Kobe Bryant, who made the jump from high school to the pros and became an 18-time NBA All-Star and five-time NBA champion, was among nine people killed in a helicopter crash Sunday. Bryant was 41 years old.
The crash also claimed the life of Gianna Bryant (affectionately known as Gigi), 13, the second oldest of Bryant’s four daughters with his wife, Vanessa.
They were traveling from Orange County, Calif. (where Bryant lived for most of his adult life) to Thousand Oaks, roughly 30 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Gianna Bryant, a budding basketball star in her own right, had been scheduled to play in an afternoon game with her travel team, coached by her father. The game was to have taken place at Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy.
Also killed in the crash were Christina Mauser, a basketball coach at Harbor Day School in Newport Beach were Gianna Bryant attended school; Orange Coast College head baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife Keri, and daughter Alyssa; Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton, and pilot Ara Zobayan.
The crash occurred around 10:00 AM PST. The helicopter, a Sikorsky S76, had a flight path which showed it going from Orange County to the San Fernando Valley and then hovering over the Glendale area as it waited for clearance to travel from the Valley to Calabasas. The tracking ends with the crash on a hill in Calabasas.
Kobe Bean Bryant was born on Aug. 23, 1978, the son of former NBA player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant. His middle name, Bean, is a shortened form is his father’s nickname. Bryant spent most of his childhood in Italy while his father continued his playing career. It was in Italy where Bryant began seriously playing basketball, aided by tapes of NBA games sent to him by his grandfather.
Bryant first entered the public consciousness at Lower Merion High School. He blossomed into one of the nation’s best players and sought-after college recruits. When Kevin Garnett made the jump to the NBA straight out of high school in 1995, Bryant first contemplated doing the same.
His actions became a lightning rod even though his SAT scores qualified him academically for admittance into any schools he may have had on his short list. However, he made no official visits to any colleges during his senior year.
Bryant was selected with the 13th overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft by the Charlotte Hornets. Before the draft, Charlotte agreed to trade Bryant’s draft rights to the Los Angeles Lakers for center Vlade Divac. Divac, for his part, at first threatened to retire and nullify the deal but later relented. Bryant, who was 17 at the time, had to have his parents sign his first NBA contract.
Bryant always had the utmost confidence in his abilities as a basketball player and made no secret of his desire to surpass the game’s best player and his personal measuring stick, Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan.
Bryant played 20 seasons for the Lakers, coincidentally his favorite team growing up. He racked up 33,643 points, 7,047 rebounds, 6,306 assists, 1,944 steals, and 640 blocks. He was named to 18 All-Star teams, second only to the 19 of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and was a starter each team. On four occasions, he was the All-Star Game MVP, a distinction he shares with Bob Pettit.
Bryant made the All-NBA team 15 times, tied with Abdul-Jabbar and Tim Duncan for the most all-time. He was All-NBA First-team selection 11 times, tied for second in history with Karl Malone. He was a 12-time All-Defensive Team selection, trailing only Duncan’s 15. His nine All-Defensive First-team selections tie him with Jordan, Garnett, and Gary Payton.
As of Saturday night, Bryant is ranked fourth on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.
Bryant won five NBA titles (2000, 2001, 2002, 2009, 2010), twice winning NBA Finals MVP (2009, 2010). He won the regular season MVP award in 2008. Bryant won the Slam Dunk Contest in 1997 and was a two-time scoring champion (2006, 2007).
His Nos. 8 and 24 were both retired by the Lakers. He was expected to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this summer in his first year of eligibility. Coincidentally, Garnett (the player who inspired him to make the jump from high school to the pros) and Duncan (the contemporary whose name appears with his on many of the all-time lists) are also expected to be inducted in their first year of eligibility.
Former Lakers general manager Jerry West pulled the trigger on the trade that brought Bryant to the City of Angels after witnessing a pre-draft workout. The workout included a series of one-on-one drills against Michael Cooper, a former Lakers defensive stalwart from the Showtime era who was a Lakers assistant coach at the time. West left the workout early but Bryant made enough of an impression that he later told Lakers staff, “He’s better than anybody on our team right now.”
West envisioned the combination of Bryant and free agent center Shaquille O’Neal as centerpieces that would restore the Lakers to greatness after a decade of mediocrity. The Bryant/O’Neal Lakers won three titles but there was no shortage of controversy during their run.
Bryant’s obsession with improving his game often clashed with O’Neal’s more relaxed personality. There was also tension over who was the leader of the team. Head coach Phil Jackson and assistant coach Tex Winter relied on their use of the triangle offense to keep both Bryant and O’Neal happy. Eventually, their feud escalated and O’Neal was traded. Over the years, the two reconciled their differences.
With Bryant as the leader, the Lakers won two more championships but also struggled through some lean years. This only added to Bryant’s mystique as he became known for his ability to play through injuries. The one he is best known for is the torn left Achilles tendon suffered late in the 2012-13 season. Bryant didn’t want to accept the diagnosis of longtime Lakers athletic trainer Gary Vitti.
