Kobe Bryant was a Los Angeles superstar.
But he called Newport Beach his home. It was here he raised his daughters, was involved in its schools and youth sports and made friends at the neighborhood grocery store and Starbucks.
And it was this community that saw so much loss Sunday, as the helicopter carrying Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others slammed into a hillside above Calabasas, killing all on board.
Also on the copter were Newport Beach residents John Altobelli; his wife, Keri; and their daughter, Alyssa, who played on the same club team as Gianna Bryant. Newport Beach mother and daughter Sarah and Payton Chester were identified by friends and family as also being on board.
The tightknit community was also grieving the death of Christina Mauser, the top assistant coach of the Mamba girls’ basketball team, whose players included Gianna Bryant and Alyssa Altobelli. Mauser had worked at Harbor Day School in nearby Corona del Mar from 2007 to 2018, where she and her husband coached the eighth-grade girls’ basketball team to its first championship.
The day after the crash, two young girls dressed in Lakers purple and gold dropped flowers off at a bench outside the school, adding to a makeshift memorial that has sprouted over the last day. The Bryant family was active at the private school, where two of Bryant’s daughters attended.
Two bouquets propped up under the school’s entrance sign were left with letters, one addressed to “Gigi, Mr. Bryant and Mrs. Mauser, Forever in our Hearts” and the other “To Mr. Bryant, Gigi and Mrs. Mauser, Our 3 Angels.”
Harbor Day School officials described Gianna, who started attending the school in kindergarten, as a “strong leader” whose work ethic was unmatched. She had a level of maturity beyond her 13 years, officials wrote in a statement.
“This loss is indescribable; as is the loss of her father who was a respected and active member of the school community,” said Noelle Becker, director of communications at Harbor Day School. “Our students took great pride in seeing Mr. Bryant on campus regularly.”
The school on Monday issued a statement about the collective loss:
“To support our grieving community, last night ... Harbor Day opened its doors to the eighth grade class to come together at school to support each other and receive support from their advisors, teachers, and mental health professionals, including our school psychologist. We are grateful to our neighboring schools who sent their counselors to our school last night and whose counselors will remain on campus today and this week to support our students.”
Maria Paun, 81, used her walker to deliver an assortment of pink flowers to the front of the school, depositing them on a bench. It was years ago, she said, that she sat with Bryant on a bench at the school when he was waiting to pick up one of his daughters and she was waiting for her granddaughter.
“He gave me a hug and he said, ‘I like your accent, Grandma,’” she said. “He was tall, and he was somebody and I’m nobody, but he bent down to give me a hug. And I never forget this hug.”
Paun said it was no accident that she wore a purple sweater Monday morning. She did so because “he liked the color.”
“It’s hard for me, and it’s hard for everyone,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion.
During a vigil Sunday night, Bryant’s fellow Newport Beach residents spoke of the athlete’s life outside of his storied NBA career. He was, first and foremost, a dedicated father whose love for his family was apparent to anyone who came across him, friends say. He was also the type of man whose fame never got in the way of his sharing a warm greeting at Starbucks or the grocery store.
Mario Nunes, 50, hung his Kobe Bryant jersey from one of the tables in front of the Pavilions grocery store on Newport Coast Drive, which Bryant was known to frequent, on Monday. Nunes, a job trainer with the Rehabilitation Institute of Southern California, said he used to see Bryant at the store every few weeks. Nunes was quick to whip out his phone to show some of the pictures he’d taken with Bryant over the years, including one he said was from shortly after the Lakers’ last championship in 2010.
“He was always cool with me,” he said. “He was always friendly. He signed a couple basketballs here and there.”
Michael Young, 40, said he also saw Bryant periodically during the three years he’s worked as a courtesy clerk at the grocery store. When he heard the news about Bryant’s death, Young said his first reaction was tears.
“He brought a lot of good energy … a lot of positive energy, a lot of good stuff for the community,” Nunes said.
Both Young and Nunes said the shock of seeing the superstar in the flesh never completely wore off, no matter how many times he came to the grocery store or made a run to the Starbucks in the same shopping complex.
“It’s like he’s still here,” Young said. “His spirit is all around us.”
Kim Shipman placed a votive candle in a delicate filigreed holder on the pavers not far from the park’s basketball court and recalled how friendly and gracious Bryant was.
“Every time that we would run into him at Starbucks, he always had the biggest smile on his face. He was always so kind and always so loving to the children more than anything,” she said, her 10-year-old-daughter, Angeline, at her side. “He was such a great encourager to everybody around, always with a big smile on his face.”
Crystal Alford said everyone should follow Bryant’s lead and say hello to people they don’t know.
“That’s what he did,” she said. “He said hi to everyone.”