by Kelley L. Carter — LOS ANGELES — I’ve never heard a silence so loud.
A few minutes after 10 a.m., when the lights went down and a video montage began playing of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, the lull in the audience was deafening.
All eyes were on the big screen hanging from the rafters.
There was no noise outside of the music playing as the images rotated across the screen. There was no noise other than Kobe Bryant’s voice when videos would skate across those same screens.
There was no noise. There was only silence.
I’ve been here before.
And these things never get easier.
There have been three times in the history of the Staples Center that the facility has been used as a homegoing ceremony for a beloved hero.
Monday morning, as I walked through the doors of the basketball arena, marked my third time coming here for a homegoing service.
And now, Kobe Bryant. In the house that Kobe Bryant built.
The emotional weight was heavy. There was almost no one who didn’t break down in a fit of tears. Perhaps the world’s most famous people were gathered in a space to honor the NBA superstar and Lakers legend one last time in a thoughtfully produced memorial service I’ve ever seen in my two decades on the celebrity funeral beat.
And I’ve attended many. Aretha Franklin. Gerald Levert. Ron Winans. The list goes on and on.
But memorial services at The Staples Center, an arena that holds around 20,000 people, are different.
This is a space where unforgettable concerts happen, award shows happen, competitive basketball games happen.
Not homegoing services.
For three times, this space of merriment has been transformed to something else: The country’s largest chapel, a space where the King of Pop, Neighborhood Nip and now, Bryant — who are so beloved, that people come from all over the world and across the country, to witness the last public tribute to them and cry with strangers and hug people they’ll never see again over someone they loved from afar for more than two decades.
Bryant’s service felt emotionally weighty.
Perhaps because of the way he and eight others tragically died. Perhaps because he was at the beginning of his second act, where he’d already collected an Academy Award, the thing that trained film creatives chase their entire lives without ever earning so much as a nomination. Perhaps because at 41, his life was finally about to be his own, after spending more than half of it as a famous athlete who helped restore glory to the Lakers franchise.
On Monday morning, the 24th day of February, there wasn’t as much pomp and circumstance as someone like Bryant could have certainly garnered. Oh, the people were there. But with the exception of Beyonce, they didn’t take the stage. Jay-Z, Jennifer Lopez, Alex Rodriguez, Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, Khloe Kardashian, Kris Jenner, LL Cool J, Snoop Dogg, and Michael Phelps are just a handful of marquee names who sat in attendance.
But they were mourners.
This memorial service was a chance to do what the other two we’ve seen happen at the Staples Center didn’t have the foresight to do. They spun a legacy forward.
We were reminded about how we’re going to miss out on seeing Bryant’s impact in the world of women’s basketball by way of his talented daughter Gianna. We were reminded that we’d never fully get to see what her presence at women’s college basketball games and future WNBA games would have meant in a world where gender equality is lacking in the world of sports.
By seeing Diana Taurasi of the Phoenix Mercury and Oregon standout Sabrina Ionescu speak about their relationships with Bryant and his daughter, we have a clearer, hammered down understanding of how important this was to him.
There were moments between speakers getting on and off stage where the silence was turned up again.
Faint chants of Kobe Bryant would start up and fall over the silence.
But the silence was loud.
Perhaps this third memorial service feels different because of the shared thought so many of us are having trouble wrapping our brains around: None of us should even be here.
Kobe Bryant was young and strong. The end of his life shouldn’t have come for a very long time.
We should not be here. But there we were.
Sitting in silence at the Staples Center.