Kobe Bryant’s death in helicopter crash stuns the world, leaves L.A. grieving
Helicopter rotors chopped through the foggy canyon Sunday morning, too loud, too low.
Scott Daehlin was taking a smoke break while setting up the sound at his church in Calabasas. It was 9:44 a.m. He tracked the sound in the sky toward an empty hill across Las Virgenes Road.
The helicopter hit the slope in a violent crush of metal, followed by the boom of an explosion that reverberated across the canyon — and soon enough, around the world.
Kobe Bryant, one of the greatest basketball players of all time — a beloved, at times frustrating star who mesmerized Los Angeles for his 20 legendary years as a Laker — was killed in the wreckage at age 41.
His 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, died alongside him, as did seven others — everyone on board. Bryant appears to have been headed to Thousand Oaks to coach his daughter’s basketball team in a travel tournament. He leaves behind his wife, Vanessa, and three daughters — Natalia, 17, Bianka, 3, and Capri, seven months.
Officials did not release the names of the other victims, but Orange Coast College confirmed that its baseball coach, John Altobelli, his wife, Keri, and daughter, Alyssa, were among them. Christina Mauser, an assistant coach of a girls basketball team at the Mamba Sports Academy, also died, her husband said on Facebook.
Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said firefighters responding to a 911 call at 9:47 a.m. found a debris field in steep terrain amid a quarter-acre brush fire. Paramedics arriving by helicopter searched the area but found no survivors.
Bryant, who had homes in Newport Beach and Los Angeles, was known to keep a chartered helicopter at Orange County’s John Wayne Airport.
A Sikorsky S-76 helicopter, built in 1991, departed John Wayne at 9:06 a.m. Sunday, according to publicly available flight records. The National Transportation Safety Board database shows no prior incidents or accidents for the mid-size helicopter.
Around the city and far beyond, people gasped and struggled to accept the news. Friends texted friends: Are you OK? They cried in bars and churches, on street corners and golf courses and basketball courts. Restaurants closed Sunday night to honor his memory, and people placed basketballs outside their front doors, like flags at half staff.
“Did you hear?” a cashier at the Trader Joe’s in the Fairfax district asked quietly to another staffer just after noon on Sunday.
“Yeah, but is it for real?” the other man replied.
“Yeah, just confirmed. Unbelievable.”
Shoppers came to a halt in the aisles, staring gravely at their smartphones as news alerts pinged.
“He was the best,” a shopper spoke aloud to himself.
At an East Hollywood Metro station, a man wearing earphones watched a YouTube video on his phone — “Kobe Bryant’s TOP 40 Plays of His NBA Career!” Two other men walked up behind him to see. He nodded and unplugged his earphones so everyone could hear the audio.
They watched in silence, as a clip of Bryant, in his Laker purple, jumping toward the backboard and dunking in his own missed shot. “The greatest who ever lived,” one man said.
Many fans drifted toward Staples Center, even as final preparations were underway inside for Sunday night’s Grammy Awards. They formed a makeshift memorial.
On it, Sam Krutonog, 19, of Studio City, placed a painting of Bryant he bought when he was 13 and had hung in his bedroom.
“This is a day I’ll never forget … It’s bigger than basketball. I called my grandpa. My grandpa is 82 and just had two heart attacks, and he was crying on the phone. It’s just so terrible,” Krutonog said.
Giselle Mejia, 33, placed her hand over her mouth, her face red and eyes watery. She was thinking of his family. They had lost a father and sister. “That hits home — I have a daughter,” she said.
Mejia was having breakfast with her friend Marcela Vasquez, 33. They grew up together playing basketball and watching Bryant, seeing him as a role model.
“It was his drive. His work ethic,” Vasquez said. “He was so inspiring.”
Mejia even took on the nickname “Kobe.”
“I still have her name saved on my phone as Kobe,” Vasquez said.
Around the world, political leaders, athletes and celebrities registered their grief and condolences on social media: Presidents Obama and Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Trevor Noah and Tom Brady, among many.
“Kobe Bryant, despite being one of the truly great basketball players of all time, was just getting started in life,” Trump wrote. “He loved his family so much, and had such strong passion for the future. The loss of his beautiful daughter, Gianna, makes this moment even more devastating.”
