- Senior writer for ESPN.com
- Spent seven years at the Los Angeles Daily News
Lawrence Tanter had read through the plans dozens of times before he got into his car, put on John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and drove to Staples Center on Jan. 31.
The Los Angeles Lakers were going to play their first game since the death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others on Jan. 26, and Tanter’s job as the team’s public address announcer was to be the voice that led everyone through what was going to be a heartbreaking night.
“I felt a big obligation,” he said. “I told [Lakers owner] Jeanie [Buss] and [Lakers president] Tim [Harris] that they could count on my best effort. My ‘optimum’ effort was the word I used.”
Tanter has been the Lakers’ public address announcer since 1982. He announced every home game Kobe played. And he always put a little extra sauce on Kobe’s name.
“I think everybody with a particular amount of flavor deserves that,” Tanter said in that famous baritone voice of his.
Tanter loved saying Kobe’s name. He’d say it fast. He’d take it down an octave and say it low. Sometimes he’d let that EEEE go on forever.
“He had a good name that rolled pretty well,” Tanter said.
Tanter thought he had announced Kobe’s name for the last time after Bryant retired in 2016. But about an hour before the game, Harris came to him with a late addition to the program.
LeBron James had suggested that the entire Lakers starting lineup against the Portland Trail Blazers be announced as Kobe Bryant. The league had approved the change, so Tanter pulled out his score sheet and wrote five identical introductions.
No. 24. 6-foot-6. In his 20th year. From Lower Merion High School … Kobe Bryant.
“I did the same format I do now: Guard, Guard, Center, Forward, Forward. With LeBron at the end,” Tanter said. “I think it was a little unusual for people to hear that on the first name. But then I think they got a little drift that maybe this is what’s happening.”
With each introduction, emotion built, taking the crowd inside Staples Center and everyone around the world watching the ceremony from somber to celebratory.
Tanter stayed focused on the words on his page. He couldn’t look up at the crowd. He had to stay centered — to give his “optimum” effort.
He thought back on all the reasons he’d announced Bryant’s name over the years, on the relationship they’d built, on the Ahmad Jamal CD he’d given Bryant when he was a second-year player because the jazz pianist from Pittsburgh had this way of making every note he played on the piano reach down to your soul. It reminded Tanter of how Bryant played.
“And then I realized,” Tanter said. “That might be the last time that happens on a microphone, in a stadium, ever.”
Nearly a month has passed since Bryant died, and the finality of it is still sinking in.
Kobe Bryant is dead.
It’s as unbelievable to read now as it was when the news broke on Jan. 26. The headline was like a cognitive break. So awful. This couldn’t be reality. And then it got worse when authorities revealed that Bryant’s 13-year old daughter, Gianna, two of her teammates, their parents, a coach and a pilot were also on board the helicopter.
There was no way to process a tragedy such as this, much less find perspective on a man such as Kobe Bryant.
He was a brilliant basketball player with a larger-than-life persona. He was an Oscar-winning storyteller, an inspirational speaker, a businessman, a #GirlDad, a husband. But he also had a complicated legacy to reckon with. When was the right time to do that? What was the right way to do that?
That reckoning and processing of Bryant’s life and death are ongoing. So is the acceptance. Those who knew Bryant best go back over the events leading to the crash, hoping that an explanation will emerge — or at least some peace.
On Monday morning, the world will attempt to find the right words for all of this at the public memorial for Bryant and his daughter. It will be held at Staples Center in Los Angeles, the arena at which Bryant delivered his greatest moments, on the court where he let us know him best.
O’Shea Jackson Jr. had just started filming the biggest show of his career the day Bryant died. It was the kind of role he’d been pushing himself to land for years. He is the star of the new Apple TV series based on Kevin Durant’s life, “Swagger.”
But time stopped for everyone on set when news of Bryant’s death spread.
“My first reaction was to text him,” Jackson Jr. said. “I just said, ‘Please, please, please be there.’
“And you know how when you send a text, how it says delivered underneath? … I waited and waited, but it never said delivered. And I just broke. I broke right then and there.”
