Kobe Bryant: 1978-2020
Kobe Bryant: 1978-2020

City struggles to process death of an icon

Thousands of fans gather near Staples Center to mourn loss of Lakers legend Kobe Bryant

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

Archive

Jan 26, 2020 9:34 PM ET

Lakers fans hold an impromptu memorial outside of Staples Center, where Kobe Bryant played 17 of his 20 seasons in Los Angeles.

LOS ANGELES -- Kobe Bryant, who influenced and inspired a generation of fans and players by winning five NBA championships with the Lakers and performing with excellence and flair, died shockingly in a helicopter crash Sunday just miles from downtown Los Angeles. He was 41.

The morning accident in heavy fog in the hills near Calabasas also claimed the lives of his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others aboard the S-76 helicopter. The nine-member group was en route to a girls basketball game in nearby Thousand Oaks. As a player and also in retirement, Bryant was fond of flying by helicopter from his home in Newport Beach to escape traffic; his daughter played on a travel team with her father’s constant presence and support.

The news was a stunning jolt to the NBA, the Lakers organization and Southern California, all saddened by his death, mournful for his family and finding it difficult to process the passing of a basketball icon who seemed indestructible. Bryant spent his entire 20-year NBA career with the Lakers, who retired his jersey numbers 8 and 24, and was just 17 when drafted in 1996. In addition to the championships, he was an 18-time All-Star, 15-time member of the All-NBA team, won an MVP award and two Olympic gold medals.

His aggressive play and competitive spirit -- which he described as "Mamba Mentality," evoked from his nickname -- endeared him to basketball fans worldwide and especially those in Los Angeles who worshiped him long after he played his final game in 2016. Within hours after hearing the news, thousands of fans gathered for a mass grief session across from Staples Center, many wearing Bryant’s jerseys and chanting “Ko-be, Ko-Be” and “M-V-P.” 

 
Looking back at Kobe's legendary NBA career.

The death of Bryant qualified as a where-were-you moment for many. Reaction was heavy and heartfelt not only within the basketball community and other sports, but among politicians, entertainers and educators, proof of Bryant’s widespread appeal and reach around the world.

In a statement, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said, in part: “For 20 seasons, Kobe showed us what is possible when remarkable talent blends with an absolute devotion to winning. He was one of the most extraordinary players in the history of our game with accomplishments that are legendary … but he will be remembered most for inspiring people around the world to pick up a basketball and compete to the very best of their ability. He was generous with the wisdom he acquired and saw it as his mission to share it with future generations of players, taking special delight in passing down his love of the game to Gianna.”

Michael Jordan, who passed the ceremonial torch to Bryant at the 1998 All-Star Game, said via statement: “Words cannot describe the pain I am feeling. I loved Kobe -- he was like a little brother to me. We used to talk often, and I will miss those conversations very much.”

His co-star for three championships, Shaquille O’Neal, wrote on social media: “There are no words to express the pain I’m going through with this tragedy of losing my niece Gigi and my brother … I love u and u will be missed.”

Bryant came to the NBA straight from high school and was a pioneer in that sense. He was the son of Joe Bryant, formerly of the 76ers. After his NBA career, Joe Bryant later played professionally in Italy where Kobe spent much of his youth. Upon returning to the States, Kobe was fluent in multiple languages and anxious to follow his father’s footsteps, which didn’t take long.

His reputation took root and soared at Lower Merion High School in the Philadelphia suburbs and in summer pickup games with NBA players, so much that Lakers GM Jerry West executed a draft-day trade to bring Bryant to L.A. to team with the newly acquired O’Neal. The ticket line wrapped around the block for Bryant’s first NBA Summer League game mainly on the strong hunch, later proven true, that Bryant was about to become a special player. He scored 25 points in that game to standing room only. Suddenly the Lakers, after a brief down period on the heels of "Showtime," were back in the winner’s circle and re-elevated among the elite franchises in professional sports.

Bryant instantly captured the imagination of a new generation and, once his string of All-Star appearances began, became one of the faces of the league in the post-Jordan era. He was the rare player who excelled both in the air and on the ground, and at both ends of the floor. Not only did Bryant prove to be a big draw in L.A., he sold out arenas in other cities, with many fans shifting their allegiances from the home team whenever the Lakers visited. And his multilingual ability enabled him to relate internationally and make him an ambassador in the NBA’s efforts to grow the game worldwide.

 
NBA coaches and players react to the shocking death of Kobe Bryant.

