To say Kobe Bryant was only a basketball player is to ignore the reality. He was an impresario, a master of time and space. He was lithe and powerful and in many ways remarkable, a generational icon whose skill and willpower inspired many inside and outside the sport he loved.
When he died Sunday morning along with his daughter, Gianna, and seven others in a horrific helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif., the world stopped spinning for a brief moment, like it did when Princess Diana and Michael Jackson suddenly passed. National cable networks suspended programming to report the news.
“I just started crying,” Charles Barkley told ESPN. “That’s all I’ve been doing, is crying. I just feel a tremendous sadness.”
Bryant was not only one of the greatest players in the history of the NBA, he might have been its brightest international star, beloved as much in Europe and Asia as he was in the United States.
“All of the NBA players are important because they’re legends, but he’s particularly important to us because he knew Italy so well, having lived in several cities here,” Italian basketball federation president Giovanni Petrucci told The Associated Press. “He had a lot of Italian qualities. He spoke Italian very well. He even knew the local slang.”
But he belonged to Los Angeles, where he played his entire 20-year career with the Lakers. Thousands of mourners gathered outside Staples Center in downtown LA. They came to pay tribute, eventually mingling with the stars and fans arriving for Sunday night’s Grammy Awards.
Bryant had this way about him. No player was more competitive on the court, willing to lean into teammates he felt didn’t share his passion. He was known as “Black Mamba,” a moniker he adopted for himself after seeing Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill.” He served as the NBA’s bridge between Michael Jordan and LeBron James.
As unrelenting as he was on the floor, few were as benevolent off it, willing to share his time and his love for basketball with anyone he encountered. He was a leader and a mentor.
“The NBA family is devastated by the tragic passing of Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “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.”
In the next few days, more details will surface about the accident. The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the crash. We certainly will hear about the dense cloud cover and fog that convinced the Los Angeles police department it was not safe enough to fly its aircraft.
We will wonder whether safety concerns were pushed aside in the haste to get to Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, where Gianna’s team, which Bryant helped coach, was scheduled to play.
And we will grieve for the others killed, including Orange Coast College baseball coaching legend John Altobelli, his wife Keri and daughter Alyssa, Christina Mauser, a girls’ basketball coach at a nearby private elementary school and Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton, a middle school student.
It seems somewhat prophetic how Bryant was thrust back into the nation’s consciousness just 12 hours before his death when James passed him into third place on the NBA’s scoring list. Bryant jumped on social media to congratulate and praise James.
This current Lakers team was flying back to Los Angles on Sunday morning from Philadelphia when it was informed of Bryant’s death. You might have seen the video of James walking across the tarmac, dabbing tears from his eyes.
James and Bryant were very close, high school players who turned pro, teammates on Olympic teams, peers in every imaginable way. That’s why James had inscribed “8/24 KB” and “Mamba 4 Life” on his sneakers before slipping past Bryant on the scoring list.
“It’s another guy that I looked up to when I was in grade school and high school,” James said. “Seeing him come straight out of high school, he is someone that I used as inspiration. It was like, wow. Seeing a kid, 17 years old, come into the NBA and trying to make an impact on a franchise, I used it as motivation. He helped me before he even knew of me because of what he was able to do. So just to be able to, at this point of my career, to share the same jersey that he wore, be with this historical franchise and just represent the purple and gold, it’s very humbling, and it’s dope.
“Kobe’s a legend. That’s for damn sure.”
Bryant did not grow on us as much as he was thrust upon us in 1996 when at age 18 he became the youngest player drafted in NBA history. The Hornets selected him 13th overall in the draft and then dealt him to the Lakers for Vlade Divac. It was clear from the start that he belonged. He won the NBA’s slam dunk contest as a rookie.
By the time he was done, he’d helped the Lakers win five championships with two Olympic gold medals as accouterments. He won two NBA Finals MVP Awards, was the league’s MVP in 2008 and ended with 33,643 points.
Fourteen years ago, he scored 81 points in a game against the Raptors, second only to Wilt Chamberlain’s unforgettable 100-point night against the Knicks in Hershey, Pa., in 1962.
In deference to his passing, expressions of love and respect were expressed before and after league games played on Sunday. There were moments of silence. The Raptors and Suns allowed 24 seconds to run off the clock on the first two possessions of their game. Madison Square Garden’s exterior was lit in Lakers purple and gold. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban retired Bryant’s No. 24.
“I am in shock over the tragic news of Kobe’s and Gianna’s passing,” Jordan said in a statement. “Words can’t describe the pain I’m 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. He was a fierce competitor, one [of] the greats of the game and a creative force.”
Bryant’s life was not without controversy. He was accused of sexual assault in Colorado in 2003. Although the case was dropped a year later, Bryant felt the need to apologize for having what he thought was consensual sex with a woman who obviously didn’t feel the same way.
That incident seemed to spur Bryant’s life as a family man. With his wife, Vanessa, Bryant had four daughters. Natalia is 17, Gianna, Bianka, 3, and Capri, who is 7 months old.
His relationship with Gianna was especially close. Once she told her father she wanted to play basketball, he embraced the opportunity to share the game with her. He said last year his daughter’s desire was to play college basketball at UConn for Geno Auriemma.
Last March, Bryant took Gianna to the UConn campus in Storrs, Ct., to meet the players and their Hall of Fame coach. Bryant and Auriemma had become friends at the 2012 Olympics in London where Auriemma was coaching the USA women’s basketball team.
“He was looking forward to coming up here and bringing his daughter for a daddy-daughter kind of trip, just the two of them,” Auriemma told The Hartford Courant at the time. “That’s why we didn’t make such a big deal about it. But, obviously, it was a big deal in a lot of ways.”
On Sunday, Auriemma did not want to comment, telling The Courant he was too shocked to speak.
Along with fatherhood, Bryant began paying more attention to other things he loved in life. He won an Academy Award in 2018 for the animated short “Dear Basketball.” Bryant also helped create a children’s book series.
As he grew older, injuries began to chip away the veneer. He barely played from 2013-15 because of knee and shoulder injuries and a torn Achilles tendon. In his final NBA game on April 13, 2016, Bryant scored 60 at Staples Center against the Jazz. It was the perfect ending to a perfect career.
“Just a great leader, a great person, a great champion,” Dwyane Wade said in a message posted to Instagram. “If you got a chance to know Kobe, to really know Kobe, there’s nobody better.”