“I told him it’s ruptured and he’s done,” Vitti said in a 2017 New York Times interview. “He said, ‘Can’t you just tape it up?’”
Bryant’s single-minded focus did little to endear himself to teammates when he first entered the league. The general consensus was that he was aloof and self-centered. Jackson once called him uncoachable.
“Kobe didn’t care about night life or anything else,” Del Harris, who coached Bryant in his first two NBA seasons and part of his third, said in a 2017 New York Times interview. “He only had one interest. His only focus was to the best that he could be. And in his mind that meant challenging Michael Jordan. People can argue how close he actually came, but there’s no question that he fulfilled pretty much all of his dreams.”
Bryant scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors on Jan. 22, 2006, the second-highest individual scoring output in NBA history behind the 100 scored by Wilt Chamberlain in 1962. He dropped 60 against the Utah Jazz in the final game of his career, upstaging the Golden State Warriors’ record-setting 73rd win.
Bryant scored at least 50 points 24 times in his career, third in NBA history behind Chamberlain (118) and Jordan (31). He dropped 60 six times. He was also the third player in NBA history to average 40 points a game in a calendar month, which he did on four separate occasions. Bryant also won two Olympic gold medals in 2008 and 2012.
Of course, there is the blackest eye Bryant ever took in his public life.
Bryant was charged with felony sexual assault in 2003. He was accused of raping a 19-year-old woman working as a front desk clerk at a Colorado hotel. The case was eventually dropped when the woman told prosecutors she was unwilling to testify. Bryant later issued a public apology to the woman, saying that he understood she did not view their encounter as consensual even though he did. The woman later sued Bryant. The lawsuit was settled out of court.
O’Neal gave Bryant the nickname “Showboat” during their playing days together and not meant as a term of endearment. Later in his career, Bryant gave himself the monikers “Vino” or (the one he is most associated with) “Black Mamba”.
It was questioned what would Bryant do after his NBA career was over given his obsessive drive and focus. Bryant wrote a poem announcing his retirement entitled “Dear Basketball”. He turned that poem into an animated short film that he wrote and narrated. The film won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 2018. Bryant was the first African-American recipient of the award.
He also wrote a book entitled “The Mamba Mentality: How I Play” in 2018. The book features an introduction from Jackson and a foreword from former Lakers teammate Pau Gasol. Bryant also wrote a children’s book inspired by the Harry Potter series.
Naturally, Bryant’s death sent shockwaves throughout the NBA.
“People think because you compete against each other that you don’t have a relationship and you don’t like them,” Rivers said. “I think it’s the exact opposite. Sometimes the more you compete, the more you respect you have for the opponent. That’s the way I felt with Kobe…I have to go talk to a team before a game and tell them to play before a game.”
Rivers, while holding back tears, proclaimed, “We’re all Lakers today.”
Jordan, Bryant’s personal measuring stick and the player fans most often compared him to, said in a statement Bryant, “was like a little brother to him.” O’Neal said on social media, “there’s no words to express the pain I’m going through of losing my niece Gigi and my brother…I’m sick right now.” Magic Johnson lamented, “my friend, a legend, husband, father, son, Oscar winner, and greatest Laker of all-time is gone”.
Each of the 16 teams playing on Sunday’s NBA schedule took a planned shot clock violation in memory of Bryant. Teams took turns holding the ball for 24 seconds or eight seconds to honor Bryant’s No. 8 and No. 24 jerseys.
In San Antonio, where the Spurs took on the Toronto Raptors both teams took 24-second violations. Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon and guard Lonnie Walker IV wiped away tears. Duncan, himself a Spurs assistant coach, held his hands over his face.
“We all feel a deep sense of loss for what he meant to all of us in so many ways, and so many millions of people loved him for so many reasons,” Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said. “It’s just a tragic thing. There are no words that can describe how everybody feels.”
The Spurs lost the game 110-106 but the loss was an afterthought or, in the mind of Popovich, it wasn’t a thought at all.
“Good game, tough loss, who cares?” Popovich said.
Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young began the game against the Washington Wizards wearing a No. 8 jersey before changing into his customary No. 11. After the tip, won by Atlanta, Young crouched down to his knees with the ball at the foul line. After the seconds ticked away, he changed back to his regular jersey.
The New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets played at Madison Square Garden. Nets guard Kyrie Irving, a close friend of Bryant, did not play for personal reasons. The outside of MSG was lit up in purple and gold.
In New Orleans, where the Pelicans hosted the Boston Celtics, the crowd chanted “Kobe! Kobe!” at the tip while the Celtics’ Kemba Walker and the Pelicans’ Lonzo Ball took turns with the shot clock tribute.
Kobe and Gianna Bryant shared a special relationship with Connecticut women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma. Gianna Bryant, who made no secret of her desire to play for Auriemma, sat behind UConn’s bench with her father last March on a day when Hall of Famer Rebecca Lobo-Rushin had her number retired. Auriemma called the accident “shocking beyond comprehension” but didn’t want to talk about it in further detail at the time.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban announced the team will retire No. 24.
