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Mourning Kobe Bryant at the Grammys in the house he helped build

On ‘music’s biggest night’ comes the unfathomable reality of the death of an NBA icon

LOS ANGELES — On a day originally intended to be a commemoration of now Grammy award-winner Nipsey Hussle, we learned while in the STAPLES Center about the tragic helicopter crash that killed Los Angeles Lakers icon Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others.

His retired No. 8 and No. 24 jerseys sit just feet away from the journalists tasked to make sense of something so life-altering.

Instantly, the Grammys became a backdrop in a city grappling again with grief, anger and confusion. The city of Los Angeles — one that cherishes its cultural legends in religiouslike fashion — is shattered to its core. Outside STAPLES, an impromptu memorial formed. Hundreds gathered all in hopes their collective pain could be therapy for each other. Jerseys with “BRYANT,” and both numbers on the back were common.

Tears mixed with, “MVP” and “Kobe” chants. Some made wreaths and brought flowers. The familiar aroma of weed became a coping mechanism. Others held “R.I.P. Black Mamba” signs. Large screens displaying the 18-time All-Star’s face with the date signature “1978-2020” hammer home the truth no one, akin to the music industry whose “biggest night” was anything but, is yet willing to accept.

Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna Bryant attend a basketball game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks at Staples Center on December 29, 2019 in Los Angeles, California.

Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images

This was the same man who once took R&B star Brandy to her senior prom. Played a part in the unraveling of an early 2000s Lakers dynasty. Helped save Team USA from complete embarrassment in the 2008 Olympic gold medal contest. And dropped 60 points with Jay-Z courtside in the final professional game of his career. The same man who, for all intents and purposes, was expected to deliver one of the most anticipated Hall of Fame speeches in sports history later this year. Kobe Bryant, as complex, controversial, beloved and maniacal as a player sports has ever seen, is dead.

In L.A. Live, all I hear in my head is Donny Hathaway’s cover of “A Song For You.” Like Bryant, Hathaway died young, taking a world of potential along with him during an apparent suicide in 1979. “I love you in a place/ Where there’s no space or time/ I love you for my life,” Hathaway sang in an eerily appropriate tone of the afternoon’s emotions. ” ‘Cause you’re a friend of mine/ And when my life is over/ Remember when we were together.”

News crews scrambled to speak with fans, but most were more comfortable grieving among themselves. Fellow former Laker Shaquille O’Neal’s Instagram tribute about his running mate made its rounds. Others focused on Bryant’s final tweet. “Continue moving the game forward [LeBron],” he tweeted in a passing of the torch-like salute to James, who passed Bryant the night before for third on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. “Much respect my brother.”

“Kobe Bryant, outside of my family, was my childhood,” said native Los Angeleno Bryan Robinson. “My parents would order wings from Art’s on Crenshaw and we’d watch Kobe and [Shaquille O’Neal]. We stuck by his side through all his adversity and losses. The city grew up with him and always had his back no matter what.”

Likewise, artists attempted to juggle emotions. Lizzo, who’d soon take home the Best Urban Contemporary award, began the Grammys dedicating her performance to Bryant. Host Alicia Keys asked for a moment of silence while bringing Boyz II Men onstage for an a cappella performance of “It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye to Yesterday.”

“It’s a huge loss … a devastating loss with the news about Kobe,” said rapper Rick Ross. “But the true champion Kobe was, I believe he would want us to continue celebrating his legacy. And that starts with tonight.”

“My heart is very heavy,” said Koffee, who would later win her first Grammy for best reggae album for Rapture. “It’s definitely not something you want to hear on any day. I just want to send my condolences and prayers to everyone who was close to him. I just hope they feel comforted at this moment.”

“It’s tragic, you feel me? Kobe was the reason I tried to play basketball and realized that I couldn’t like him,” Jetsonmade, the producer extraordinaire behind DaBaby’s meteoric rise in 2019, said. “God don’t make mistakes. God had it lined up like that. He telling us something.”

But it was Guapdad 4000 who approached the topic with a weighted sense of perspective. “Definitely make you bittersweet. It’s monumental for me to be in a situation like this. But this is a monumental loss for the culture,” he said. “So I’ve got to think outside of myself and let our people grieve for a hero. He was a superhero.”

It’s not as if grief has an expiration date or haunts one generation and skips the other. Growing up in the ’90s, I’d often wonder how scribes found peace to document the culture through waves of heartbreak and shock. The L.A. Riots and the O.J. Simpson trial put race front and center into households across the country. Eazy-E, Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. died within three years of one another. Now as an adult, understanding that very rarely do we get to pen from places of tranquility. There’s always the next tragedy that changes the course of your life without a moment’s notice.

Oftentimes I find myself in deep prayer for my generation. In particular how we deal with grief. Or how we don’t. In the last decade alone, as adults we’ve wrestled with the reality of death while trying to figure out the purpose of our own lives. Coming to grips with Hussle’s murder is an ongoing process and like Bryant’s, elicits the same two responses: “This will never sit right” and “I’ll never accept this.”

Imagine Meek Mill’s mental state. The torment of protege Lil’ Snupe’s 2013 murder still haunts him. Sunday’s Grammys was already scheduled to be an emotionally taxing night with a tribute to his slain friend in Hussle. Then Kobe, another Philadelphia native, happened. Mill, and this cannot be understated, is here by the grace of God. He’s probably been closer to death than most people have.

If the deaths of Bryant, his daughter Gianna, John, Kerri and Alyssa Altobelli, Christina Mauser, Ara Zobayan and Sarah and Payton Chester do nothing else, they further drill home the importance of mortality. We spend our 20s trying to figure out where the pieces go on life’s chessboard. And through it all we have a feeling of invincibility. That there’s always more time to grow up. Nothing makes you feel more alive, or closer to the afterlife, than death. By writing this, I place my own mortality on the screen in front of me. The agonizing serendipity just as the Grammy premiere ceremony began is a feeling I’ll never forget.

What comes of this is anyone’s guess. Only one reality remains unimpeachable. The City of Angels received another. But no one was ready for him to get his wings.

Justin Tinsley is a culture and sports writer for The Undefeated. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single-most impactful statement of his generation.