Thousands turn out to mourn Kobe Bryant as Lakers return to the court

Lakers fans pay their respects at a Staples Center memorial to NBA legend Kobe Bryant. (AFP)

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.”

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.

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.

Last Update: 04:51 KSA 07:51 - GMT 04:51