LOS ANGELES — Basketball lost one of its greatest competitors and most accomplished players Sunday when Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash in California. The five-time NBA champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist was 41.
“For 20 seasons, Kobe showed us what is possible when remarkable talent blends with an absolute devotion to winning,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “He was one of the most extraordinary players in the history of our game with accomplishments that are legendary. … 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.”
Weather observations from the crash area indicated low clouds and restricted visibility, which may have obscured high terrain. The crash sparked a quarter-acre brush fire, according to the Los Angeles Fire Department, which responded with “15 pieces of apparatus and 56 personnel” to extinguish the blaze. In the hours after the crash, white smoke from the helicopter was visible from nearby Highway 101. Bryant regularly traveled by helicopter during and after his NBA career, and a large crowd of fans quickly descended upon the crash scene to pay their respects.
The smooth shooting guard, who patterned his game after Michael Jordan, entered the NBA straight out of high school in 1996. The Charlotte Hornets selected Bryant with the 13th pick, but immediately traded him to the Lakers, where he spent his entire 20-year career.
“I am in shock over the tragic news of Kobe’s and Gianna’s passing,” Jordan 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. He was a fierce competitor, one of the greatest of the game and a creative force. Kobe was also an amazing dad who loved his family deeply — and took great pride in his daughter’s love for the game of basketball.”
By Bryant’s second season, he had earned his first of 18 all-star selections. By his fourth season, he had teamed with Shaquille O’Neal to win the first of three consecutive championships.
“There’s no words to express the pain I’m going through with this tragedy of [losing] my [niece] Gigi & my brother Kobe Bryant,” O’Neal wrote on Twitter. “I love u and u will be missed. My condolences [go] out to the Bryant family.”
In photos: Kobe Bryant through the years
Bryant, who retired as the NBA’s third-all-time leading scorer with 33,643 points, was expected to be inducted to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on the first ballot this summer. He was a headlining member of a star-studded class that also includes Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett.
Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli; his wife, Keri; and his daughter Alyssa were also passengers on the helicopter, according to a spokesman for the community college. Gianna Bryant and Alyssa Altobelli were basketball teammates.
As news of Bryant’s death spread, reaction came from every corner of the sports world and beyond. President Trump called Bryant’s death “terrible news” on Twitter, while President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, sent “love and prayers” to Bryant’s family “on an unthinkable day.”
“Kobe was a legend on the court and just getting started in what would have been just as meaningful a second act,” Obama tweeted. “To lose Gianna is even more heartbreaking to us as parents."
Magic Johnson, a Hall of Fame Lakers player who also served the organization as a coach and executive, said that “the game of basketball [and] our city will never be the same without Kobe.”
Multiple NBA teams held tributes during games Sunday, intentionally holding the ball to incur a 24-second violation — a nod to one of Bryant’s jersey numbers. Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young, who worked out with Bryant last summer, took the court wearing No. 8, Bryant’s other jersey number. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said his organization would permanently retire Bryant’s No. 24 jersey.
Although his early career partnership with O’Neal didn’t last, Bryant went on to greater heights after their 2004 parting. He won two scoring titles in the years that followed, and he famously scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors in 2006, the second-highest single-game total in NBA history. Bryant’s 2008 pairing with Pau Gasol produced two more championships in 2009 and 2010, with Bryant winning Finals MVP honors both times.
Gasol wrote on Twitter that he was “beyond devastated, adding, “My big brother . . . I can’t, I just can’t believe it.”
A famous competitor known for championing his ruthless “Mamba Mentality,” Bryant suffered a career-altering Achilles’ injury in 2013. He recovered to play three more seasons, retiring in 2016. A season-long retirement tour culminated with a 60-point explosion in the last game of his career, perhaps the most memorable finale in NBA history.
“We are stunned and devastated by the news of the sudden passing of Kobe Bryant,” the National Basketball Players Association said in a statement. “Words cannot express his impact on our players, the NBA and the game of basketball. This is a monumental loss for the entire basketball community and our hearts are quite simply broken. We send love and prayers out to his wife Vanessa and the entire family.”
Bryant’s NBA career was not without controversy. In 2003, a 19-year-old woman in Colorado accused him of sexual assault, although the charges were later dropped. The two parties later settled a civil suit.
In retirement, Bryant wrote children’s books and produced animated stories, while also pursuing assorted media and business projects with his Granity Studios. In 2018, he won an Academy Award for best animated short film for “Dear Basketball,” his love letter to the sport.
Bryant and Gianna shared a love for basketball, with Bryant serving as her coach and occasionally taking her to Lakers games. Just last month, they sat courtside for the Lakers’ victory over the Dallas Mavericks and took photographs with rising star Luka Doncic.
“[Bryant has] got one of the greatest female basketball players that’s about to come up sitting next to him,” Lakers superstar LeBron James said after a game in November. “I’m just trying to put on a show for them.”
Among his NBA peers, Bryant was revered for his tireless work ethic and his fearlessness in clutch moments.
“For most of the guys in this league … Kobe is their Jordan,” Celtics Coach Brad Stevens said.
Fans at the scene were in similar disbelief. The still-smoking wreckage was visible from the street up on a hillside Sunday afternoon. Parking spots in the local shopping center were filled, and cars were illegally parked on both sides of the street near the crash site.
“I just came as a respect for Kobe, he was one of the greatest of all time, especially in L.A. He has a history that we’re never going to forget,” said Mark Escalante, 48, who drove 45 minutes from Fillmore.
Cody Stenzel, 18, of Camarillo, remembered Bryant as a role model. Holding a bouquet of yellow and purple tulips, Stenzel spoke of his experience at the Mamba Sports Academy that Bryant had opened in nearby Thousand Oaks. The academy welcomed all local youth during the 2018 Woolsey wildfires that ripped through Calabasas and neighboring areas.
“I couldn’t really afford it so I just went there to have fun and play some basketball when the fires were happening. It was really cool,” he said, adding that Bryant had always been an important figure to him.
“I always looked up to him and watch the Lakers,” he said. “It was how hard he worked. Everyone knew he had Mamba mentality. … It’s being tougher than anything and pushing through adversity and all the tough times. … I saw that mentality and it was cool to see what he did.”
Bryan Miller, 53, from Calabasas, donned a Lakers jersey after riding his bike over to the scene.
“I spent my life watching the Lakers," he said. "I already know that life so short, that it can be over before you think. So make the best of it.”
Golliver reported from New Orleans. Harrison Smith, Emily Langer and Cindy Boren in Washington contributed to this report.
The death of Kobe Bryant
Here’s what you need to catch up on what happened in Calabasas, California.
Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash in California on Jan. 26. The NBA legend and sports icon was 41 years old.
Nine people, including Bryant, were killed in the crash. Gianna Bryant, the former player’s 13-year-old daughter, was among the dead.
Memorial service: Los Angeles honored Kobe Bryant, his daughter and the victims of the crash with a memorial at Staples Center. Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, spoke at the memorial, as did NBA legend Michael Jordan, among others.
Commentary: Bryant accomplished so much, sports columnist Jerry Brewer writes. “Yet his story still feels disturbingly incomplete, and that’s why so many are taking his death so hard.” Barry Svrluga writes: “Lives are not clean. Legacies are messy. Memories are personal. It’s worth talking through.”
• Kobe Bryant’s beautiful game was built on grace, intensity and confidence
• For LeBron James, Bryant’s death provided a powerful reminder of life’s priorities
• Bryant was a storyteller in search of perfection. The most vexing tale was his own.
• Media coverage of Bryant’s death was a chaotic mess, but there were moments of grace