Professional and college sports has often divided Southern California.

When it comes to college ball, it's either UCLA or USC. For baseball, it's the Dodgers, the Angels or the Padres. The Raiders never left the hearts of many in Southern California, while others still cling to the Rams and Chargers. The Kings and Ducks have their loyal fanbases despite competing in a region with more surfboards than hockey sticks. Even soccer is split between the L.A. Galaxy and LAFC.

But one team seems to have always unified Southern California: the Los Angeles Lakers.

And the Lakers had one constant over more than two decades: Kobe Bryant. 

As the Lakers celebrated Bryant's legacy on Friday at Staples Center, the heartache of his tragic death Sunday still lingers. It may linger for a very long time. 

The Lakers watched Bryant grow up. The bright smile was as big on the day the Lakers acquired him in 1996 as it was when he slapped some skin to LeBron James while sitting courtside at Staples Center in December.

Bryant joined the team when he was just 17 years old, a young shooting guard who immediately conjured similarities to the game's greatest player.

As Michael Jordan's career began to wind down in the 1990s, it didn't take a crystal ball to foresee that the torch would be passed to Bryant. Like Jordan, Bryant's athleticism and showmanship were only matched by his competitive spirit. 

After Magic Johnson's retirement and the end of Showtime, Lakers fans were desperate for some excitement. The team was good but not among the elite. 

Enter Bryant. Enter Shaquille O'Neal.

The duo looked destined to win titles and they did.

And Southern California ate it up. 

The timing for a Lakers revival couldn't have been better. Los Angeles was going through a title drought at a time when the city felt snakebitten. There were riots in 1992. In 1993, fires torched Malibu. The Northridge Earthquake of 1994 was one of America's costliest natural disasters.

Los Angeles sports fans were desperate for a title, especially after both the Rams and Raiders had left. Laker fans, in particular, were yearning for a return to greatness, as the Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets were dominating. 

Bryant gave it to them. But not without some ups and downs. 

There was the feud with the O'Neal and the trade demand he gave in an interview with Stephen A. Smith. Laker fans even booed him for what they felt was a lack of loyalty and for pointing the finger at problems that he seemed to create. There was also some resentment between Bryant and his teammates, a product of Bryant's intense competitive spirit that can rub some the wrong way. 

In some ways, Laker fans' temporary 180 on Bryant may have served as a rite of passage. Laker fans are a loyal bunch but they can turn on any player if they feel slighted. 

Cooler heads ultimately prevailed and Bryant stuck around. The arrival of Pau Gasol got the Lakers back on track, winning two titles. Bryant would finish his career with five rings, one short of Jordan but just as many as Johnson. 

In a city of celebrities, Bryant was as big as any. The lights shined on the Mamba at the Forum and then Staples Center. It seemed like at any given moment Bryant would do something incredible to light up the crowd.

He was a star, on and off the court. While some of the rich and famous choose to live a life of seclusion, Bryant was out and about, mingling and rubbing elbows with all different types of people. In L.A., he could be spotted at a gym or getting a Philly cheesesteak. In Orange County, Bryant, a practicing Catholic, regularly attended mass at Our Lady Queen of Angels in Newport Beach and would joke with staff at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in Corona del Mar.

Appreciation for Bryant and the Lakers in Southern California wasn't limited to just Los Angeles and Orange County. In Ventura, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara or any part south of the Bay Area, watching Bryant knock down jumpers and sky through the air for dunks while wearing purple and gold was something special. Bryant was always near the top of jersey sales even in the twilight of his career.

"I've never seen a fan base so loyal to one player like Kobe," former teammate Brian Shaw said about Laker fans.

It wasn't just basketball.  

In a city with so many different cultures, Bryant being multilingual endeared him to many. 

"My Latino fans are very important to me because they were the first ones who embraced me the most when I first got here," Bryant said in Spanish in 2016.

A recent article in the LAist, had the headline: "Why Chinese Fans Loved Kobe Bryant So Much."

Southern California also loves fitness and there are few athletes on the planet who were more dedicated to exercise that Bryant. Personal trainers were mesmerized by him.

He was also a true sportsman. Bryant was a fixture at Dodger Stadium and his youth spent in Italy gave him an appreciation for soccer. Bryant has often been pictured with Galaxy players David Beckham and Steven Gerrard, and even did commercials with Lionel Messi.

While Bryant idolized Jordan on the court, he seemed to model himself after Johnson when it came to business. Among his many ventures, he invested in the sports drink BodyArmor, which grew from $6 million to $200 million after it was acquired by Coca-Cola.

Bryant even cemented his relationship with Hollywood in 2017 by winning an Academy Award and founded Granity Studios, a Costa Mesa-based multimedia production company. 

Indeed, Bryant gave his all to Southern California, even in retirement. Bryant and his wife Vanessa were consistently active in several charities. 

"He was such an icon but also did so much for LA. He was passionate about serving the homeless and was an advocate for women's basketball. Coaching his daughter's basketball team brought him so much happiness," Johnson posted on Twitter.

Former teammate Metta World Peace told CNN that Bryant left a legacy and that he taught people "how to be more than just an athlete."

It's no wonder that the outpouring of affection outside Staples Center has been so powerful and enduring. Staples Center president Lee Zeidman estimated that the total number of visitors has been "in the hundreds of thousands."

While Southern California can feel so spread out that it can be hard for people to connect with one another, the crowd outside Staples Center and L.A. Live proves that someone like Bryant can unite them.

The mayor's office has stated that it is planning a memorial for Bryant where anyone can attend.

“It’s a reminder how much unity we have, though. We are one city that believes in each other, believes in something bigger than ourselves and we will absolutely do everything to make sure that this is done so that everybody can come to it as well,” said Mayor Eric Garcetti.