LOS ANGELES — Vanessa Bryant offered a poignant portrait of her NBA superstar husband and their daughter Monday at a sold-out memorial service for the two, who were among nine people killed last month in a helicopter crash in Los Angeles.
Speaking at times through tears, Vanessa praised Kobe Bryant’s devotion — calling him “the MVP of girl dads” — as she addressed the 20,0000 fans gathered at Staples Center to remember Bryant and Gianna, who was 13.
“God knew they couldn’t be on this earth without each other,” she said. “He had to bring them home to have them together. Babe, you take care of our Gigi.”
The service took place at the downtown arena where Bryant played for the Los Angeles Lakers for 17 seasons of his two-decade NBA career.
The ceremony began with Beyonce performing her songs “XO” and “Halo.”
After Jimmy Kimmel welcomed the crowd, Vanessa Bryant remembered the family’s life with Gianna, describing her as a sweet, thoughtful soul who loved always kissing her mother good morning and goodnight.
“Her smile was like sunshine,” Vanessa said. “Her smile took up her entire face. Like me. Kobe always said she was like me. She had my fire, my personality and sarcasm. She was tender and loving on the inside. She had the best laugh. She had the best laugh. It was infectious. It was pure and genuine.”
Vanessa said Gianna loved swimming, singing along with hit songs, baking cookies, and watching “Survivor” and NBA games with her father. She says her daughter loved basketball so much she even offered her school’s boys’ team advice.
Vanessa predicted that Gianna could have become “the best player in the WNBA.”
She then eulogized the man she had been with since 1999, saying they had planned to renew their vows and often talked about how they looked forward to becoming the “cool grandparents” after their kids have their own children.
“He was the most amazing husband,” she said. “Kobe loved me more than I could ever express or put into words. I was fire. He was ice. Vice versa at times. … He was my everything.”
Symbolic meanings ran throughout the ceremony, which was held on a 24-foot-by-24-foot stage. Vanessa chose Feb. 24 as the date of the memorial in honor of the uniform numbers of Kobe and Gianna, who wore No. 2 on her youth basketball teams. Money from ticket sales will be given to the Mamba and Mambacita Sports Foundation, which supports youth sports programs in underserved communities and teaches sports to girls and women.
The crowd included Lakers greats such as Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and Pau Gasol. NBA commissioner Adam Silver joined Michael Jordan, Phil Jackson and dozens of current NBA players, including Stephen Curry, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook.
It was unclear whether current Lakers star LeBron James was also in attendance. His agent, Rich Paul, told ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith that it was a very emotional day for James and that he spent the memorial “in his own space.” Despite prompting, Paul did not clarify whether James was at Staples Center.
Jordan gave a lengthy speech through tears and joked that he’ll have to “look at another crying me” — referencing the famous crying Jordan meme. He said he was grateful to be given the opportunity to “celebrate the gift that Kobe gave us all.”
“What Kobe Bryant was to me, was the inspiration that someone truly cared about the way either I played the game, or the way that he wanted to play the game,” Jordan said. “He wanted to be the best basketball player that he could be. And as I got to know him, I wanted to be the best big brother that I could be.”
Jordan concluded the speech by saying: “When Kobe died, a piece of me died.”
Shaquille O’Neal spoke next and compared his partnership with Bryant to that of John Lennon and Paul McCartney of the Beatles — whose competitive rivalry fueled them to make better music.
O’Neal mentioned the time he reminded Bryant there is no “I” in “team.”
Bryant had a retort.
“I know, but there’s a ‘M-E’ in that motherf—er.”
The service featured several other speakers who were close with the Bryant family, including Diana Taurasi, Geno Auriemma, Sabrina Ionescu and Rob Pelinka.
Pelinka told the story of texting with Bryant just minutes before his death. Pelinka was in church while Bryant was in the air on the helicopter. Bryant was reaching out to see whether Pelinka had ties to a baseball agent because he wanted to set up his friend’s daughter with an internship.
“Kobe’s last human activity was heroic,” Pelinka said. “He wanted to use his platform to bless and shape another’s life.”
Auriemma talked about the excitement that Gianna showed while visiting UConn, where she had hoped to play basketball one day. “Gianna passed the ball when she was open. I thought, ‘She is not listening to her father,'” Auriemma said jokingly.
Ionescu, a star point guard for the Oregon Ducks, said Gianna had a better fadeaway jump shot than she does.
“If I represent present-day women’s basketball, Gigi represented the future,” she said.
The memorial finished with a performance of “Ave Maria” by Christina Aguilera followed by an airing of Bryant’s Oscar-winning animated short, “Dear Basketball.”
Kimmel ended the ceremony with a simple message for the crowd.
“Don’t forget: Work hard, and hug the people you love.”
ESPN’s Dave McMenamin and The Associated Press contributed to this report.