Magic Johnson was in tears, Michael Jordan was in shock, and the sports world was in mourning. Tributes poured in from all corners of the globe, celebrating and remembering one of the incredible playing careers and most legendary athletes.
“Most people will remember Kobe as the magnificent athlete who inspired a whole generation of basketball players,” tweeted Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, another Los Angeles Lakers legend. “But I will always remember him as a man who was much more than an athlete.”
Like so many of the greats — Magic, Tiger, Jordan — the world knew him by one name. Kobe — or “Mamba” to many — was familiar, which made the loss personal to some. Compounding the tragedy was the death of his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna. While Bryant explored a variety of ventures in the years since he retired from basketball, she kept him close to the sport, and the father and daughter were reportedly en route to one of her games Sunday when the crash occurred.
“Kobe was a legend on the court and just getting started in what would have been just as meaningful a second act,” former president Barack Obama tweeted, referring to Bryant’s creative ventures that included an Academy Award in 2018 for best animated short film. “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.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called Bryant “one of the most extraordinary players in the history of our game” and said he would “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 with future generations of players, taking special delight in passing down his love of the game to Gianna.”
For many, Bryant was a transcendent figure who inspired far beyond any basketball court. He retired from the game in 2016 but had not shied away from the spotlight, where he lived boldly and unapologetically since he was a teenage phenom, poised to become one of basketball’s biggest stars.
“The world weeps, the basketball community mourns,” Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington Wizards, Capitals and Mystics, tweeted. “Kobe is the GOAT — Beloved and respected by all. Stunned and shaken to our core.”
Dwyane Wade, the former NBA star, captured the general disbelief simply, tweeting: “Nooooooooooo God please No!” Shaquille O’Neal, another former teammate, said via Twitter, “There’s no words to express the pain Im going through with this tragedy of loosing my [niece] Gigi & my brother @kobebryant I love u and u will be missed. My condolences goes out to the Bryant family and the families of the other passengers on board. IM SICK RIGHT NOW.”
Grief washed over players and fans of all stripes. Bryant was controversial to some, inspirational to many. But for the past quarter-century, the game of basketball couldn’t be told without Bryant serving a leading role, an ambassador for the sport recognized around the world. His professional life was captured on highlight reels and emulated on playgrounds.
“Words can’t describe the pain I’m feeling,” Jordan, often mentioned in the same breath in debates over the game’s greatest, said in a statement. “I loved Kobe — he was like a little brother to me. We used to talk often, and I will miss those conversations very much.”
The scene as people mourn and remember Kobe Bryant
In arenas across the country Sunday, athletes wore blank expressions of disbelief, reactions similar to when icons such as Michael Jackson or Prince died. Players openly wept on the court. Current Lakers star LeBron James was spotted in tears as he exited the team plane in Los Angeles, sharing long embraces with team officials. Just one day earlier, James had passed Bryant for third place on the league’s all-time scoring list, prompting Bryant to tweet, “Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother.”
In an unprecedented move, NBA locker rooms were closed to reporters before Sunday’s games, allowing players some privacy as they processed the news. While the Lakers did not have a game scheduled, other teams honored Bryant with a moment of silence before games. In Los Angeles, fans made a makeshift vigil outside the team’s practice facility, and in New York, Madison Square Garden was lit up in purple and gold before the night’s Knicks game.
“I mean, words can’t describe and it doesn’t do any justice to who he is and how he impacted the sports world. It’s just not basketball,” Washington Wizards Coach Scott Brooks said. “The guy had a mentality that you want your team to play with, the toughness, the determination. … Not many guys, if any, played the game better.”
After the San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors tipped off Sunday afternoon, both teams paid tribute to his No. 24 by intentionally taking 24-second shot clock violations. Teams playing later Sunday followed suit. And Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban announced that no one in his organization will ever wear the No. 24.
“The sad part about today is he was the one everyone looked up to, especially this generation of players,” Atlanta Hawks Coach Lloyd Pierce said. “To see the way he was coming out of retirement in playing to being just a leader of people, WNBA, AAU programs, children’s books. We lost a leader. It’s hard. Our locker room is shaken. The NBA is shaken. The community is shaken. Everyone is.”