Jackson Jr. had grown up idolizing Bryant, drawn to his talent on the court and the way he pushed himself to achieve off of it. But he was also drawn to Bryant because they were both sons of famous fathers — Jackson Jr.’s father is the musician and actor Ice Cube; Bryant’s father, Joe, played eight seasons in the NBA. Both sons had ambitions to make their own names.
In November, Jackson Jr. finally worked up the nerve to contact Bryant.
“I had always had this feeling of, ‘I can do more with my career.’ I’m happy with the position we’ve gotten, but I know we can take it further,” he said. “I needed to figure out a way to fight my complacency. So I hit him. I hit him with this long letter asking what he did after he won championships. What kept pushing him?”
Jackson Jr. had plenty of connections through which to get Bryant’s contact information. But he thought it would be more authentic to reach out in a direct message on Twitter.
Two days later, Bryant replied with his cell phone number.
Jackson Jr. entered it into his phone as “GOAT.” A few weeks later, while he was riding in an Uber, that name popped up on his screen. He took a deep breath and tried to collect his thoughts so that he’d make the most of the time Bryant was about to give him.
“He told me I have to be the person to push myself,” Jackson Jr. said. “And that feeling I had of not doing enough? He had that feeling, too.
“He said he paced in his house. That even after five championships and the Oscar and all that, he still hasn’t done anything.”
The solution to that restlessness, Bryant told him, was not to question why you had it but to let it fuel you.
When Jackson Jr. finally started finding some solace after Bryant’s death, that’s the message that kept ringing in his ears.
“Good or bad, I have to keep going,” he said. “Kobe may not be a person anymore, but to ‘be Kobe’ is a thing — and there’s nothing that can stop that.
“It’s something that’s going to flow through every single one of his fans. We all will feel him still because of that thing that is being Kobe.”
Bryant would have called “that thing that is being Kobe” the Mamba Mentality.
It’s a derivative from his self-appointed nickname, The Black Mamba, which came from the Quentin Tarantino movie “Kill Bill: Volume 2.” The Black Mamba was the identity Bryant created for himself after he was accused of sexual assault by a Colorado woman in 2003. His sponsors dropped him, and his reputation was forever marred. Although the charges were later dropped, Bryant settled a civil suit with the woman out of court and issued an apology without admitting guilt. Neither party was then allowed to discuss the case.
In his 2015 documentary, “Kobe Bryant’s Muse,” Bryant said, “I had to separate things. It felt like there were so many things coming at once. … So I created The Black Mamba.” Kobe, he explained, was dealing with “personal challenges” while The Black Mamba could destroy everyone on the court.
In time, Bryant shed that skin, too, transforming the ruthlessness of the Black Mamba into the more positive and inspirational Mamba Mentality.
He was so good at defining and embodying the Mamba Mentality — he studied advertising and once claimed he wrote 90% of the commercials he starred in — that the term has taken on a life of its own.
Since his death, artists around the world have painted murals of him, each with an artistic point of view on what Bryant represented.
To the internationally renowned street artist Thierry Guetta, who goes by Mr. Brainwash, Bryant was a “soldier of life: somebody that brought passion, to never give up, to inspire everyone, somebody that will do anything to make you a better person.”
Guetta had been commissioned to paint murals of Bryant during his basketball career. When he learned of Bryant’s death, he needed no commission.
“It was a must for me to do it,” the French-born artist said. “I had no other choice. Even if I was on the other side of the world, I would have come back and did it because it’s something that is the respect of him being this person that was a present for the world.”
Guetta studied photographs of Bryant and his daughter Gianna before beginning his tribute mural on the side of a building on La Brea Avenue and San Vicente Boulevard in West Hollywood. Guetta wanted to represent the bond they had, so he added a necklace with two interlocking hearts.
“They were so combined together,” he said. “When you start looking for photos, you see them so much together. I don’t think that one could live without the other one. They were a team.”
