The Story Behind LAFC Supporters' Kobe Bryant Tifo

Kobe & Gigi Forever

Hello, and welcome to the third edition of American Tifo, a weekly newsletter for, and about, North American soccer supporters.  Thank you for being here.

Photo courtesy of the 3252

As the Los Angeles Lakers compete in this year’s NBA Finals, the first since Kobe Bryant’s tragic death, memorials and memories of the NBA legend continue to emerge. But one of the most poignant tributes came just a month after his death, when members of the 3252, Los Angeles Football Club’s Independent Supporters Union channeled Bryant’s maniacal work ethic and pursuit of perfection to honor his legacy not just as a basketball player but a father. 

“It was one of the things where everything just aligned,” said Jimmy Lopez, president of the 3252. “The stars aligned and it was just meant to be.”

Bryant and his daughter Gianna’s tragic death, along with 7 others, in a helicopter crash in January of this year shocked the world, but the pain was felt deepest in Los Angeles.

“We grew up with him, you know?” said Fernando Arreola, a member of the Expo Originals, one of the supporters groups that fall under the 3252 umbrella. 

“He was in our homes every couple of nights on the TV,” Arreola said. “You see him, you’re hearing his voice, you’re watching his family grow up. It really felt like you lost a family member. He was always trying to push that extra step. In a city like LA, that energy’s there as well. The everyday person here really gets behind him and really makes that connection.” 

In the days and weeks following the crash, as the city reeled, members of the 3252 knew that the best, and perhaps most cathartic way to honor Bryant was through a tifo. 

They would do it at the first opportunity possible, LAFC’s CONCACAF Champions League home match against Liga MX side Club Léon on February 27th, just 32 days after Bryant’s accident.

“It was a no-brainer,” said Lopez. “We had already been working on another project for the [CONCACAF] Champions League, but as soon as Kobe and his daughter passed away, it was just, ‘Nope, we’ve got to do it.’”

The group had just a few weeks to go from a yet-to-be-selected design to a tribute befitting of an LA icon. 

The 3252 has an open submission process for tifo designs, releasing a call for art based on a general theme, with leadership then voting on a winner. For this one, the group decided on something ambitious in scale and detail, but fitting for the moment. 

“It was a late entry, but as soon as we saw it, we said, ‘That’s it,’” said Lopez. 

The winning design was Arreola’s. He had also designed the Carlos Vela Supporters Shield tifo from 2019, one of their largest and most challenging tifos to date. But for Kobe, he wanted to go one step further, and went with a design inspired by the now-iconic photo of Kobe and Gigi. It was simple in its presentation, but complex in its detail, especially in their faces. The intricacy of the design, which needed to be traced, then painted, plus the sheer size of the 40x50 foot display, would require an immense amount of work.

Photo courtesy of the 3252

This would have been a difficult endeavor under normal circumstances, as the group juggled their own full-time jobs, and the task of completing a second tifo for the LAFC’s MLS regular season home opener, which was coming just 4 days later. But secrecy was of the utmost importance, which required an unknown location and several late-night tracing and painting sessions to keep the design under wraps. The challenge was immense.

“I remember being there at like, three in the morning, painting, coming home, going to work, taking a nap and then going back to it again,” Lopez said. 

To make things even more difficult, many members of the 3252 were already in Mexico for the away leg of the CCL tie against Léon. 

But the group called on help from around the 3252 to keep the process moving while people were away. 

“We had so many people come out and help out, ready to do whatever they had to do to help commemorate Kobe,” Arreola said. 

As the tifo neared completion, they were meticulous about ensuring the piece honored everything that Kobe represented. 

Photo courtesy of the 3252

“During the entire process, it was just more of how to respect the family, respect the culture, respect the legacy,” Lopez said. “Even as we practiced it and put it up, we were just very cautious. I remember we would stand back, look at it, and say, ‘Ok, we’ve got to fix this, we’ve got to fix that.’ It’s like, if you’re submitting an art piece to a gallery, you want to make sure it’s beyond perfect.”

The day finally came. The secret was kept safe the whole time, and it was only as fans found purple and white placards at their seats did they realize what was happening. 

“A lot of people showed up and saw that we had the cards laid out. That’s when people were like, ‘Oh wow, they’re doing a Kobe tifo,” Lopez said.  

The stadium roared as the pulleys slowly pulled up to reveal Kobe and Gigi. His head slightly leaning on hers. Beaming. 50 feet into the sky. 

It’s not intense. There’s no set jaw, gritted teeth or fiery scream. Despite his legendary intensity and competitiveness, here, in this moment he’s gentle. Joyous. 

Not Black Mamba. 

Girl Dad with his girl. 

Underneath, written in graceful script, “Kobe & Gigi Forever”. Behind the tifo, white choreography panels spell out 24 and 8, their numbers, against a sea of purple. As it unfurls, chants of “KOBE, KOBE, KOBE” and “MVP MVP MVP” erupt around the stadium. It’s everything important about LA, wrapped into one moment, sunk with deep grief. It’s so beautiful it hurts. 

“It gives you goosebumps,” Arreola said. “I still get them to this day thinking about it.”

Arreola’s choice to portray Kobe as a father, rather than a competitor, reflects Bryant’s transformation, and also had a personal meaning for Arreola. 

“We saw the evolution of Kobe becoming this fierce competitor,” he said. “We all rallied behind that, and you see that evolution. He has his daughters and the incredible bond he shared with them. I’m a father as well, I have a six year old, and it touched me, the whole tragedy of losing your family like that.”

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The display was picked up by several mainstream outlets and was seen in all corners of the soccer world. 

“It’s not your traditional portrait or imagery. So, you question yourself a little bit,” Arreola said. “Luckily everyone in the 3252 felt strongly about it, and we all felt pretty good. It was just an incredible moment seeing everyone around the world. They got it. They understood.”

It seemed like an inevitability that Kobe would eventually end up at an LAFC match, as an Honorary Falconer or a VIP guest of the 3252. He was even at the Banc of California stadium less than two weeks before the crash, filming promos for Major League Soccer’s new partnership with BODYARMOR.

“That really hit close to home, because the plan was to get him to eventually come to the North End and meet everybody,” Lopez said.

While Kobe and Gigi’s tifo caught the world’s attention, it was just one of the many impressive tifos the 3252 has produced in their two season existence, including a Freddie Mercury design for LAFC’s Pride Night, which won Tifo of the Year at the Independent Supporters Council conference held in January. 

Photo courtesy of the 3252

“LA just bleeds art,” Lopez said. “Even with the North End, people look at it like a canvas.” 

This emphasis on art and culture has inspired several artists to use their skills in service of LAFC and the 3252, including Arreola. 

“Once I fell in love with the club and the 3252, once that takes over, you get infected with that passion, and you just try to express it the best way you can,” he said. “I grew up with art. That was the best way that I could show my appreciation and love for the club, the community they’re growing and all of the beautiful things you’re seeing come out of the North End. It’s just a dream to be a part of.” 

Though Bryant will never attend an LAFC match, members of the 3252 continue to honor him through their support. 

“His love for the game was so well-known,” Arreola said. “So I think that’s why us honoring him with a tifo was probably a little extra special, because we knew he had that tie to the football world. If Kobe were around to see something like that, he’d probably get a kick out of it.”