her so much,” Vanessa bit her bottom lip, as if to signify that she may have broken script to add an extra line, before continuing.
She did not need to do this in front of millions watching at home and tens of thousands watching live, but Vanessa Bryant explained the loss that she, along with the world, had suffered. More intimately, Vanessa cracked at the thought of not being able to watch Gigi grow up, love, marry and become a mother.
“I cannot imagine life without her,” the melancholy mother said.
Ten minutes and six seconds into her speech, Vanessa ended the portion of the eulogy dedicated solely to Gianna: “I miss you. All of you. Every day. I love you.”
The crowd was already broken, some weeping audibly.
Then, Vanessa turned her attention to Kobe Bryant, not the champion basketball player or the brightest star in a city of superstars, but the hopeless romantic husband and the “best girl dad.”
Vanessa’s story of lost love dwarfed—and at the same time confirmed—the seemingly infinite heartwarming stories of Kobe that had emerged since his death.
The girl that fell in love with her husband at “17 and a half years” young shared a snippet of the love they shared, and that peek was enough to put on the sprinklers at Staples Center. Kobe Bryant clearly loved his wife and cared for his daughters with such passion that one had to acknowledge that he may even have been a better family man than he was a basketball player.
Kobe Bryant loved his family unconditionally.
“My smart ass would tell him that he wasn’t going to score 81 points in the first quarter,” Vanessa told Kobe about not making it to the game on time, as the famously focused athlete still managed to notice and complain when his family was not in their seats during the first timeout break in the game.
Vanessa moved on to speak about Kobe and Gigi together, describing the special bond the father and daughter shared. In so many ways, they were two-of-a-kind, so Vanessa tried to make some sense of the senseless.
Struggling to speak, she said, “God knew they couldn’t be on this earth without each other. He had to bring them home to heaven together.”
NBA legends Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal provided some much needed laughs and stories about Kobe Bryant, portraying him as a little brother. WNBA legend Diana Taurasi spoke for the athletes who looked up to Kobe, and Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu spoke for the younger generation the legend continued to help nurture. UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma spoke about Kobe’s desire to help his daughter’s drive in the sport, and Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka provided deeper perspective on Kobe as a friend.
Pelinka shared a book inscription Bryant had written for his best friend and former agent recently: “May you always remember to enjoy the road, especially when it is a hard one.”
Unquestionably, the road has become harder without Kobe Bryant and Gianna Bryant for all those who spoke and many more in attendance at Staples Center, but Monday’s memorial showed, more than anything, that Vanessa Bryant has the fortitude and focus to forge forward.
In her words, “Babe, you take care of Gigi, and I got Nani, Bibi and Coco. We’re still the best team.”