More than 80 murals of Bryant have been painted around Southern California since his death, according to Mike Asner, a digital social media marketer who started cataloging and mapping them on Instagram and the website KobeMural.com.
“I didn’t tell my friends, didn’t tell anyone. Honestly, I just did this thing,” Asner said. “I started messaging the artists, tagging the artists. Just being really efficient with, ‘Here’s a great photo. Here’s exactly where it is. Here’s who the artist is.’
“I’m not trying to be a freaking influencer or make money or anything. I’m honoring the guy who was my idol, and it’s bringing people together.”
Asner said he gets dozens of messages per day from people who visit the murals around Los Angeles. Lately, he has been receiving messages from people from around the world who are planning trips to L.A. to visit the murals.
“I think it’s Kobe, the player, the legend, the idol, champion, the hero to many, his Mamba mentality,” Asner said. “That sounds so cheesy. But I think these artists honestly are inspired by him, not as necessarily a basketball player but his work ethic and his mentality — for lack of a better word.
“The second thing I’m definitely noticing is you’re seeing a lot of murals with Gianna, with them hugging.”
Armenian artist Arutyun Gozukuchikyan, who goes by Artoon, painted two murals of Kobe and Gianna in the week after their deaths — one in Mid-City on Venice and La Cienega boulevards and the other in the San Fernando Valley on Ventura Boulevard.
The day after the accident, he stayed up for 24 straight hours to paint Kobe. The next day, he spent two hours painting Gigi. As he was putting the finishing touches on the mural, a visitor noted the parallel between the time he spent painting and their numbers: 24 and 2.
It was completely inadvertent, yet Artoon admitted he’d felt a strange, almost supernatural feeling while he was painting.
“It was like 3, 4 in the morning,” he said. “It was so calm. Then I just get these two huge gusts of winds that almost pushed me off the lift.
“I was like, ‘Am I just tripping here?’ I had goosebumps all over. I don’t know if it was just me, being in kind of a delusional state of mind, pulling [an] all-nighter, or whether it was actual something.”
Within a few hours, dozens of people started showing up to his mural to pay their respects. They left rosaries and candles, notes with personal messages and Lakers jerseys. They wept on the artist’s shoulder, thanking him for his work.
“It’s no different [than] 500 years ago in the Renaissance,” Artoon said. “They would draw their celebrities, their icons. Now we draw our icons and our heroes in the streets.
“We’re documenting, in a way.”
In addition to what mourners have left at murals around Los Angeles, some 250,000 to 300,000 people visited the memorial that sprang up outside Staples Center in the week following the helicopter crash.
It was an endless stream of people, which left AEG, the company that owns and manages L.A. Live, to figure out how long to let them keep coming and what to do with the very personal items they brought with them.
There had to be some limit, some moment when the city was released from its collective mourning. A week seemed appropriate. Yet when AEG started to pack up everything that had been left, the scale was overwhelming.
The crews started at 4 a.m. on the Monday after the Super Bowl. By the time they were finished, 37 large cargo bins had been filled with memorabilia, according to Staples Center president Lee Zeidman.
It was too much to send to Vanessa Bryant and her family all at once. For the time being, it is being stored at L.A. Live.
TNT broadcaster Ernie Johnson was tasked with finding the right words two days after the helicopter crash. The Lakers’ game against the LA Clippers had been postponed, so TNT dimmed the house lights and let Johnson lead NBA greats who knew Bryant — Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, Dwyane Wade, Reggie Miller and Jerry West — through their grief.
“You had all these legendary, iconic figures just kind of laying their souls bare,” Johnson said. “We just all had permission to just speak from the heart.”
What came into Johnson’s heart was a song from The Avett Brothers called “No Hard Feelings.”
“When a life is taken so suddenly,” he said. “You just wonder, how are all the relationships in my life? If there’s something that needs to be said to right a relationship, fix it, so that when that time comes, there are no hard feelings.”
UC Irvine assistant coach Ryan Badrtalei has been thinking about what his friend Kobe Bryant would say to him — or anyone — who is trying to process and find their way back to a joyful life after his death.
“I’ve thought about it, and I really do think that he would want all of us to be the best version of ourselves that we could,” said Badrtalei, who befriended Kobe in 2007, when the former Lakers star began training at UC Irvine. “And to maximize every opportunity that’s in front of us.”
The Bryant he knew was “not an excuse-maker.”
Grief, while profound and appropriate at a time such as this, was not something that Bryant would’ve allowed to stop him, Badrtalei said.
“I think this would be his lesson,” he said. “It would be to learn from the way he was — and not look around and find excuses for why you can’t do things.”
There’s a coldness in that sentiment. And Bryant often leaned into it. He once told me, “I’ve always said I’m not immune to feeling fear, pain, whatever. I’m just aware of it, and I accept it. And then, ‘all right, off we go.'”
That is the cold-blooded part of the Mamba Mentality. The reptilian, ruthless side Bryant needed on the court. But there was warm blood in those veins, too: a passion for life, for basketball, for his family and for new experiences.
“It seems pretty simple to me,” Bryant told me in 2016. “You love what you do. You figure out how to do that to the best of your abilities. And you don’t stop until you figure it out.”
It’s difficult to think of death and grief as something to “figure out.” But those who knew Bryant say that’s what he would’ve wanted his life to be an example of.
“He’d be saying that the best thing anybody could do is learn from him, the lessons about moving on and being better for it,” Badrtalei said. “Live your life to the fullest. Don’t let this stop you.
“Just for my own therapy on my Facebook, I posted something about how he was just always on. There wasn’t ever really an off switch for him. It was almost painful to be around him at times, just because of how demanding he was. But talk about someone who really lived every second of every day, getting stuff done and accomplishing things.”
In 2015, Spike Lee did a short film on the unlikely friendship between Tamika Catchings and Bryant, who grew up together in Italy while their fathers played professional basketball there. They were little kids with big dreams back then. Then they largely lost touch until both of them returned to the States.
But there was something special in Italy — “something in the pasta,” Bryant joked in the film — that allowed them to grow into two of the best basketball players on the planet.
“Different journeys, different people, but the beast inside of us is exactly the same,” Bryant said of Catchings.
This summer, they would have joined each other in Springfield, Massachusetts, for their induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
“I was sitting with Sheryl Swoopes for the [Hall of Fame] announcement,” Catchings said. “We were sitting there as all the other [Hall of Famers] were walking in, and she was like, ‘The saddest thing about all of it is that we won’t see him walk through the door. We won’t hear his speech. We won’t hear the stories that he’d talk about.’
“We won’t get any of that. And that’s sad. Because he did it. He earned it.”
Catchings was talking to her husband the other day about how surreal it has been to celebrate the life of a man she knew since the first grade. There’s still a disbelief that she can’t shake, that she will probably never shake. But she feels a responsibility to carry on her friend’s legacy by calling out complacency the way he would.
“Everybody’s been talking about Mamba Mentality, and I’m like, ‘Why does it take somebody passing away to live life like that?'” Catchings said. “Why have we been OK with people being mediocre, and then when you see somebody like Kobe, who exceeds the norm, we celebrate it? At what point in life did not living to your highest potential become OK?”
That, Catchings explained, is what her friend Kobe would say.
The parts left unsaid and unfinished are what no one can reconcile.
What would Gianna have become? What would Payton Chester or Alyssa Altobelli have become? They were just 13 years old.
“I was on the radio the day he passed,” Jackson Jr. said. “And I remember hanging up, and the only thing I regretted was not saying anything about Gianna. I didn’t like that.”
So he bought a Los Angeles Sparks jersey, No. 2, and had Gianna Bryant’s name sewn into it.
“I really just wanted her to see my recognition from wherever she is,” he said. “That I thought about her future, too.”
Potential is what Christopher Lloyd thought about when he heard the news. He met Bryant when Kobe appeared as a guest on Modern Family — the show Lloyd co-created and executive produces — while he was still playing.
“He was a fan of the show, but he was also already making inroads into the industry,” Lloyd said. “So he asked if he could come to the set — which people often do.
“And then he said, ‘I’d love to sit in the writers’ room’ — which is something people seldom do. I thought, ‘Well, that’s going to really make for an unproductive day, to have Kobe Bryant sitting off in the corner. Everyone’s going to have to try extra hard to be funny — and fail.'”
But Lloyd went along with it and ended up pleasantly surprised.
“He just was quiet, and he was interested in the process,” Lloyd said. “He asked very curious, interested questions.
“A lot of people come to set, and they’ll start making suggestions. You’re like, ‘This is a terrible idea. We do this professionally our whole lives. You’re here one day. Don’t start telling us how to do it.’ But he didn’t do any of that. He just sat and observed and asked a question or two. He just seemed like he was trying to learn.”
Bryant won an Oscar for his short film “Dear Basketball” in 2018, and he had dozens more films, books and podcasts in production through his production company, Granity Studios. Three days after his death, the studio issued this statement:
“Granity is a word Kobe created that is a combination of greater than infinity. How very Kobe.
“In everything he built, Kobe was driven to teach the next generation how to reach their full potential.”
Anthony Bannister used to talk to Kobe about what reaching his potential in life would look like.
“You know those stories of him getting the janitor to open up the gym for him late at night when he was in high school?” Bannister said. “That was me. I was the guy who had the keys, who opened up the [Jewish Community Center gym in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania] for him every night.”
Bannister was five years older than Kobe, and Bryant’s father, Joe, had asked Bannister to look out for his son as he adjusted to life in the States after six years in Italy.
They had a million conversations in that gym.
“We’d be at the JCC, downstairs, talking about metaphysical stuff,” Bannister said. “Like, conquering things, testing the limits, being able to do things that other people couldn’t do.”
Kobe was obsessed with Roger Bannister’s 4-minute mile, with Apollo, the Greek god of the Sun, with knowledge, miracles and music, with becoming a person who changed the world.
“I remember one night he called me from a Janet Jackson concert and said, ‘I want them to love me like they love her, bro. They’re going to do that for me. I’m going to let the world see me,'” recalled Bannister, who is not related to the runner.
Bannister knew the brash teenager who talked about doing legendary things but hadn’t actually done them yet. Then Kobe did something no one thought possible.
“Kobe really wanted to go to the prom, and he didn’t have anyone,” Bannister said. “And I think [our friend] Big Mike brought [the pop singer Brandy] up. Mike had connections in the music industry, and it just came together.”
Kobe Bryant, this high school basketball player whose only claim to fame was his audaciously declaring for the NBA draft, was taking Brandy to his high school prom. They didn’t know each other. They didn’t even go to dinner beforehand. But Brandy accepted the invitation and flew to Philadelphia.
“It was, like, the biggest thing ever,” Bannister said with a laugh. “You took a celebrity on your prom. You ain’t even that guy yet. But I don’t even think he was nervous. No, you face your fears first.”
Bannister and Bryant weren’t in touch as much as they got older and had families and careers. But they remained connected.
“You have your first life, and then you have your life when you meet your wife or your significant other,” Bannister said. “And then you have another life when you have your children. These are the maturations of life. And we would talk about these things. We talked about life and death. Kobe never shirked away from that.”
He thought back on a trip they took together in 1997, when Bryant was asked to be a celebrity judge in the Miss Teen USA pageant. The competition was being held at a resort on South Padre Island, Texas. Bryant and Bannister missed their connecting flight and were forced to rent a car to make it to the event in time.
Bryant, though, was too young to rent a car. So Bannister talked the person behind the counter into renting to him by offering tickets to a future Lakers-Rockets game.
“We drove through the night and got there in the morning,” he remembered. “That’s when we watched the sunrise. Right on the bridge, going into the Island.”
Kobe had so many dreams back then. He was never going to have enough time to realize all of them.
“But I think he got the job done,” Bannister said. “Did he complete his work? No. But that’s everyone, though. You understand? We all have more to do. There’s always more.”
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