Remembering Kobe Bryant: ‘You’ve got to put the work in’

The NBA great, who died Sunday, was an inspiration to current players. In retirement he boosted women’s sports, and won an Academy Award in 2018. 

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports/File Photo
Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna attend the WNBA All Star Game at Mandalay Bay Events Center July 27, 2019, in Las Vegas.

Kobe Bryant, the 18-time NBA All-Star who won five championships and became one of the greatest basketball players of his generation during a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, died in a helicopter crash Sunday. 

Mr. Bryant died in the foggy hills above Calabasas, California, about 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, a person familiar with the situation told The Associated Press. A different person familiar with the case confirmed Mr. Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna also was killed. Authorities said nine people were on the helicopter and that all were presumed dead. No names were released.

Both of the AP’s unnamed sources spoke on condition of anonymity because few details of the crash had been released publicly. The crash happened around 10 a.m.

Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Allen Kenitzer said it was a Sikorsky S-76 and it was not known what caused the crash. 

Mr. Bryant lived south of Los Angeles in coastal Orange County for much of his adult life, and he often used helicopters to save time and avoid Southern California’s notorious traffic. Even as a player, he often traveled to practices and games by helicopter, and he kept up the practice after retirement as he attended to his business ventures.

The National Transportation Safety Board sent a “go team” of investigators to the site. The NTSB generally issues a preliminary report within about 10 days that will give a rough summary of what investigators have learned. 

The Sikorsky S-76 “is generally regarded as a good helicopter with a good safety record,” said Gary Robb, an aviation attorney in Kansas City who wrote a textbook on helicopter crash litigation. “But parts fail, parts break. Anything can happen.”

The crash occurred about 20 miles from Mamba Sports Academy, Mr. Bryant’s basketball training complex in Thousand Oaks, California.

Mr. Bryant, who had four daughters with his wife, Vanessa, dedicated himself to boosting women’s sports in his retirement, coaching and mentoring basketball players. Gianna, better known as Gigi, was a talented basketball player.

Mr. Bryant retired nearly four years ago as the third-leading scorer in NBA history, finishing two decades with the Lakers as a prolific shooter with a sublime all-around game and a relentless competitive ethic. He held that spot in the league scoring ranks until Saturday night, when the Lakers’ LeBron James passed him for third place during a game in Philadelphia, Mr. Bryant’s hometown.

“Continuing to move the game forward (at)KingJames,” Mr. Bryant wrote in his last tweet. “Much respect my brother.”

On Saturday night, Mr. James said he was “happy just to be in any conversation with Kobe Bean Bryant, one of the all-time greatest basketball player to ever play. One of the all-time greatest Lakers.”

News of Mr. Bryant’s death inspired an outpouring of grief around the sports world and beyond, but it was felt particularly painfully in Los Angeles, where Mr. Bryant was unquestionably the most popular athlete and one of the city’s most beloved public figures. 

The Lakers’ next game isn’t until Tuesday night against the crosstown rival Clippers, but hundreds of fans –  many in Bryant jerseys and Lakers gear – spontaneously gathered at Staples Center and in the surrounding L.A. Live entertainment complex on Sunday, weeping and staring at video boards with Mr. Bryant’s image before the Grammy awards ceremony.

“I thought he was going to live forever,” Lakers great Magic Johnson told KCBS-TV. “I thought he was invincible. ... There was nobody who took more pride in putting on that Laker uniform than Kobe. Nobody. He was just special. We will miss him and we’ll remember him for his greatness, but let’s not forget how he impacted the world, too.”

The NBA kept its games as scheduled when the news broke, but the San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors both took voluntary 24-second shot clock violations at the start of their game in honor of Mr. Bryant, who wore No. 24 for the second half of his career.

Mr. Bryant opened a production company and entered the entertainment field in retirement. He won an Academy Award in 2018 for his contributions to “Dear Basketball,” an animated short about his relationship to the game. He also produced content for ESPN.

In 2003, Mr. Bryant was charged with attacking a 19-year-old employee at a Colorado resort. He had said the two had consensual sex, and the charge was eventually dropped. The woman later filed a civil suit against Mr. Bryant that was settled out of court. His adulation remained strong in Los Angeles even during the sexual assault allegations.

Mr. Bryant had one of the greatest careers in recent NBA history and became one of the game’s most popular players as the face of the 16-time NBA champion Lakers franchise. He was the league MVP in 2008 and a two-time NBA scoring champion, and he earned 12 selections to the NBA’s All-Defensive teams.

He teamed with Shaquille O’Neal in a combustible partnership to lead the Lakers to NBA titles in 2000, 2001, and 2002. He later teamed with Spanish star Pau Gasol to win two more titles in 2009 and 2010.

“There’s no words to express the pain I’m going through with this tragedy of loosing my niece Gigi & my brother (at)KobeBryant,” Mr. O’Neal wrote on Twitter. “I’m sick right now.”

A two-time Olympic gold medalist with the dominant U.S. team, Mr. Bryant retired in 2016 after scoring 60 points in his final NBA game. In December 2017, the Lakers hung banners retiring his No. 8 and No. 24 jerseys in the Staples Center rafters in an unprecedented double honor.

Mr. Bryant looms large over the current generation of NBA players, most of whom grew up either idolizing the famous Laker or absorbing his work ethic and competitive spirit in the same way Mr. Bryant’s generation learned from Michael Jordan. Mr. James said he remembers when the superstar came to speak at a childhood basketball camp.

“I remember one thing he said: If you want to be great at it, or want to be one of the greats, you’ve got to put the work in,” Mr. James said after passing Mr. Bryant’s career scoring mark on Saturday. 

Mr. James later teamed up with Mr. Bryant on the 2008 U.S. Olympic team in Beijing.

“He had zero flaws offensively,” Mr. James said. “Zero. You backed off of him, he could shoot the 3. You body him up a little bit, he could go around you. He could shoot from mid-range. He could post. He could make free throws. ... He was just immortal offensively because of his skill set and his work ethic.”

Mr. Bryant was a basketball superstar for his entire adult life. He entered the NBA draft straight out of high school in 1996 after a childhood spent partly in Italy, where his father, former NBA player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, played professionally. He spoke four languages, and was a huge part of the NBA’s international growth, traveling the world, connecting with athletes in other sports and celebrities.

The Lakers acquired the 17-year-old Bryant in a trade shortly after Charlotte drafted him, and he immediately became one of the most exciting and intriguing players in the sport alongside Mr. O’Neal, who had signed with the Lakers as a free agent. Mr. Bryant won the Slam Dunk Contest as an upstart rookie, and the Lakers gradually grew into a team that won three consecutive championships.

Between those title runs and before the quiet final years of his career, Mr. Bryant accomplished innumerable feats including an 81-point game against Toronto in January 2006. Bryant’s final NBA seasons were dogged by injuries, but he still went into retirement with that jaw-dropping 60-point performance against Utah.

The story was reported by The Associated Press. AP Basketball Writer Tim Reynolds contributed to this report.

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