By Greg Beacham
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Mourners began gathering Monday in downtown Los Angeles to say farewell to Kobe and Gianna Bryant at the Staples Center, hours before Bryant’s memorial service was scheduled to start
The basketball superstar and his 13-year-old daughter will be honored in a public memorial at the arena where Bryant played for the Los Angeles Lakers. Kobe and Gianna Bryant died along with seven others in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26.
Early arriving fans included Bob Melendez, 72, who has been a season ticket holder for 40 years. After seeing Bryant play for the Lakers for years — including at his retirement game — Melendez said he could not imagine missing the memorial.
Melendez and friends Tom Ling, Rene Vega and Brett Noss said they wanted to pay their respects to the Bryant family.
Vega said his grandchildren and Bryant’s children attend the same school. Bryant called Vega “Grandpa” and snuck up behind him and pick him up.
Ling, wearing a silver No. 8 jersey, said he couldn’t believe the news of Bryant’s death.
“We thought it was fake news,” he said. “We didn’t want to believe it.”
Melendez wore a black No. 24 jersey and Lakers jacket he bought for Bryant’s final game.
“I’d never dreamed I’d be wearing this” at Bryant’s memorial, he said.
The Celebration of Life will feature speakers reflecting on Kobe Bryant’s impact on his sport and the world, along with music and retrospectives on Bryant’s on-court achievements. Bryant became active in film, television and writing after he retired from basketball in 2016.
Bryant’s family, dozens of sports greats and many major figures in Bryant’s public life are expected to attend.
Staples Center is sold out for the memorial. The money made 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.
Bryant played his entire 20-year NBA career with the Lakers, including the final 17 seasons at Staples Center, which opened in 1999. The five-time NBA champion’s two retired jersey numbers — 8 and 24 — hang high above the arena where he became the third-leading scorer in league history until Lakers star LeBron James passed him on the night before Bryant’s death.
Bryant’s death caused an outpouring of grief across Los Angeles, where he remained the city’s most popular athlete into retirement. Dozens of public memorials and murals have been installed around the sprawling metropolis, and thousands of fans gathered daily outside Staples Center to commiserate after the crash.
Symbolic meanings will run throughout the ceremony, which will be held on a 24-foot-by-24-foot stage. Vanessa Bryant, Kobe’s wife and Gianna’s mother, chose Feb. 24 as the date in honor of the uniform numbers of Kobe and Gianna, who wore No. 2 on her youth basketball teams.
A private funeral was held for Kobe and Gianna Bryant in Orange County on Feb. 7.
Associated Press writer Stefanie Dazio in Los Angeles contributed to this story.