Hundreds of Lakers fans gather near helicopter crash site to remember Kobe Bryant
CALABASAS, Calif. — It will take time for the smoke to clear from the crash site on the hills. It will take much longer for Lakers fans to process what just happened.
Hundreds of people gathered around an area where Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others died in a helicopter crash on Sunday morning.
“Unbelievable,” said RJ Sobhanpanah, 28, of Thousand Oaks. “He was our idol. It doesn’t make sense.”
No, it doesn't. Bryant, 41, was just four years removed from a storied 20-year NBA career that spanned five championships, a fourth-place finish on the league’s all-time scoring list and two retired Lakers jerseys. Bryant began overseeing a storytelling production company (Granity) and an athletic training facility (Mamba Sports Complex). And he had relished having more time to be with his wife (Vanessa) and four daughters (Natalia, Gianna, Bianka, Capri).
On Sunday afternoon, countless Lakers fans went to the Church in the Canyon where they could see the wreckage from afar. The church planned to hold a vigil honoring Bryant on Sunday evening, but Lakers fans did not wait that long.
After once wearing Bryant’s No. 8 or No. 24 jersey while cheering him for his on-court heroics, Lakers fans wore his uniform while grieving.
“I was in total shock,” said Ojan Sobhanpanah, RJ’s 21-year-old brother. “He literally saved my life. I would not be who I am without him.”
The reason? Almost a decade after attending Bryant’s summer camp in Thousand Oaks, Ojan reported dropping from 231 pounds to 168 this past year.
“Because of his 'Mamba mentality,'” Ojan said.
Bryant also influenced the timing of RJ’s wedding. He got married last summer on Aug. 24, a date that aligns with the same month and day as Bryant’s jersey numbers. He sent out a “Save the Date” card to guests that showed he and his fianceé wearing both of Bryant’s jersey numbers. At the wedding, RJ and his groomsmen wore Bryant-themed socks.
“He meant literally everything to me,” RJ said. “His mentality, his work ethic and the way he played basketball — he was always the best.”
Hundreds of other grieving fans felt the same way.
At Bryant's "Mamba Sports Academy" on Sunday evening, fans left bushels of flowers, autographed Bryant jerseys, framed newspapers, Lakers flags and get-well cards just outside the facility. Church of the Canyon, which is located across from where Bryant's helicopter crashed, held a vigil that attracted about 80 Bryant fans. There, pastor Bob Bjerkaas delivered a 13-minute sermon before inviting the congregation to offer prayers and tributes.
"Kobe Bryant was a man like you and me," Bjerkaas said. "He had ups and downs, strengths and weaknesses, feelings and hopes. But he also had something extraordinary and it was a gift from God."
Afterwards, those fans embraced Bjerkaas before leaving the church bearing both tears and smiles as they mourned Bryant's passing and gushed about his on-court accomplishments.
"These are words that needed to be heard," said Irvin Guillermo, 31, of Northridge. "I felt like this was closure for me."
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Mark Medina on Twitter @MarkG_Medina.