In the wake of former Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant's sudden death, my friends and I decided to purchase tickets to Shaquille O'Neal's festival, Shaq's Fun House, while covering the In The Know Bowl in Miami. Growing up, I had always admired Bryant for his insane work ethic despite being a diehard New York Knicks fan. I also had often thought of Bryant and O'Neal as one and the same, since the two were one of the most dominant NBA duos to win multiple championships. It only seemed natural then that I attend the festival because I had a feeling it would be special this year. And it was.
Though the price tag for the event was a bit high (I paid $335 for a general admission ticket), I found comfort knowing that the proceeds would go to the Kobe & Vanessa Bryant Family Foundation, along with the victims of the deadly helicopter crash that killed Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others. I was also hesitant about attending an event that would most likely be packed with a bunch of drunk 21-year-olds, but, to my surprise, those were concerns were unfounded.
Even though I missed the first several acts (Mike Ryan, DJ Nano, Carnage and Nitti Gritti), I arrived at the Mana Wynwood Convention Center last Friday, just in time to hear throngs of people yell Bryant's name in the build-up to O'Neal's set.
After wading through the crowd to get closer to the stage, I cranked my neck up to find a banner of Bryant's jerseys hanging from the ceiling. For a minute, it was a surreal moment — though most people at the event were probably there to party in preparation for Super Bowl LIV, the night was all about basketball and, more importantly, Bryant.
Minutes before O'Neal came to DJ, a montage of Bryant's most memorable highlights with him played on a large screen. The tribute was fitting — the two had played together for eight years, winning three straight NBA titles. Despite an apparent falling-out between the two later on in their careers, it was clear that Bryant's death really affected O'Neal.
As the former Lakers center took the stage, he didn't look as energetic and cheerful as he's often known to be. In fact, he didn't say much. O'Neal's silence, amid the loud bass emitting from the speakers, was enough for me to pause for a second and reflect on the losses I had experienced over the past few years.
There were times when O'Neal would occasionally hype the crowd up with ad libs, but, overall, the mood was somber. Perhaps nothing reminded the audience more of Bryant's passing than Diddy's guest appearance. Almost immediately, I realized that the rapper would more than likely perform the same hit single that he released in the aftermath of Notorious B.I.G's death in 1997: "I'll Be Missing You." I knew, for certain, that O'Neal's set, which also featured appearances from rappers DaBaby and French Montana, was not a celebration of life — as most tributes tend to be — but rather a humbling appreciation for it.
Following the conclusion of O'Neal's set, Diplo took the stage to close out the festival. At that point, however, my friends and I decided to leave. The message that night was clear. The loss of Bryant was one that the crowd and I all shared, regardless of whether we knew him personally or not. It hurt as much as losing a close friend, but it was a reminder that life is forever fleeting and should not be taken for granted.