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Kobe Bryant, 41, dies in helicopter crash

The late Kobe Bryant, who tragically died January 26 in a helicopter crash in California (Credit: Getty Images)

Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, considered one of the greatest basketball players of all time and was one of the league’s marquee personalities and a sports marketing force for a more than a generation, died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, on January 26. He was 41.

Bryant, who skipped college and entered the National Basketball Association at age 18 directly from high school, was a five-time league champion, an 18-time All Star, the NBA Most Valuable Player in 2008, a two-time NBA Finals MVP (2009, 2010), and a two-time Olympic gold medallist, among many other honors in the game.

He retired in 2016 as the third-leading scorer in NBA history, a feat that was just passed by fellow Lakers star LeBron James over this past weekend. Bryant is the first and only player in Lakers history to have both of his two jersey numbers (8 and 24) retired. Bryant is expected to be posthumously voted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this year.

The magnitude of his celebrity was such was that his last name was often not used when  discussing him, and he existed in that rare status of essentially being known by the single name, “Kobe.”

Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna were among the nine passengers that were all killed when the helicopter crashed into a hillside in Calabasas, about 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. Bryant and his daughter had been expected for a basketball game at the Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, California.

An investigation into the crash is ongoing. Authorities are not releasing the names of the other passengers until they are identified and next of kin are identified. The group of nine is comprised of a pilot and eight passengers that included Bryant and his daughter.

Following his 20-year playing career, Bryant forged a successful career in popular culture and a quickly expanding business portfolio. In 2018, he won an Oscar along with director Glen Keane for the animated short film Dear Basketball. He was also an investor in sports drink BodyArmor, founded media company Granity Studios, wrote a series of children’s books, and opened the Mamba Sports Academy training facility, among many other projects.

In 2013, Bryant co-founded investment firm Bryant Stibel to “provide strategy, capital, and operational support to businesses with a focus across technology, media, and data.” Bryant Stibel has invested in companies like Dell, Alibaba, and Epic Games. He also remained an active endorser with Nike, with whom he worked for more than a decade after starting his career with adidas, releasing post-retirement shoes as recently as last year.

Nike said in a statement: “Along with millions of athletes and fans throughout the world, we are devastated by today’s tragic news. We extend our deepest sympathies to those closest to Kobe, especially his family and friends. He was one of the greatest athletes of his generation and has had an immeasurable impact on the world of sport and the community of basketball. He was a beloved member of the Nike family. We will miss him greatly. Mamba forever.”

Bryant married Vanessa Laine Bryant in 2001 and they had four daughters together, including the surviving Natalia, 17, Bianka, 3, and Capri, 7 months. His father Joe “Jellybean” Bryant is a former NBA player.

The NBA and sporting world have been in deep mourning following news of Bryant’s death, with many luminaries paying tribute to one of the most iconic sporting figures in the United States. Bryant’s sudden and tragic death dominated US news coverage in the hours following the Sunday morning accident, surpassing even the ongoing impeachment trial of US President Donald Trump. ABC News presented a primetime special on the player’s life and legacy on Sunday evening, while ESPN readjusted its schedule as well to give prominence to covering Bryant’s death.

Even a day later, news of Bryant’s death dominated morning news shows, with each major US broadcast news network devoting more than 10 minutes each in their lead segments to the accident and Bryant’s widespread popularity with fans.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement: “The NBA family is devastated by the tragic passing of Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna. For 20 seasons, Kobe showed us what is possible when remarkable talent blends with an absolute devotion to winning. He was one of the most extraordinary players in the history of our game with accomplishments that are legendary: five NBA championships, an NBA MVP award, 18 NBA All-Star selections, and two Olympic gold medals.

“But 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. We send our heartfelt condolences to his wife, Vanessa, and their family, the Lakers organization and the entire sports world,” Silver said.

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach said: “He embraced the power of sport to change people’s lives. After retiring from the game he loved so much, he continued to support the Olympic Movement and was an inspiration for the Olympic Games LA 2028.”

Former US president Barack Obama tweeted: “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.”

Bryant’s high-profile image took a major hit in 2003, a year after the Lakers completed a three-year run of NBA championships, when he faced sexual assault charges in Colorado. But those criminal charges were dropped when his accuser refused to testify. A separate civil suit was settled out of court, and Bryant lost several major corporate sponsors. Bryant, admitting to an adulterous affair, apologized to his accuser, and then went a long process to rehabilitate his career and his image.

Those efforts received boosts during a frenetic 2008-10 period where he won a league MVP award, his two NBA Finals MVP awards, his fourth and fifth league championships, and an Olympic gold medal, in turn returning to one of the league’s most popular personalties with both fans and licensees. He also is remembered as one of the NBA’s fiercest competitors ever.

The NBA opted not to cancel its games to honor Bryant, in part due to the complicated logistics of rescheduling a full day’s slate of games. But nearly every team paid tribute, with most taking pre-planned 24-second shot clock violations (to mark Bryant’s No. 24 jersey) which drew standing ovations across the country.

Meanwhile, Dallas Mavericks team owner Mark Cuban announced the franchise will retire Bryant’s No. 24 jersey in a tribute to the player.

Over in Europe, the Italian Basketball Federation said it will be honoring Bryant with a minute of silence before all games this week. Bryant lived in Italy for part of his childhood. “It’s a small but heartfelt and deserved gesture to honor the life and memory of Kobe Bryant, an absolute champion who always had Italy in his heart,” the federation said. “Kobe was and will always be linked to our country.”

Bryant was particularly popular in China, where he often had the country’s best-selling NBA jersey during his playing career. Bryant frequently visited China and was one of the first NBA players to launch an account on Chinese social media platform Weibo.

Bryant’s death comes just a few weeks after the passing of NBA commissioner David Stern.