By Rory Carroll
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Kobe Bryant fans flooded the grounds around Staples Center on Friday ahead of his former team’s first game since his death in a helicopter crash earlier this week that stunned basketball fans in the city and worldwide.
Fans wearing Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers jerseys laid flowers, wrote messages on temporarily erected white walls and shared stories of the 41 year old, who perished along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven other people on Sunday.
“Kobe Bryant meant a lot to me. I’ve been watching him for 20 years since he came into the league and I just love him,” said Lakers fan Karina Mendoza.
“I want to thank him for everything he has done for us here in L.A.”
“It’s a sad and a beautiful day. You can see all the people here and all the Lakers fans. We’re like family. Love you Kobe, love you Gigi and all the families.”
Inside the arena, where tributes were expected throughout the game, Kobe and Gianna jerseys were placed on the two courtside seats where the pair sat at their last Lakers game.
“I was surprised to see how much it affected me as soon as I got here and saw these makeshift memorials,” said 71-year-old Lakers fan Jim Bendat.
“My kids grew up with Kobe and Kobe meant so much to all three of my children. So I sort of experienced all that along with my kids.
“It’s almost like losing a child in a way.”
Los Angeles native Andres Valle said people gained inspiration from the famously driven Bryant, who played 20 seasons with the Lakers, 18 of them as an all-star, while winning five championships.
“He was an inspiration to millions of people, not just Lakers fans, but people worldwide,” Valle said.
“Kobe was a symbol of hard work, dedication, putting your all into your passions, your craft, and so I think a lot of us were able to connect with him in that sense.”
“It’s beautiful to see and I think that inspiration will live on forever.”
Bryant and the eight others died when the helicopter they were taking to a girls’ basketball tournament crashed in foggy weather on a hillside northwest of Los Angeles, plunging fans into mourning and sending shockwaves through the sporting world.
Following Bryant’s death, the National Basketball Association (NBA) canceled a game scheduled for Staples Center on Tuesday between the Lakers and the Los Angles Clippers, citing the need to give the team time to grieve.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel this week said the tragedy was bringing the Western Conference-leading Lakers, an already tight-knit group, even closer together and credited team leaders LeBron James and Anthony Davis with helping the players manage their emotions.
“I’m heartbroken and devastated my brother!!” James, who was seen in tears at Los Angeles International Airport on the day of Bryant’s death, wrote on Instagram on Monday. “I promise you I’ll continue your legacy man!”
Earlier on Friday James posted a photo of a new tattoo depicting a snake and the words “Mamba 4 Life,” a reference to Bryant’s Black Mamba nickname.
Davis posted a photo on Instagram of the two sitting side by side at the 2012 Olympics.
Practice on Thursday began with some flag football on an outside field near the Lakers’ practice facility in what Vogel called “therapeutic” Southern California sunshine.
“We are striking a balance of trying to make us feel good,” Vogel said. “Laughter is always a good remedy for something like this when it’s appropriate.”
It was not clear if surviving members of Bryant’s family would attend Friday’s game. His widow, Vanessa, posted a photo of herself with her late husband and four daughters on Instagram on Wednesday, her first public comment since his death.
Vanessa Bryant, 37, in the post described herself and surviving daughters as “completely devastated,” and thanked fans for their support.
Although Friday’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers will mark the first for the Lakers since his death, Bryant was remembered at Staples Center on Sunday night by performers at the Grammy Awards as fans gathered outside the arena in a spontaneous vigil.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said the Feb. 9 Oscars ceremony would include a salute to Bryant.
(Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien & Shri Navaratnam)