In photos: Kobe Bryant through the years
Bryant’s basketball genius touched generations, old hoops heads who argued in barbershops, comparing his gifts with Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and the stars of yesteryear, and younger fans who know him from YouTube clips and social media videos.
“Every guy in that locker room could probably tell you they looked up to Kobe,” said Aaron Wiggins, a 21-year old basketball player at the University of Maryland. “ … Somebody like him, like Kobe Bryant, you just don’t expect, I mean, he just seems untouchable. You don’t expect somebody like him to leave so fast.”
The shock extended far beyond the basketball world. President Trump called the death of the Lakers superstar “terrible news” in a tweet. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said in response to the news, “You’ve got to make every day count.” World leaders including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen also shared condolences on social media.
At the NFL’s Pro Bowl, fans chanted, “Kobe! Kobe!” The San Francisco 49ers learned the news as they prepared to fly to Miami for Super Bowl LIV, and Richard Sherman, the cornerback who is rarely at a loss for words, had none. “Just don’t have the words,” he tweeted.
Word spread among the gallery watching the final round of the Farmers Insurance Open near San Diego. The news hung over the crowd and began to spread from player to player. Tiger Woods was told as he came off the 18th green. “I didn’t understand why people in the gallery were saying, ‘Do it for Mamba,' ” he said. “But now I understand. It’s a shocker to everyone. Unbelievably sad and one of the more tragic days — for me, reality just kind of sinking in.”
Because Bryant was known as such a fierce competitor — fighting through injuries, taking over games, hoisting championship trophies — athletes from all sports looked up to him. “He always treat me well when he saw me,” said Alex Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals star. “You know, it’s hard. He was a legend in the basketball world and the whole world, and it is tough. Still can’t believe it.”
Bryant was an avowed soccer fan. AC Milan, one of his favorite clubs, tweeted, “You will forever be missed, Kobe,” and in France, Neymar celebrated a goal by holding up a two and a four, in honor of Bryant’s No. 24. The Brazilian soccer star then held his hands to his face in prayer pointed to the sky.
In Los Angeles, celebrities gathered for the Grammys, and Nina Parker, a host on the E! “Countdown to the Red Carpet,” noted as she stood near Staples Center, where Bryant’s athletic stardom took place, that “this is his backyard. You can definitely feel it here. Everybody is talking about it, and everyone is obviously still on their phones, checking the details, because everything’s just kind of coming out as we continue live.”
Lizzo canceled her red carpet interview because of the news and kicked off the Grammys with “Cuz I Love You.”
“Tonight is for Kobe!” she said at the start of the show. Then she belted out: “I’m crying because I love you.”
Grammy host Alicia Keys then took the stage and struck a somber note. “Here we are, together, on music’s biggest night, celebrating the artists that do it best," she said. "But to be honest with you, we’re all feeling crazy sadness right now because earlier today, Los Angeles, America, and the whole wide world lost a hero, and we’re literally standing here heartbroken in the house that Kobe Bryant built.”
On red carpets, locker rooms, social media and bar stools, athletes, celebrities and fans openly discussed their shared shock, many unsure how to process the tragedy. Paul Pierce, the former NBA player, tweeted, “This is not real.” And Johnson, a fellow Lakers legend, said his mind had been racing all day. “I’m in disbelief,” he tweeted, “and have been crying all morning over this devastating news.”
“Sometimes things don’t make sense,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said, summarizing the day for many. “There are times where you just feel sad, and this is one of them. … We all have to be strong. We laughed and joked about the ‘Mamba Mentality.’ We’re all going to need it right now."
We miss you already Kobe ❤️❤️🙏🏼🙏🏼— Tom Brady (@TomBrady) January 26, 2020
Candace Buckner in Atlanta, Elahe Izadi, Emily Yahr, Antonia Farzan, Emily Giambalvo in Bloomington, Ind., and Samantha Pell in Montreal contributed to this report.