by Rob Woollard
NBA legend Kobe Bryant died Sunday when a helicopter crashed and burst into flames in foggy conditions in suburban Los Angeles, killing all nine people on board and plunging the sports world into mourning.
Bryant, 41, was travelling with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven other passengers and crew when their Sikorsky S-76 helicopter slammed into a rugged hillside in Calabasas, west of Los Angeles. There were no survivors.
Bryant, a five-time NBA champion and two-time Olympic gold medallist, is widely regarded as one of the greatest basketball players in history, an iconic figure who became one of the faces of his sport during a glittering two-decade career with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Dozens of firefighters and paramedics battled across steep terrain to reach the flaming wreckage of the crash site but found no survivors, officials said.
Father-of-four Bryant and his teenage daughter were later confirmed amongst the nine fatalities. No further information on the identities of the pilot and six other passengers was released.
Bryant’s death sent shockwaves throughout the world, with basketball stars left stunned by the news.
“Laker Nation, the game of basketball & our city, will never be the same without Kobe,” former Los Angeles Lakers star Magic Johnson wrote on Twitter.
Another NBA icon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, added: “Most people will remember Kobe as the magnificent athlete who inspired a whole generation of basketball players. But I will always remember him as a man who was much more than an athlete.”
Tributes to Bryant flooded in from sports stars around the world, a sign of how the man known as the “Black Mamba” had transcended basketball throughout his career.
American football star Tom Brady wrote simply: “We miss you already Kobe.”
Brazilian soccer star Neymar meanwhile paid tribute to Bryant after scoring for his French club side Paris Saint-Germain, making the number 24 — Bryant’s old shirt number — with his fingers.
At the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, around 200 shocked fans gathered to pay tribute to the star as the venue geared up to host the music industry’s Grammy Awards later Sunday.
“This dude is everything to me man. It makes no sense,” said Bobby Jimenez, sobbing as he stood outside the venue.
Across the NBA, tributes were held at several of the eight games scheduled for Sunday.
Denver Nuggets fans began chants of “Kobe, Kobe” as a minute’s silence was held before their game against the Houston Rockets.
Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers fought back tears ahead of his team’s game against the Orlando Magic.
“The news is just devastating to everybody who knew him, who knew him a long time,” Rivers said.
“He had that DNA that very few athletes can ever have — the Tiger Woods’ and Michael Jordans.”
The crash came only hours after Bryant was passed by current Lakers star LeBron James for third on the all-time NBA scoring list in a Saturday game at Philadelphia.
Bryant’s final post on social media had been a tweet congratulating James on surpassing him.
“Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames,” Bryant wrote. “Much respect my brother #33644”.
Bryant was a five-time NBA champion in a career that began in 1996 straight out of a high school and lasted until his retirement in 2016.
He also was a two-time Olympic gold medalist, helping spark the US squad of NBA stars to titles in 2008 in Beijing and 2012 in London.
Bryant bowed out of the NBA in 2016, scoring 60 points in his final appearance before his adoring fans at the Staples Center.
It was a fairytale farewell to a sporting career which had begun two decades earlier.
The son of former NBA player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, the Lakers legend was born in Philadelphia in 1978 while his father played for the 76ers.
The elder Bryant played from 1984 to 1991 in Italy, giving young Kobe a global worldview as he grew up dreaming of following his dad into the NBA.
He would eventually join the ranks of professionals at the age of 17, jumping directly into the NBA, only the sixth player and first guard to make such a leap.
Bryant was selected 13th overall by the Charlotte Hornets in the 1996 NBA Draft but they were picking for the Lakers in a deal made before the draft.
At 18, Bryant became, at the time, the youngest player or starter in an NBA game and the youngest winner of the NBA Slam Dunk Contest.
In 1998, he became the youngest NBA All-Star starter. In a 1999 campaign shortened by a labor dispute, Bryant started every game for the Lakers and signed a six-year deal worth $70 million.
As the Michael Jordan era ended in Chicago, Bulls coach Phil Jackson wound up joining the Lakers and with sharpshooter Bryant joining dominating inside force Shaquille O’Neal, the Lakers captured three NBA crowns in a row from 2000-2002, returning the team to glory days unseen since 1988.
Bryant’s career was almost derailed in 2003 when he was arrested in Colorado over a sexual assault complaint filed by a 19-year-old hotel employee where Bryant was staying ahead of knee surgery.
Bryant was accused of rape. He admitted to adultery but said he did not commit rape. The case was dropped in 2004 after the accuser refused to testify in a trial.
A separate civil suit was settled under terms kept private.
Bryant saw out his career with the Lakers, successfully branching out into the entertainment industry following his retirement.
In 2018, he won an Oscar for his animated short film “Dear Basketball”, a love letter to the sport which brought him fame and fortune. – AFP