NBA legend and Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant has tragically died at the tender age of 41 when a helicopter crashed and burst into flames in foggy conditions in Calabasas, California, on Sunday morning. He was travelling with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna and 7 others.
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s officials said there were no survivors from the morning crash on a rugged hillside in Calabasas, west of Los Angeles. The helicopter was described as a Sikorsky S-76, Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Allen Kenitzer said.
TMZ was the first US outlet to report that Bryant was among the fatalities. The NBA icon’s death was later confirmed by ESPN, CNN and the Los Angeles Times citing unidentified sources. TMZ reported that Bryant’s wife, Vanessa was not among those on board the helicopter.
Early reports of Bryant’s death sent shockwaves throughout the world, with fellow stars and celebrities expressing disbelief at the news. “I’m stunned,” wrote Hall-of-Fame NBA star Scottie Pippen. “Words can’t even come close to describing it. Just an incredibly sad and tragic day.”
“This can’t be true,” Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic wrote on Twitter. “No please.”
Tennis great Martina Navratilova added: “Gone much too soon, how devastating to hear of his passing, he gave joy to so many for so long – deep condolences to his family, his friends, his Laker family. RIP Kobe.”
At the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, dozens of shocked fans gathered to pay tribute to the star. The crash came only hours after the 41-year-old former Los Angeles Lakers icon was passed by current Lakers star LeBron James for third on the all-time NBA scoring list in a Saturday game at Philadelphia.
Bryant’s final post on social media had been a tweet congratulating James on surpassing him. “Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames,” Bryant wrote. “Much respect my brother #33644”.
Bryant was a five-time NBA champion in a career that began in 1996 straight out of a high school and lasted until his retirement in 2016. He also was a two-time Olympic gold medalist, helping spark the US squad of NBA stars to titles in 2008 at Beijing and 2012 at London.
Bryant bowed out of the NBA in 2016, scoring 60 points in his final appearance before his adoring fans at the Staples Center. It was a fairytale farewell to a sporting career which had begun two decades earlier. The son of former NBA player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, the Lakers legend was born in Philadelphia in 1978 while his father played for the 76ers.
The elder Bryant played from 1984 to 1991 in Italy, giving young Kobe a global worldview as he grew up dreaming of following his dad into the NBA. When his father retired as a player, the family moved back to the Philadelphia area and Kobe began his star turn at Lower Merion High School, where his jersey number 33 was retired.
He decided at age 17 to jump directly from the prep ranks to the NBA, only the sixth player and first guard to make such a leap. Bryant was selected 13th overall by the Charlotte Hornets in the 1996 NBA Draft but they were picking for the Lakers in a deal made before the draft.
At 18, Bryant became, at the time, the youngest player or starter in an NBA game and the youngest winner of the NBA Slam Dunk Contest. In 1998, he became the youngest NBA All-Star starter. In a 1999 campaign shortened by a labour dispute, Bryant started every game for the Lakers and signed a six-year deal worth $70 million.
As the Michael Jordan era ended in Chicago, Bulls coach Phil Jackson wound up joining the Lakers and with sharpshooter Bryant joining dominating inside force Shaquille O’Neal, the Lakers captured three NBA crowns in a row from 2000-2002, returning the team to glory days unseen since 1988.
He remained with the franchise for the remainder of his career, successfully branching out into the entertainment industry following his retirement. In 2018, he won an Oscar for his animated short film “Dear Basketball”, a love letter to the sport which brought him fame and fortune.
This article was first published on Lifestyle Asia KL.