Kobe Bryant, one of the greatest basketball players of all time and an internationally recognizable NBA superstar, died in a helicopter crash Sunday outside Los Angeles. He was 41 years old.
Bryant was flying with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven other people when the helicopter went down “in a remote field” in Calabasas, Calif. around 10 a.m., according to the Associated Press.
All nine people aboard the helicopter were killed, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said. They were named by family and local news reports as Gianna’s basketball teammate Alyssa Altobelli, her mother, Keri, and her father, John, a baseball coach. Also killed in the crash were Christina Mauser, a school basketball assistant coach; Payton Chester, another teammate of Gianna’s, and Payton’s mother Sarah. The helicopter pilot, named in local reports as Ara Zobayan, was also killed.
Bryant is survived by his wife, Vanessa Laine Bryant. They had four children together. On Wednesday, she changed her Instagram profile picture to a photo of her husband sharing a tender moment with Gianna. She also posted a message on Wednesday night to thank the public for their support.
“My girls and I want to thank the millions of people who’ve shown support and love during this horrific time. There aren’t enough words to describe our pain right now,” she captioned her post on Wednesday night. “I take comfort in knowing that Kobe and Gigi both knew that they were so deeply loved. We were so incredibly blessed to have them in our lives. I wish they were here with us forever. They were our beautiful blessings taken from us too soon.”
Vanessa and Kobe would have celebrated their 19th wedding anniversary this April.
Before retiring from the NBA in 2016, Bryant played for the Los Angeles Lakers for the entirety of his two-decade career, winning the NBA Finals five times.
Bryant was also a longtime helicopter passenger, famously flying from his Orange County home to Lakers games at the Staples Center in Los Angeles during his career.
The sports legend was in the news on Saturday as Lakers’ player LeBron James surpassed Bryant as no. 3 all-time NBA scorer. Bryant remains the fourth-highest career NBA scorer. In a tweet the night before his death, he congratulated James. “Continuing to move the game forward,” he said of James.
Bryant also won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 2018 for Dear Basketball, which he wrote and narrated.
Kobe honored at Grammy awards
Performers and presenters at the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards, which took place at Los Angeles’ Staples Center — the home of the Lakers — paid tribute to Bryant throughout the evening. The show began with a performance from Lizzo, the night’s most-nominated artist, who said ”Tonight is for Kobe,” before launching into the lyric “I’m crying ