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Fans Pay Tribute To NBA Star Kobe Bryant, Who Died Sunday


For 20 years, Kobe Bryant was in American living rooms and basement caves and bars, a fixture on television, as he dominated game after game in pro basketball. Those 20 years help to explain the response when news spread that Bryant died in a helicopter crash in California. Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna were among nine people killed. Caroline Champlin spent time with fans at Staples Center, where Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers played.

CAROLINE CHAMPLIN, BYLINE: They started gathering around noon yesterday to celebrate Kobe Bryant - or to them, just Kobe. Gabriel Hart was one of the first to show up.

GABRIEL HART: And I get here, and I didn't see anything happen. No one was here. And then suddenly, somebody just put one flower - and within minutes, the Laker nation just started coming.

CHAMPLIN: And within hours, the courtyard was full of thousands of people. Some in tuxedos were there for the Grammys, which coincidentally was hosted at the Staples Center, but most were fans in jerseys, sporting Kobe's numbers 8 and 24. Several small shrines with flowers, candles and pictures popped up across the courtyard. It was quiet, besides spontaneous cheering.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Kobe. Kobe. Kobe.

CHAMPLIN: Quenton Doswell III was at a restaurant before coming to the memorial, and he said he was too upset to eat. He knew he needed to be here.

QUENTON DOSWELL III: As a black man, as an African American man in the United States, I've always liked how Kobe expressed himself. He spoke eloquently. He spoke many languages. This one hurts. This is going to stick with me for a while.

CHAMPLIN: Others in the crowd represented Kobe's global reach. USC student Derek Wong became a fan in China, where Kobe was really big. He says Los Angeles was the first U.S. city he cared about.

DEREK WONG: A large part of the reason I come here is because Kobe, the Lakers.

CHAMPLIN: And for J.J. and Georgia Nario, Kobe united their family. Their parents were living in Los Angeles while the two of them lived in the Philippines, but they'd all watch Laker games at the same time.

J J NARIO: Big moments in our family's history were kind of linked to the Lakers, yeah, in some way.

CHAMPLIN: Moving to America, graduations, getting into college - Kobe was there for all of it.

GEORGIA NARIO: I feel like the games were kind of like a checkpoint of how our life was going. It was like a family ever since we came here.

CHAMPLIN: Hidden in the crowd of Kobe jerseys were some Black Mamba skeptics, like R.J. Velasco. He represents Laker fans who didn't always appreciate Kobe as a player.

R J VELASCO: The flash and the ball-hogging thing wasn't, like, my type of basketball.

CHAMPLIN: But Velasco started warming up to Kobe after he retired. He liked the way Kobe supported his daughter Gianna, who shared his passion for basketball.

VELASCO: The thing that he was doing with his daughter, just - it's heartbreaking.

CHAMPLIN: Corey Argumosa felt that heartbreak, too. He's from LA, the city where Kobe spent his whole 20-year NBA career.

COREY ARGUMOSA: He was LA, all right. The man was - he was grit. He was toughness. He was showtime. He was entertainment. And he was community. The turnout here today is indicative of that.

CHAMPLIN: Tributes are expected throughout the week. The Lakers play at home here on Tuesday.

For NPR News, I'm Caroline Champlin in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Caroline Champlin