The sky was thick with fog Sunday morning as media outlets began to take their place on the Grammys red carpet for music’s biggest night. There was already a significant heaviness preceding this year’s ceremony given the ongoing controversy surrounding the Academy and its decision to put its president, Deborah Dugan, on leave ten days prior to the ceremony. But before the carpet opened at noon, TMZ broke the news of the sudden death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, the man who made a home in the Staples Center, the very building where the Grammys are held. The news moved across the carpet like a wave of mourning, radically changing the tone for the day ahead to commemorative, reflective, and united.
The carpet was sparse for most of the afternoon, but some of the nominated stars wanted to pay tribute. “We’re still gon’ make it a great day,” Rick Ross told Vulture. “As a champion that’s what we gotta do.” Esperanza Spalding called Bryant as “a bigger-than-life person. You just wonder: How could that happen? It reminds you of how life works. It begins, and it ends. I feel sadness, especially being here.” The singer Georgia Anne Muldrow exclaimed, “Oh my God, Kobe! [It was like], this is what a human body can do? I feel like he just had a gift of unity with his own body. Everyone would say he moved like a Black Mamba. He was in tune with himself. You don’t see that in everyday human expression. He brought something very rare to our art.”
Prior to the show, the Grammys said in a statement, via spokesperson Lourdes Lopez, “All of us at the Recording Academy are deeply saddened by Kobe’s sudden passing, and our hearts go out to his family during this time. This is particularly difficult given that every year we salute well-deserving artists on Music’s Biggest Night in Staples Center — the house that Kobe built. Having grown up in Los Angeles, I love the purple and gold and this is painful for so many of us who saw what he meant to the City of Angels.” Minutes after the ceremony began, Alicia Keys led a tribute to Bryant with Boyz II Men, singing “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.”
The streets of downtown L.A. surrounding the Staples Center were teeming with Lakers fans wearing Kobe shirts, participating in their own funeral march. “We saw him grow,” said one man on Figueroa Street with tears in his eyes. “There was a lot of unique things about Kobe, especially seeing the atmosphere in the NBA today when everyone’s after the next contract. That’s part of the business now, but Kobe showed a level of loyalty to Los Angeles that was unmatched. Twenty years!”
Figueroa was split in two, with Bryant fans congregated on one side and Grammy guests on other. They huddled around the square opposite the Staples with flowers, looking up at the televised screens, displaying a black-and-white image of Bryant, and saluted their champion.