Intensely private Vanessa Bryant shares emotional stories at Kobe memorial

LOS ANGELES — Beyonce sang. Michael Jordan cried. Shaquille O'Neal joined the basketball luminaries paying tribute to Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna during a memorial service Monday at Staples Center. But the most emotional moment came from an intensely private woman.

Vanessa Bryant shared with a crowd of about 20,000 what she said made her husband special off the basketball court and why they adored and admired Gianna, one of their four daughters and known affectionately as“Gigi.”

“God knew they couldn’t be on this earth together without each other,’’ she said in a halting voice. “He had to take them back."

Bryant and his daughter and seven other people were among those who died in a helicopter crash Jan. 26. Monday was an opportunity to celebrate their lives.

Vanessa Bryant pauses during her emotional 20-minute address at the memorial to celebrate the life of Kobe and Gianna Bryant. (Photo: Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY Sports)

Wearing a black dress, Vanessa Bryant’s presence elicited chants of “Ko-be, Ko-be’’ and shouts of “Gigi, Gigi,’’ and her 20-minute speech prompted ripples of laughter through the crowd and left some people wiping tears from their eyes.

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She lamented that she’d never have a chance to tell Gianna how beautiful she looked on her wedding day, that she and Kobe would never been able to teach Gianna how to drive a car, or that Gianna would never make it to high school with her big sister, Natalia.

But Vanessa Bryant’s spirits lifted during other portions of the speech.

“Kobe was known as fierce competitor on the basketball court,’’ she said. “The greatest of all time. A writer, an Oscar winner and the Black Mamba. But to me he was KoKo,’’ and to the crowd’s delight she began rattling off their pet names for each other.

They started dating when she was 17½, noted Vanessa Bryant, 37, and she called him her “soulmate.’’ He was a romantic, and an expert writer of love letters and cards, she said, and also added that Kobe Bryant doted on the couple’s four daughters — Natalia, 17; Capri, 3; Bianka, 9 months; and Gianna, who Bryant coached in basketball.

“Kobe was the MVP of girl dads,’’ Vanessa Bryant said. “He never left the toilet seat up. He always told the girls how beautiful and smart they are. He taught them how to be brave and how to keep pushing forward when things get tough.’’

Tough times were something Vanessa and Kobe Bryant endured too. In 2003, Kobe Bryant was accused of rape. The case was dropped after the woman who accused him refused to testify.

In 2011, Vanessa Bryant filed for divorce, citing “irreconcilable differences,’’ before they announced in 2013 they had reconciled.

“Two perfectly imperfect people making a beautiful family and raising our sweet and amazing girls,’’ Vanessa Bryant told the crowd Monday, while also saying Kobe Bryant was “the kind of man who wanted to teach the future generations to be better to keep them from making his own mistakes.’’

Vanessa Bryant was tearful when recounting how her daughter always kissed her good night and good morning. But after late nights with her two youngest daughters, Vanessa Bryant said, she would wake up and realize Gianna was gone.

“And I thought she had left school without saying goodbye,’’ Vanessa Bryant said. “I’d text and say, ‘No kiss?’ And Gianna would reply with, 'Mama, I kissed you. You were asleep and I didn’t want to wake you.’

“She knew how much the morning and evening kisses meant to me.’’

Coached by her father, former star of the Los Angeles Lakers, Gianna had developed into a talented basketball player who dreamed of playing in the WNBA, her mother said. But Vanessa Bryant also stressed that Gianna was more than a basketball player.

On the list of Gianna’s accomplishments: She knew how to read, speak and write in Mandarin; had great grades; was on the eighth-grade student council; was president of the school student spirit club; and excelled not only in basketball but also gymnastics, soccer, softball and dance.

“I couldn’t keep up with her energy,’’ Vanessa Bryant said. "She was so full of life and had so much more to offer this world. I cannot imagine life without her.’’

Before ending her speech, and walking off the stage guided by Jordan, Vanessa Bryant spoke as both Kobe Bryant and Giannna are in heaven, and made a plaintive request of her husband of two decades

“Baby,’’ she said, “you take care of our Gigi."

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