When Kobe Bryant scored 60 points in his last NBA game in 2016, Kristian Beflic was there, having come all the way from Germany to watch. When Bryant’s jersey was retired at Staples Center before a game the following year, Beflic was there again.
The German hotelier and restaurateur was one of the approximately 70,000 people who didn’t win the lottery to buy a ticket to Bryant’s memorial service Monday at Staples Center. But that didn’t stop him from coming. He jumped on a plane anyway and got to LA just in time to be standing outside Staples Center to pay respects as 20,000 people with tickets filed inside.
“We will catch it on TV somewhere later. But just to be here in the moment and feel the energy, we had to be here,” said Beflic, dressed from head to toe in Lakers gear that included a jersey with Bryant’s early career No. 8.
Bryant was far more than just a great basketball player to him and tens of thousands of others inside and outside of the arena. He was someone many people who had followed his career for so long felt was family, a role model they wanted to emulate.
So when it came time to pay respects to the Lakers legend who died in a helicopter crash with his 13-year-old daughter and seven others last month, they all had to be there.
“He was like my mentor of sorts,” said Beflic, noting that as a 12-year-old basketball-crazed kid in the 1990s he wanted to play like Bryant. Later, as a businessman, he embraced Bryant’s work ethic and his belief that to succeed you had to keep pushing and working harder to get better at anything.
Inside the arena shedding tears were Christopher Samala, 44, and his 47-year-old brother, Jasper, who didn’t learn until Sunday they were among the lucky 20,000 who had won the right to buy tickets.
“I thought I was done crying. But I cried again,” Christopher Samala said after the service. ”Ït’s like a family.”
Alex Campuzano, who came from Lancaster, California, with his wife, Mercedes, teared up as he talked about Bryant’s dedication to his wife and four daughters.
“Kobe inspired me to be a better dad, to be a better person,” Campuzano said.
Outside, a friendly crowd numbering several hundred gathered at bus stops, in parking lots, on street corners and in front of a hotel across from Staples Center.
Helicopters and a Goodyear blimp hovered overhead as people streamed the memorial on their phones while crowds gathered quietly around them. From time to time, as a bus passed by with the names of Bryant, his daughter, Gianna, and the seven other crash victims etched in the windows, a cheer of “Kobe, Kobe, Kobe” went up.
Tyrone Jones, a hip-hop artist who performs under the name Kuzzo Fly, brought a bouquet of flowers. He had come to the makeshift memorial that sprung up around Staples Center last month after Bryant’s death but had to leave when he broke down crying.
“Today it feels much lighter, much happier,” he said, standing across the street from Staples Center and feeling that after a month of grief he was finally getting closure.
Before the ceremony, officials had walled off the area adjacent to the arena, shutting down its bars and restaurants. One establishment, the Yard House, began letting people in through its side entrance midway through the service and when it did 200 or more quickly flocked toward the bar to watch on TV as fellow basketball legends Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal delivered heartfelt eulogies.
People laughed as the pair told funny stories, wiped away tears when they did and stood to cheer at the end.
Among them were Juan Sanchez, Gabriel Ramirez and Max Rascon who left their Stockton homes in Northern California at 2 a.m. to get there. Rascon recalled asking his boss Sanchez if he could have the day off to go. Sanchez said sure, he was going too, so the three-headed south together.
They had no choice, they said, Ramirez perhaps summing it up best: “When Kobe left, a piece of me left too.”