What it was like inside Staples Center in the Grammys press room when the Kobe news broke

The TMZ push alerts arrived just after 11:30 AM. Or, for my editor in New York, 2:30 PM — he screenshot the notification and texted it to our team. I was in a back room of the Staples Center with a smattering of other entertainment reporters just arriving onsite for the Grammy Awards.

My immediate thought was certainly identical to thousands of others across the city: The fog. Just hours earlier, as I washing my face in a hotel bathroom, I’d griped to my my boyfriend on the phone, “Everyone goes on and on about LA weather, but the fog here is awful.” All Sunday morning, the sky was grayer and denser than the famously overcast skies of my hometown of Pittsburgh. I would later learn that the lingering ultra-thick fog was an anomaly for the region.

But the clouds weren't visible inside the media center, where blackout curtains hid not only the sky but also a view of the LA Live plaza, where stunned fans would soon begin to congregate, many bearing flowers, posters and Lakers gear.

Backstage, there wasn’t an immediate buzz. The news was so jarring, it seemed like it could be a hoax. People zeroed in on their phones with furrowed brows, scrolling, texting, Googling for a second source. One just-arriving reporter entered the room looking dazed, made eye contact with the first person she recognized and said “Is it true?”

Moments later, I heard: “I got Variety.”

With that, the mood shifted. Yes, there were phone calls going out left and right; anyone who had a potential source was in breaking news mode. But the mourning — it was instant. It wasn’t melodramatic, there were no tears, but the pure tragedy of both the name "Kobe Bryant" and the circumstances of his passing.

Above: As the Grammys unfolded inside Staples Center on Sunday night, mourners gathered outside the arena. Credit: Getty

The shock had an acute level of locational eeriness. Seated in front of me was a reporter who twice mused how strange it felt to read the updates from inside Staples, the arena Alicia Keys would later call “the house that Kobe built.” She said it during an opening monologue that was no doubt re-written with dismayed fervor in the hours leading up to the live broadcast.

Separate Academy-related issues aside, I thought the producers did an admirable job re-working the show’s first 25 minutes on the absolute shortest of notice.

As reporters trickled in through the afternoon, some coming from the just-wrapped red carpet, it was clear that the Kobe storyline would, of course, completely overshadow the Grammys. That’s also in part because few celebrities willingly spoke to press at any point during the day: Winners are supposed to come backstage to the press room after accepting their statues, but few bothered. They likely didn’t want to field questions about allegations of voting corruption and misconduct within the Academy. (Tyler, the Creator did; he gave a candid response in which he expressed gratitude but skepticism about the Academy’s perceptions of black artists.)

The vibe in the media center remained mostly muted throughout the evening, which isn’t uncommon. Just a few select moments really piqued attention in the room, including Billie Eilish’s repeated wins and Steven Tyler declaring, “I f—king love you, Lizzo!” Eilish and her producer brother, Finneas, did stop in for a few questions at the end of the night, which brightened the mood. She’s relentlessly refreshing, and reporters were more than ready for some upbeat energy.

By the time I left Staples Center, the sky was dark and the area was flooded with people — Grammy attendees in stilettos, dressed-down locals in Nikes, but all pausing to take photos of the giant black-and-white screens that read “In Loving Memory of Kobe Bryant.” 

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