In Los Angeles, helicopters are our accepted symbols for celebration or tragedy. They’re whirling tons of police surveillance or they're hanging over the Hollywood premiere of an exhausted franchise sequel. You don’t see them on a mundane afternoon in Van Nuys. 

On Wednesday night, an hour and a half before tip-off, six choppers scudded above the scalloped shell of Staples Center. From the concrete, the hulls of painted steel essentially look the same. Unless the searchlight blinds you, it can be difficult to tell the difference between flying pigs and blow-dried news anchors. If you’ve lived here long enough, both instill a general uneasiness. They bring back the scars of the semi-distant past: countless house-to-house ransackings; the Riots of ’92; the earthquake of ’94;  the O.J. verdict the following year, when eruption threatened but never materialized; the premiere of Batman & Robin
 
The 2009 Lakers Championship parade offered unalloyed joy in a city that seems permanently content but rarely happy.  It occurred after a seven-year drought during which Kobe faced rape charges, a post-championship South Beach Shaq asking how his ass tasted, and Smush Parker entering Laker lore as the point guard golem tormenting the ring-obsessed captain. That victory coronation at the Coliseum that year was the only other time that I can remember the sky as loud and crowded as Wednesday night. 
 
The choppers were there for the final basketball game of Kobe Bean Bryant, the Black Mamba, Vino, The Dagger, Kobe Wan Kenobi, Mr. 81. Other than Darryl Dawkins, has anyone ever had that many nicknames? Has anyone had so many bad ones? There may never be another basketball player as inscrutable, maddening, and brilliant as Bryant. He was narcissistic enough to give himself multiple nicknames and so obsessively on-brand that he (and Nike) actually got them to stick.
 
For a city stratified by race, class, geography, and the allegiances of transplants, the Bryant cult might as well have been the commonly agreed substitute for civic pride. Something capable of bonding bus boys from El Monte to Malibu porn potentates. After all, Jackie Treehorn’s house belongs to Jimmy Goldstein, a Lakers season ticketholder since the Fabulous Forum days.
 
Bryant ruthlessly sliced through those very real divisions as though Jalen Rose guarded them. He inspired Old Testament devotion and occasional hatred, the wrathful anti-hero motherfucker such a conflicted place deserved. So astoundingly self-aware and shockingly insensitive that he practically drove an entire organization to psychotherapy.
 
Even if you wanted to murder him, you had to begrudgingly respect that pathological desire to be the greatest. In another scenario he could’ve been Moriarty to Sherlock Holmes (Tim Duncan) or Napoleon invading Russia. If you lived in L.A., he was what FDR once said about the Nicaraguan strongman Anastasio Somoza: “He’s a son-of-a-bitch but he’s our son-of-a-bitch.” Talk shit and you might get challenged to meet in Temecula.