“Kobe Bryant was a giant who inspired, amazed, and thrilled people everywhere with his incomparable skill on the court — and awed us with his intellect and humility as a father, husband, creative genius, and ambassador for the game he loved,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a statement. “He will live forever in the heart of Los Angeles, and will be remembered through the ages as one of our greatest heroes.”
Those who knew him best grappled with how to express the shock of the loss.
“To have been such, particularly when he was young, to be a part of his life and to watch his career grow, watch him grow, this is one of the most tragic days of my life,” Jerry West, who as general manager of the Lakers first signed Bryant in 1996, told The Times. “I know somewhere along the way I guess I’ll come to grips with it. ... This is going to take a long time for me.”
Magic Johnson told KCBS’s Jim Hill: “It’s just amazing that we were blessed to have a chance to know him, but also to see him play. But to me, his greatest joy was really after basketball, was being a husband and a father and being a coach of his daughter’s basketball team.
“The city needs heroes, Jim. We need our heroes to be here. And this is not a good day for the city of Los Angeles because we needed Kobe to still be around our kids who idolized him, the fan base who idolized him.”
Shaquille O’Neal, who led the Lakers to three championships with Bryant, tweeted that he was “SICK.” “There’s no words to express the pain Im going through with this tragedy of [losing] my neice Gigi & my brother @kobebryant I love u and u will be missed.”
With Bryant as shooting guard and O’Neal as center, the Lakers won three consecutive NBA championships — in 2000, 2001 and 2002.
But he bickered with O’Neal, who was ultimately traded, possibly costing the team additional titles. He still racked up records, and scored 81 points against Toronto on Jan. 22, 2006 — second in NBA history only to the 100 scored by Wilt Chamberlain in a 1962 game. The Lakers returned to form in 2009, with Bryant leading the team to championships that year and the next and securing his legacy as one of the sport’s best ever.
He won Olympic gold medals in 2008 and 2012. He was an All-Star 18 times, second most in NBA history, and was the fourth highest all-time scorer with 33,643 points — surpassed for third place the night before his death by LeBron James.
“Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames.” Bryant wrote in his final tweet. “Much respect my brother.”
In Atlanta, Jay Mitchell, a 28-year-old audio engineer, rode with his girlfriend downtown Sunday afternoon to watch the Atlanta Hawks play the Washington Wizards at the State Farm Arena.
“Kobe was my idol growing up,” he said. “I’m sick right now.”
Mitchell nearly didn’t go to the Hawks game. But he imagined Bryant calling him soft, remembering his famous interactions with his Lakers teammate Dwight Howard.
“He would have been, “Dude, go to the game!”
So Mitchell, a Knicks fan from New York, put on his purple and gold jersey. “I had to represent somehow,” he said, putting a hand to the Lakers logo on his chest as a stream of basketball fans in red filed past him.
Although Bryant’s exact destination was not released, he was scheduled to coach a tournament game in Thousand Oaks at the Mamba Sports Academy, which bears his nickname.
Anthony Nolen, a boys coach from Victorville, said he saw Bryant coach a girls game on Saturday.
“They were down by 10 at the time,” Nolen said. “Kobe being Kobe, he wasn’t screaming at the refs, he wasn’t screaming at the players. He was poised. Him being down by 10, he was upset but as usual, he gave the other coach a Kobe stare to ensure him, you could beat me now as a team but not one on one.”
The tournament was canceled upon the news of Bryant’s death. “There were no players that wanted to continue,” Nolen said.
Bryant’s death also cast a pall over preparations for the Grammys.
Crews worked quickly to place Bryant’s rafter jerseys — Nos. 8 and 24 — side by side, illuminated by floodlights.
News of the crash dominated the rehearsal. Ariana Grande had just finished a lavish performance, and Billie Eilish was about to perform an acoustic song with her brother. But all eyes were on the jerseys at the other end of the floor, as staff and observers watched in disbelief.
Early in the evening’s ceremony, host Alicia Keys spoke about Bryant: “We’re all feeling crazy sadness right now because earlier today Los Angeles, America and the whole wide world lost a hero. And we’re literally standing here heartbroken in the house that Kobe Bryant built.”
Bryant’s fame and popularity spanned many cultures and locales — from Los Angeles to Italy, where he grew up, to Philadelphia, where he went to high school, to China, where he was beloved.
