Walking out from behind the counter, South LA Cafe owners Joseph and Celia Ward-Wallace checked on customers as they took orders from a line of Kobe Bryant fans wearing yellow, purple and black Sunday.
A week before, customers at the cafe were in tears when they learned of the death of the Lakers shooting guard during a chess event. Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, along with seven other people, were killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas Jan. 26 as they traveled to basketball practice.
“People are grieving over this, the death of Bryant and his daughter, and no one is wanting to talk about it,” Joseph Ward-Wallace said.
Upholding a mission to build community through coffee, culture and connection, Joseph and Celia Ward-Wallace gathered volunteer artists, a DJ and a therapist Sunday to help the community heal for their A Day of Tribute event.
At the largest table in the cafe, artist Kenneth Gatewood worked on his new watercolor project titled “What A Man,” which documents Bryant’s career in a series of 24 paintings. Customers surrounded him as he painted the first piece of the project called “Greatness Achieved,” inspired by a 2002 USA Today story with the headline “Kobe Courts Greatness.” The painting shows Kobe with clenched hands, screaming and celebrating. The purple background contrasts with the yellow of his No. 24 basketball uniform. The story was about Bryant’s “impending fatherhood” and “rapid maturity.”
“[Watercolor] expresses the energy that is coming from [Bryant] through the drips and different colors,” Gatewood said.
Once he finishes the paintings in April, Gatewood said he plans to display it in the South L.A. community and in a gallery in West L.A., to remind people of Bryant’s legacy.
“It means a lot to keep [South L.A.] a positive area with children, with positive examples that you don’t have to be the product of your environment,” Gatewood said.
Next to the cafe’s entrance, a DJ played cheerful music as families and young customers walked in to express their condolences by writing tribute letters to Bryant’s family, coloring portraits of Kobe and pasting words of emotion cut from magazines on colored paper. Joseph Ward-Wallace said that with her background as a life coach, his wife came up with the idea to implement the activity, acknowledging that some people have trouble opening themselves up through direct writing.
Joseph Ward-Wallace, who knew Byrant when he worked for the Clippers, said the letters will be sent to the Bryant family. He remembered a time when he asked Bryant, on behalf of a young boy he noticed waiting a long time for the athletes, to take a photo and sign an autograph. Bryant immediately agreed. Other players sped by, but Bryant started a conversation with the boy while his wife Vanessa and daughters waited.
One of the customers who attended the event was South L.A. resident Jessica Guerrero, who said she was touched by how Bryant nurtured his daughters. After seeing details of the event on social media, she made plans to attend with her husband, son and daughter.
“He sets a good example in how he supported his daughters in any area they were interested in, and I think that a great way to keep his mentality going is being a great parent, being [supportive] in whatever sport, art — whatever this is what they want,” Guerrero said.
A therapist sat down with customers who sought emotional support in overcoming the shock from Bryant’s death. Therapists will continue to visit South LA Cafe to guide community members not only through basketball legend’s death but also any concerns they might face in life.