By Stuart Oldham | Variety
Kobe Bryant, the sports icon who won five NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers and was often compared to Michael Jordan, died Sunday in a helicopter crash. He was 41.
Bryant was traveling in his private helicopter when it crashed in the Los Angeles County suburb of Calabasas. Eight other people were killed, with no survivors. Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna (“Gigi”) was among the deceased.
The chopper was reportedly en route to Gigi’s basketball game in Thousand Oaks.
Investigators are trying to determine the cause of the crash. There was extensive fog in the Los Angeles area on Sunday morning.
L.A. County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said the accident was first reported at 9:46 a.m. PST. About 56 fire personnel were dispatched to the scene, near the intersection of Las Virgenes Road and Willow Glen Street. The crash sparked a brush fire that spread to about 1/4 acre before firefighters were able to put it out. The firefighters were able to determine that no one survived the crash.
Villanueva said that a flight manifest listed eight passengers and one pilot. Officials initially said that five people were killed.
Air traffic control audio, posted on LiveATC.net, revealed communications between the pilot and the tower as the helicopter navigated around the Van Nuys airport. The last communication that can be heard is the controller telling the pilot they were “still too low level” to be tracked on the radar. Otherwise, the audio does not indicate anything amiss with the flight.
The helicopter had flown from Orange County, near Bryant’s Newport Beach home.
First reported by TMZ, news of Bryant’s death sent shock waves throughout the world, with fellow athletes, celebrities and politicians paying tribute to the legendary Laker, known as “The Black Mamba,” while also sending heartfelt condolences to his wife, Vanessa, and their children.
“There’s no words to express the pain Im going through with this tragedy of losing my niece Gigi and my brother,” Shaquille O’Neal, Bryant’s former Lakers teammate posted on Twitter. “I’m sick right now.”
Former President Barack Obama, who hosted Bryant and the Lakers at the White House following the team’s 2010 NBA Championship, wrote: “Kobe was a legend on the court and just getting started in what would have been just as meaningful a second act. 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.”
On Saturday night, current Laker LeBron James passed Bryant as the NBA’s basketball’s third-highest scorer of all-time. In his final message on Twitter, Bryant sent his congratulations to James following the Lakers’ game in Philadelphia, which also happens to be Bryant’s hometown.
Drafted in 1996 by the Charlotte Hornets out of Lower Merion High School in Philadelphia — he would later became the youngest player to play in the NBA — Bryant was traded to the Lakers where he became a fan favorite overnight. He wore both numbers 8 and 24 for the Lakers, the organization where he spent his entire 20-year career. His two jerseys were both retired, an NBA first, following his exit from the league in 2016.
Widely considered as one of the greatest players in NBA history, Bryant was voted the league’s Most Valuable Player in 2008 and was elected to the All-Star team eighteen times. He went on to win two gold medals with the USA Men’s Basketball team – in Beijing at the 2008 Olympics and 2012 in London.
Alongside O’Neal and coach Phil Jackson, Bryant helped revitalize Hollywood’s favorite sports team in the late 1990s and early 2000s when the Lakers moved from the Inglewood Forum to Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles.
Bryant’s highest scoring game came in 2002 when he posted 81 points against the Toronto Raptors. It’s the second-highest point total ever for an NBA player behind Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game in 1962.
Despite all of the “Ko-Be!” chants and on-court accolades, Bryant was not immune to controversy. In 2003, he was accused of sexually assaulting a hotel employee in Colorado. The case was dropped the following year, and Bryant issued a public apology alongside his wife, Vanessa. “Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did,” he said.
After retiring from the NBA, Bryant dug further into his Hollywood roots, launching the production company, Granity, which focused on projects that blended both sports and entertainment. Much like his basketball career, he quickly rose to the top in the entertainment arena, winning an Academy Award in 2018 for the short film, “Dear Basketball,” directed by Glen Keane, which was based on a poem Bryant wrote.
Several documentaries covered Bryant’s life and career, including Spike Lee’s 2009 “Kobe Doin’ Work” and “Kobe Bryant’s Muse,” a 2015 Showtime special.
Bryant is survived by his wife, Vanessa, and three daughters, Natalia, Bianca and Capri.
Gene Maddaus contributed to this report.