In his book “Eleven Rings,” Phil Jackson, Bryant’s former coach, wrote: “Kobe was hell-bent on surpassing Jordan as the greatest player in the game. His obsession with Michael was striking. When we played in Chicago that season (1999-2000), I orchestrated a meeting between the two stars, thinking that Michael might help shift Kobe's attitude toward selfless teamwork. After they shook hands, the first words out of Kobe's mouth were, 'You know I can kick your ass one on one.’ ”

Bryant played the game with a mixture of unleashed joy and unabashed intensity. He did not apologize for his relentless aggression. He practiced with the same fervor and seemed single-minded in his thirst to win championships and become one of the all-time greats. He had his quirks, which gave something in common with other successful people in all walks. Still: Bryant often said he had an obligation to the game, the fans, his teammates and coaches, along with himself.

His basketball eruptions were numerous and many were legendary. In 2006, he dropped 81 points on the Toronto Raptors, second only to Wilt Chamberlain for most points in a game. Three years later at Madison Square Garden, one of his favorite places to play, he set a record for the storied arena with 61 points. And in his final game, Bryant scored 60 points in a made-for-Hollywood ending.

Those performances and others were born of rare and early failure. In his rookie season, Bryant struggled in the playoffs, shooting four airballs as the Lakers were eliminated by Utah. Bryant vowed he would never come up short in a big spot again. Kobe said, years later: “I look back at it now with fond memories. Back then it was misery. It helped shape me.”

He threw the alley-oop pass to Shaq in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference finals that sealed the win for the Lakers. He scored the winning basket in Game 4 of the ensuing Finals after Shaq fouled out, and the Lakers went on to win their first title since 1988.

He and Shaq, both alpha stars with strong egos, had a complicated relationship, which fractured in 2004 and Shaq was traded to Miami. Bryant went through a mid-career crisis then, setting scoring records and qualifying as a one-man act. He scored 65 points, 50 points, 60 points, 50 points, 43 points, 23 points and then 53 points in one seven-game stretch in March of 2007 but couldn’t lead the talent-starved Lakers beyond the first round. Frustrated, he asked for a trade but didn’t press the issue as the Lakers wisely denied him. Two more championships would soon follow after the arrival of fellow All-Star Pau Gasol. Bryant and O’Neal would later mend fences and became close, along with their families. Bryant even trained Shareef O’Neal, one of Shaq’s sons.

From almost every metric, Bryant qualifies as one of the greatest in NBA history. He was a two-time scoring champion, retiring as the No. 3 scorer in history and the youngest to 30,000 points. Just hours before his death he was passed on that list by current Laker LeBron James. (Bryant’s final Twitter post, late Saturday, was a congratulatory message to James.) Bryant was hardly one-dimensional; he was a nine-time First Team member of the All-Defensive team. And as proof of his ability to entertain, Bryant won a dunk contest and four All-Star MVPs to add to his bucket of accomplishments.

His love for basketball didn’t end with retirement. Bryant won a 2018 Academy Award for Best Animated Film for “Dear Basketball.” He also tutored many aspiring and current players during the summer. Finally, inspired by his daughter Gianna’s desire to play, he became a strong advocate for women’s sports, often appearing at WNBA games and voicing support for equal rights and pay. He recently mused that a woman could one day play in the NBA.

Last year, he created Mamba Sports Academy as a site to stage fitness and training sessions along with youth sports and organized travel games, and that was where Bryant, his daughter and other passengers were headed when the helicopter crashed. He leaves behind his wife Vanessa and three other daughters, one born just last June.

The NBA is very much a family and a tribe, and after being stricken by the news, tributes poured in from all over the league. There were moments of silence recognized for NBA games played Sunday. Hawks guard Trae Young, who was cited as one of Gianna Bryant’s favorite players, wore a No. 8 jersey during pregame warmups. After the opening tip of the Spurs vs. Raptors game, both teams let the 24-second shot clock expire on their first possession as a tribute to the number last worn by Bryant. The Lakers did not have a scheduled game Sunday, but there will no doubt be tributes for Tuesday’s game at Staples Center against the Clippers.

Bryant did not lead a perfect life, but by and large it was blessed. He was a devoted father to his girls and appeared overjoyed to spend more time with them in retirement. He had amassed a fortune well into the hundreds of millions. He began business ventures and shot a hungry eye toward Hollywood and media endeavors. His life ended shockingly and astonishingly young, and his family will be forever fractured by the loss of him and his daughter.

As for the basketball Kobe Bryant, he once described that life was far deeper than what appeared on a nightly basis in arenas for 20 years.

“It’s the struggles to get there that completes the journey,” Bryant said. “If you just have championships, there’s no antagonist. There’s no up and down. It’s the ugly moments that create the beauty. Those are the moments I truly appreciate.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here , find  his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

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