On the Chinese social media platform Weibo, “Kobe dies” shot to the top of trending posts, along with a hashtag “Can we restart 2020?” Many combined posts mourning Bryant’s death with grief about the growing Wuhan coronavirus epidemic.
The hashtag “eternal 4 a.m.” went viral, reflecting the time when news of the death came out in China as well as Bryant’s famed predawn workouts. He once answered a reporters here about the secret of his success: “Have you ever seen Los Angeles at 4 a.m.?”
“I’ve never seen Los Angeles at 4 a.m., but I heard the news of your death at 4 a.m.,” thousands of fans posted, many adding stories of staying up crying all night.
The Lakers were the first NBA team to broadcast in Korean, in 2013, prompting crowds in Seoul and Los Angeles to swarm karaoke bars and restaurants to catch Kobe in action — and to learn more about the sport through the intimacy of their native language.
“He’s one of these athletes that transcend race and nationality,” recalled Alex Kim, 47, a public relations executive in L.A. “The fact that the team participated in outreach to our community only made them more popular.”
Jesse Hiram, spinning rock en español hits Sunday at a restaurant in downtown Santa Ana, said he was “devastated.”
“Kobe represented the Southland and brought such positivity to us,” Hiram said.
Hiram said he worked for a couple of months as a security guard at Bryant’s gated community in Newport Coast in 2007. “He’d see we were sad or bored, so Kobe would usually bring us Jack-in-the-Box tacos, or leave us big tips. He was just so nice.”
At El Camino Real in Fullerton, the staff was “really sad,” said manager Rodolfo Garcia. Bryant patronized the Mexican restaurant for 20 years, a favorite of his and of his wife, a Fullerton native. If he couldn’t come in person, Bryant would have friends get big orders to take back to his Newport Coast mansion.
“He liked the carnitas and flan,” Garcia said. “He loved this place because people treated him like a normal person. Kobe would just stand in line, like anyone else. He’d tell us, ‘Don’t treat me like a star; I’m just a customer here.’”
Ryan Apfel, a USC student from Redondo Beach, broke down crying in his apartment. He put on his Kobe jersey, thought to himself, I have to pay my respects, and went to L.A. Live.
“Growing up in LA, it’s such a big diverse spread out city. One of the things that I realized growing up here that brought us together was the Lakers and Kobe,” Apfel said. “Even after he retired, this is a Kobe town.”
In Redondo Beach, Al Beck stood at the busy intersection of Grant Avenue and Aviation Boulevard, holding a neon-orange sign with one word he had written in black marker: “KOBE.”
Beck stands on the corner often, normally holding political signs. People often swear at him.
On Sunday, he said, pausing for several seconds to choke back tears, ”It’s been nothing but good vibes.”
Beck was watching golf Sunday morning and flipped over to the news to check for the latest on President Trump’s impeachment trial when Bryant had died. He immediately covered up his political sign with the “KOBE” sign and rushed to the street corner.
Beck, originally from Philadelphia just like Bryant, initially didn’t like watching the young basketball phenom play, thinking he was too big of a ball hog.
It took Beck a few years to realize that was part of Bryant’s brilliance on the court.
“I don’t care what anybody says. If anybody’s got the ball, it’s going to be him. … He knew he had the ability to score whenever it was needed.”
Beck said he still couldn’t believe he would never watch Bryant play again. He was inspired by the amount of work Bryant put into his game, which, he said, no one will ever replicate.
He wiped his eyes.
“Fly, Kobe, fly.”
Times staff writers Sonali Kohli, Jenny Jarvie, Broderick Turner, Tania Ganguli, Gale Holland, Joel Rubin, Dan Woike, Matthew Ormseth, Ruben Vives, Max Lu, Alice Su, Anh Do, Luke Money, Hailey Branson-Potts, Brittny Mejia, Cindy Carcamo, Hillary Davis, Mike DiGiovanna, David Carrillo, Eric Sondheimer, Nathan Fenno, Phil Willon, Emmanuel Morgan, Priscella Vega, Patrick McDonnell, Ben Poston, Seema Mehta, Dakota Smith, Chris Erskine, Gustavo Arellano, Erin B. Logan, Marisa Gerber, Molly O’Toole and special correspondent Tom Kington contributed to this report.
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