Kobe Bryant, one of the greatest ever NBA players and an icon who transcended the world of sport, has died in a helicopter crash at the age of 41.
The crash claimed the lives of all nine people on board the helicopter; passengers included Bryant’s daughter Gianna, basketball coach Christina Mauser, baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife Keri Altobelli and their daughter Alyssa, who was a teammate of Gianna. Needless to say, Spectate sends sincere condolences to the families of all the victims of the crash.
Bryant, who retired in 2016 after a storied 20-year NBA career, is renowned as one of the greatest athletes of all time. He won five NBA Championships with the Los Angeles Lakers (for whom he played his entire career), was named Finals MVP twice, played in 18 All-Star teams and won two Olympic gold medals. Just a day before the crash, Bryant was passed by current Laker LeBron James for third in the NBA’s all-time scoring history and expressed his pride in James’s ability to ‘move the game forward’.
The words ‘legend’ and ‘iconic’ are bandied about a lot in the sporting world, but in the global outpouring of grief following Bryant’s death, it’s clear that they’re very relevant here.
On the court, over two decades, Bryant proved again and again why he’s one of the all-time basketball greats. Children around the world grew up shouting “Kobe!” when they made a basket - whether on the court or simply with a balled up piece of paper into a bin. His signature fadeaway jumper is one of the most copied and iconic shots in NBA history. His jersey – whether emblazoned with 8 or 24 – remains one of the most instantly iconic; indeed, Bryant was the first player in history to have two jerseys retired. On Sunday, as fans gathered at the Staples Center to honour their hero, both hung from the rafters as a symbol of the ‘Black Mamba’ legacy. In the hours after the tragic news broke, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban announced that his team would retire the number 24 too, in Bryant’s honour.
After his retirement, Bryant was frequently spotted attending NBA and WNBA games, often with Gianna by his side. In interviews, he mentioned how it was her interest in the game that brought him back courtside even after he stopped playing. In the days before their death, a video of Bryant mentoring Gianna courtside went viral on Twitter. The helicopter was bound for a tournament at Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy, which he co-founded in 2018.
The news of Bryant’s death was made all the more shocking thanks to his visibility. He was an outspoken supporter of women’s sports, frequently championing female athletes and the WNBA. He was a published author; business owner; and, in 2018, became the first African American to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, for his film Dear Basketball, which was adapted from a poem he wrote upon retiring.
Part of why accepting and processing this news is so hard is that Kobe was an institution. He epitomised everything that was good about competitive sports; he accomplished virtually everything there is to accomplish in professional basketball and then some. He brought together multiple cultures and represented multitudes - he was raised in Italy and spoke fluent Italian, he was an important figure in African American culture, and he was arguably the most beloved figure in Los Angeles. To lose someone who had so much to give is hard to take. Bryant was becoming as dominant in his second career - as a producer, writer and coach - as he was in his first. He had carved a niche for himself as a culture creator even away from the court. He was a notoriously hard worker, and spent his first morning after retiring (and after putting up a truly unbelievable 60 points for good measure in his final game) up at 5am for church, then the gym, then the office.
What he represented for many of us is hard to put in to words for those who might not be NBA or US sports fans. For those of us who follow the NBA week in week out, it's truly painful to lose Bryant in this way. For me, he was always there. I was a childhood Laker fan, and Kobe's influence both on the court and off it as a cultural touchstone was huge on me. It doesn't seem like this news, and the shocking manner of his death, will ever be processed. That his last act was to travel with his daughter to help her thrive in the game they both love speaks volumes of the man he had become. He had become an incredibly present and tangibly good father. He was mentoring many of the league's most promising young players, including Kyrie Irving, who missed the Nets game on Sunday evening for personal reasons.
Social media was awash with shock, disbelief and heartfelt tributes after the news broke on Sunday. Along with fans and celebrities from around the world, former and current NBA players struggled to process the abrupt and shocking news. The first game after the news saw both the Toronto Raptors and the San Antonio Spurs take a shot clock violation – 24 seconds – in Bryant’s honour. Multiple teams committed a deliberate backcourt violation - of 8 seconds - to commemorate his other jersey number. Close friends Caron Butler, Dwyane Wade and Tracy McGrady shared touching insights into the man Bryant was behind closed doors. Emotional tributes were released from the biggest names in sports, including Magic Johnson, Dwyane Wade, Michael Jordan, Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo, LeBron James and Tiger Woods. NBA icon Shaquille O’Neal, with whom Bryant shared a famous partnership at the Lakers, posted a collection of photos of Bryant and his family, remembering him as “so much more than an athlete”.
And it’s true – Kobe Bryant is one of the most recognisable names in US culture. He’s known around the world, among basketball and non-basketball fans alike. His sudden death came just months before he was due to be inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame. One of the most famous athletes of all time, Bryant will be remembered as a complex man; a committed father; a champion of women’s sports; a successful businessman; one of the very best athletes in any sport of all time; and an iconic figure in the NBA, across sport, in African American culture, and in worldwide pop culture.
In short, he was a legend.