Tom Molnar | Sun, 23 Feb 2020
On the morning of January 26th, news broke out of a tragedy. NBA legend Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna were among the passengers who died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California. Alongside the Bryant-duo were family friends including college basketball coach John Altobelli and his wife and daughter, as well as the pilot. The group of nine were en route to Bryant’s basketball academy, Mamba Academy, when the helicopter crashed. The five-time NBA champion frequently used the helicopter as a preferred mode of transport to avoid Los Angeles traffic, but on this specific day conditions were foggy and this is supposedly a factor for the accident.
The news of Kobe’s death comes less than 24 hours after Lebron James over took him for third on the all-time scoring list. The former NBA star took to Twitter to congratulate James on the accomplishment: “Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother #33644”. For most, this will be the last we’ll hear of Kobe Bryant, and the world is in shock that this is the case. Everyone is truly shaken that the long-time Laker is no longer with us. People simply cannot believe it; they won’t believe. But it is the devastating truth, that he and Gianna and the others were taken from us too soon.
It was only a few years ago that Kobe Bryant scored 60 points in his final NBA game, culminating an illustrious career in which he enlightened NBA fans with some of the greatest plays of all time. 20 years earlier, Bryant was drafted 13thoverall in the 1996 NBA draft, going straight into the league out of high school. Still a teenager, he began his career with the LA Lakers wearing number eight and rocking an afro, becoming a fan favourite by winning the 1997 Slam Dunk Contest. In his third year in the league, he was named an All-Star for the first time in his 18-straight All-Star stretch, as well as being named a member of the All-NBA Team 15 times. He went on to be a three-time NBA champion with teammate Shaquille O’Neal from 2000 to 2002. Once O’Neal left, Bryant was the backbone to the franchise, leading the league in scoring twice in back-to-back seasons. During that time, he had one of the greatest games of all time by an individual, scoring a career-high 81 points against the Toronto Raptors, the second most points scored in a single game. He changed his number to 24 and success continued to pile in, winning the league’s Most Valuable Player award in 2008 as well as leading his team to two consecutive championships in 2009 and 2010, named NBA Finals MVP on both occasions. He remained as one of the top players in the league through 2013, when he suffered a torn Achilles tendon at age 34. Despite a successful recovery, the next two seasons saw Bryant suffer more injuries and he decided to retire after the 2015-16 season due to his physical decline.
Although his last few years in the NBA were struck with setbacks through injury, no one can deny that Bryant is one of the greatest players of all time and possibly the greatest Laker ever. The two-time Olympic gold medallist was nicknamed ‘Black Mamba’ and known for his great work ethic. He often would work out at 5am and have a two-hour session before his teammates arrive in the morning. There’s no doubt that he’d also be the last to leave practice, getting in that extra shot so he gets the final word. His mentality was that if he works the hardest, he will be the best on the court. And it showed. Over the course of his 20-year career, he has demonstrated his sheer ferocity on the court. He famously took two shots from the free-throw line after a foul on him that tore his Achilles tendon. Against the Houston Rockets, he called out Dwight Howard for being “soft” and repeatedly said “try me”. There is simply no fear in his eyes and Bryant wants everyone to know that. Just go back to 2010 and a game against the Orlando Magic. Kobe and Matt Barnes were at each other all game, so much so that Barnes tried to fake a pass to Bryant’s face. Black Mamba didn’t flinch at all, not even an inch. The commentator can’t believe this play, exclaiming: “He didn’t even flinch!” And that’s just who Kobe Bryant was. The guy is so tough that nobody could get in his head. He shut down Matt Barnes and countless others who tried to challenge him over the years. Determination to win every battle. That’s the ‘Mamba Mentality’. You can try and beat Kobe, but you never will so might as well walk away.
When the news broke out that Kobe Bryant and Gianna were among the victims of this helicopter accident, tributes flooded in all over the world. Neymar celebrated his second goal for Paris Saint-German that day by raising up 2-4 with his hands to honour Kobe. Similar takes were done in the NFL’s Pro Bowl, with players getting the news shortly before kick-off. Others took to Twitter to share their feelings, all agreeing that it was too soon. Sports broadcasters had to battle through tears to talk of the tragic accident, often breaking down from the emotion. Despite the loss, the NBA did not cancel the games that were scheduled for Sunday. It was clear, however, that players were not ready to go back on the court after such news. Images of Tyson Chandler and other NBA stars upset by Kobe’s death was heart-breaking to see. Some question whether all games should’ve been cancelled out of respect for the man that loved the game, but each game started with a 24-second run out to honour Bryant. On a special TNT pregame show, Shaquille O’Neal was understandably an emotional wreck talking about his long-time friend, struggling for words throughout the segment: “I haven’t felt a pain that sharp in a while.”
He had such a huge impact on basketball and sport worldwide that his first name is simply enough. Kids would throw crumpled-up paper into a bin and yell “KOBE” because that’s just what you do. When he retired, he went on to become an Oscar winner in 2017 for his poem ‘Dear Basketball’. He concentrated on his family and being a dad to his four kids and husband to wife Vanessa. The 41-year-old was just getting started on life outside of basketball, with his induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2020 being his final touch to the game. But he won’t be there to enjoy it. None of the passengers of the helicopter crash will be able to see what the new decade has to offer, and this is so painful to bear. Although there is an on-going investigation into the crash, mainly pointing to the weather conditions on the day, all we can do is remember those who sadly died on that Sunday, too soon for their time. Before their first match since the helicopter crash, the LA Lakers paid tribute to Kobe and Gianna and the other passengers in a huge ceremony in which the whole stadium wore Kobe Bryant jerseys. Among the tributes was a moving speech by Lebron James. Whilst wearing Bryant’s number 24 jersey, he threw away his prepared speech to speak from the heart, making it clear that there will be a memorial for Kobe but the night should be a celebration. Just before these powerful words, James could be seen in tears whilst Boyz II Men sung the US national anthem. Laker Nation showed huge unity in remembering Kobe Bryant, and Lebron James’ speech echoes what Mamba would’ve wanted from his teammates, fans, family and friends: “So in the words of Kobe Bryant, “Mamba out”, but in the words of us, “not forgotten”. Live on brother.”