“Kobe’s legacy transcends basketball and our organization has decided that the number 24 will never again be worn by a Dallas Maverick,” Cuban said.
True indeed, Bryant’s legacy was beyond the hardwood.
There was a moment of silence for Bryant at Sunday’s NFL Pro Bowl at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla. Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson led a prayer in the locker room before the players took the field. The NFC’s defensive players honored Bryant throughout the game by doing Bryant’s signature move, the fadeaway jumper, after making a play.
“Everybody in our locker room was hurting,” Baltimore Ravens quarterback and offensive MVP Lamar Jackson said. “Some of these guys didn’t know Kobe at all but he’s in our hearts. He did something for the game…it’s hurtful seeing something like that…it’s was devastating, like this has gotta be fake. This was my first Pro Bowl so it was right before the game, like it was crazy. But God always calls his angels home for a reason. God knows best.”
Tiger Woods played an entire round of golf at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego before his caddie, Joe LaCava, informed him of Bryant’s death. The moment LaCava told Woods the news was caught on a camera. Woods initially reacted with a disbelieving “Excuse me?”
Woods said he heard spectators shouting “Do it for Mamba” on the back nine but didn’t know why.
“I didn’t understand why people in the gallery were saying, ‘Do it for Mamba’. Now I understand,” Woods said in an interview with CBS Sports. “It’s a shocker to everyone. I’m unbelievably sad, and it’s one of the more tragic days. The reality is setting in because I was just told about five minutes ago. Life is very fragile, as we all know. You can be gone at any given time and we have to appreciate the moment that we have. I just can’t imagine what his family’s going through right now.”
Brazilian soccer star Neymar paid tribute by holding up two fingers on one hand and four on the other after scoring a second-half penalty goal in Paris St-Germain’s win at Lille in Ligue 1 play.
The Grammy Awards were held at the Staples Center, where Bryant played many home games for the Lakers. A crowd of thousands assembled outside in the hours immediately after the news of Bryant’s death broke. Inside at the awards ceremony, Bryant was on the minds of many in attendance.
“To be honest with you, we’re all feeling crazy sadness right now,” host Alicia Keys said. “Because earlier today, Los Angeles, America, and the whole wide world lost a hero. We’re literally standing here heartbroken in the house that Kobe Bryant built.”
Lizzo, who won three Grammys, was one of several performers who did not do any interviews on the red carpet out of respect for the victims. She opened the show by proclaiming, “Tonight is for Kobe”. Keys and Boyz II Men celebrated Bryant with a stirring rendition of “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday”. Bryant’s No. 24 jersey was featured prominently during Run-DMC and Aerosmith’s performance of “Walk This Way”.
Actor Will Smith, a Philadelphia native like Bryant, simply posted a throwback picture of himself and Bryant on Instagram. His wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, posted a picture of Bryant and his daughter to her Instagram page with a message: “Life is fragile. This is the kind of loss that makes you deeply reflective. My prayers to Vanessa, her children and all those who love Kobe and Gigi. This is a hard one. My heart is broken and bleeding everywhere today”.
Whoopi Goldberg sent her “deepest condolences” to Bryant’s family, adding “RIP Kobe, hero to many including my grandson, extraordinary athlete, and always kind to me & my family”. Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker remembered how Bryant “inspired millions of people who watched him soar and defy gravity to reach his goals.”
“My reaction is the same as almost all of L.A.,” actor and Lakers superfan Jack Nicholson said. “Suddenly, where everything was solid, there’s a big hole in the wall. I was so used to seeing and talking to Kobe that—it kills you. It’s just a terrible event.”
The Empire State Building, whose tower lighting honored the careers of both former New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter and former New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning in the past week, was lit in purple and gold Sunday night in memory of Bryant.
Bryant’s death has even been felt in the nation’s capital.
Retired Rear Adm. Barry Black, the Senate’s chaplain, opened the third day of the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump Monday with a prayer for those who lost their lives in Calabasas.
“As millions mourn the loss of Kobe and Gianna Bryant, and those who died with them, we think of life’s brevity, uncertainly, and legacy,” Black said. “Remind us that we all have a limited time on Earth to leave the world better than we found it.
Speaking of Trump, he paid tribute to Bryant on Twitter.
Kobe Bryant, despite being one of the truly great basketball players of all time, was just getting started in life. He loved his family so much, and had such strong passion for the future. The loss of his beautiful daughter, Gianna, makes this moment even more devastating….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 26, 2020
Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, also remembered Bryant on Twitter.
Kobe was a legend on the court and just getting started in what would have been just as meaningful a second act. To lose Gianna is even more heartbreaking to us as parents. Michelle and I send love and prayers to Vanessa and the entire Bryant family on an unthinkable day.
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) January 26, 2020
Bryant is survived by Vanessa, his wife of 18 years; daughters Natalia, Bianka, and Capri Kobe; his parents Joe and Pamela; and sisters Sharia and Shaya.