Kobe Bryant, the retired Los Angeles Lakers basketball star who was one of the greatest to play the game, and his 13-year-old daughter were among nine people killed in a helicopter crash Sunday outside Los Angeles, rocking the sports world and generating an outpouring of grief and shock across the country.
The helicopter went down near Calabasas, California, about 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, in foggy conditions, though authorities were investigating the cause. The helicopter was on its way from Bryant’s home in Orange County, California, to his youth basketball academy northwest of Los Angeles for a game in which his daughter, Gianna, who died in the crash, was going to play.
Bryant, 41, a quiet force of nature on the court who gave himself the nickname Black Mamba, retired in 2016 with five NBA championship rings and a long list of NBA records — he was surpassed by LeBron James on Saturday night for third on the NBA career scoring list. Signing with the league right out of high school in 1996, he changed the way the NBA identified, groomed and developed its youngest stars.
Yet he was far more than a basketball giant. He was among the world’s best-known athletes, a star on the order of Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, swarmed by fans whether he was in Beijing or Beverly Hills. Young people typically shout “Kobe!” when they hit a jump shot on basketball courts everywhere.
He won an Oscar in 2018 for an animated short film on his life, and was a largely beloved figure, though sexual assault charges in 2003 cast a shadow over his image. Bryant publicly admitted to having consensual extramarital sex with the 19-year-old accuser, but insisted he had not committed a crime. The charges were ultimately dropped as the accuser declined to testify, and she and Bryant reached a civil settlement, allowing him to resume his storied career.
There were more championships, and Bryant evolved into fatherhood and a man with business interests that stretched far beyond his sport.
News of Bryant’s death was immediately described in tragic terms, the premature end to the life of a worldwide superstar who touched the lives of, and was so familiar to, basketball fans and also those who had little interest in the sport.
There was video of James in tears. President Donald Trump and his predecessor, President Barack Obama, expressed sadness; Obama, who had developed a friendship with Bryant borne out of several visits to the White House and their mutual love of the game, took note of the loss of Bryant’s daughter 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
“To lose Gianna is even more heartbreaking to us as parents,” he wrote.
Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, hailed Bryant as “one of the most extraordinary players in the history of our game.”
“For 20 seasons, Kobe showed us what is possible when remarkable talent blends with an absolute devotion to winning,” Silver said, adding that Bryant would “be remembered most for inspiring people around the world to pick up a basketball and compete to the very best of their ability.”
John Altobelli, the baseball coach at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, California, 35 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, was also among the victims, the college announced. Authorities declined to identify who else was on board, pending identification by the coroner and notification of their family members.
Daryl Osby, the Los Angeles County fire chief, said that the crash site was difficult to access and that firefighters had to hike to the area.
Grief spread across Los Angeles, with thousands of fans congregating at or near Staples Center, where the Lakers play their home games and where the Grammy Awards were held Sunday night. The fans erected a shrine with Bryant’s jersey as well as flowers, caps and signs. So many people arrived that most could not even catch a glimpse of the memorial.
They passed cellphones several rows ahead so that strangers could shoot pictures of the shrine for them.
“Kobe unites everybody,” said Maika McNairy, 17, a fan who was there with his mother.
Current and former Lakers players wrote emotional tributes on social media.
“IM SICK RIGHT NOW,” Shaquille O’Neal, Bryant’s teammate, wrote on Twitter. “I would hug his children like they were my own and he would embrace my kids like they were his.”
In retirement, Bryant was busy becoming a modern Renaissance man who wrote and produced films and cultivated friends in the technology and venture capital sectors to help him with his investments.
Bryant first became a national figure when he was in high school in suburban Philadelphia, a preternatural talent whose speed, shooting prowess and seeming ability to jump out of the gymnasium made him destined for superstardom.
In the spring of his senior year at Lower Merion High School, he announced that he would forgo college and enter the NBA, helping to usher in a new era in which the best high school basketball players, regardless of their size, started leaping from high school to the professional ranks.
Within a few years, Bryant had become the NBA’s next superstar and the top player of his generation, taking his rightful place in a line of modern stars that includes Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Jordan and eventually, James and Stephen Curry.
On Saturday night, when James, playing for the Lakers in a loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, passed Bryant on the career scoring list, he was wearing sneakers on which he had inscribed “Mamba 4 Life,” a reference to Bryant’s nickname. Bryant later tweeted his congratulations, the last message on his handle’s timeline.
In many ways, Bryant was the bridge between Jordan and James, the two most glamorous stars of their eras.
The son of a former NBA player, Bryant spent part of his childhood in Italy, where his father, Joe Bryant, known as Jellybean, spent the bulk of his pro career. In addition to basketball, Kobe Bryant became fluent in Italian and played soccer as a boy, becoming a devoted fan of Barcelona.
He credited soccer with helping hone his vision of the basketball court. He returned to the Philadelphia area as a teenager and emerged as a prodigy at Lower Merion, where his feats on the court drew enormous crowds and massive attention: from fans, college recruiters and the news media, which breathlessly reported that Bryant was taking pop star Brandy Norwood to his high school prom.
Bryant considered playing college basketball, but decided to jump straight to the NBA in 1996. The previous year, Kevin Garnett had become the first high school player since 1975 to bypass college for the NBA and was a first-round pick. Emboldened by Garnett’s success, Bryant followed suit, even though Garnett was 7 feet and a near lock for success. Bryant was 6-foot-6, but rail thin and a far riskier investment, since his main competition had been against Pennsylvania high school talent and it was far from clear how his game would translate against the giant and powerful men of the NBA.
He did not lack confidence though. Bryant became one of the first players of his generation to exert control over his career from the very start, heralding a movement of player power that now has the top players functioning nearly as de facto general managers, arranging partnerships and orchestrating movement from team to team with their fellow stars. The New Jersey Nets expressed interest in drafting Bryant with the eighth overall pick in the 1996 draft, but he and his representatives told team officials that the Nets were not his preferred destination — and even suggested that he would play in Europe if they were to select him.
Instead, the Lakers, long the destination of the league’s matinee idol stars, worked out a deal with the Charlotte Hornets. The Hornets selected Bryant with the 13th pick and then traded his rights to the Lakers. He wound up spending his entire career in Los Angeles, where he became one of the most revered figures in the franchise’s rich, championship-laden history and a star of Tinseltown, an internationally cultivated citizen of the world, fluent in Italian and Spanish, perfectly positioned for the moment when the NBA and Nike, his chief sponsor, were investing heavily in overseas markets, especially China.
Handsome, gifted and a fierce competitor, Bryant was a charismatic star when the NBA needed one. Jordan was on his way out — he retired for the third and final time in 2003 after an unsuccessful comeback with the Washington Wizards — and Bryant helped fill the void. Before he turned 23, he was a part of three championship teams alongside O’Neal.
Like Jordan, Bryant was a multidimensional scorer. He could shoot from the outside and drive to the rim with flair. He won the NBA’s slam dunk contest as a rookie in 1997, and eventually bulked up so he could keep up with bigger and stronger competition.
Off the court and away from Hollywood’s bright lights, Bryant’s legacy was far more complicated. He was arrested in 2003 after a sexual assault complaint was filed against him in Colorado. A 19-year-old hotel employee claimed that Bryant, who was working to rehabilitate his knee after surgery, had raped her. The legal case dragged on for months, and details of the aggressive encounter with the employee and Bryant’s interview with the police became national headlines.
Prosecutors eventually dropped the case when the victim declined to testify. A civil suit was settled privately out of court for an undisclosed sum, and Bryant publicly apologized for the incident.
“Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did,” he said in his statement. “After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.”
After the incident, Bryant reconciled with his wife, Vanessa. In 2011, Vanessa Bryant filed for divorce, but two years later the couple announced another reconciliation. In addition to Gianna, their second-born, the couple had three other daughters.
After losing in the NBA Finals in 2008, Bryant won his final two championships in 2009 and 2010 before injuries derailed his career. After he announced in November 2015 that he would retire at the end of that season, opponents paid tribute to him everywhere he played, one of the grandest farewell tours in league history.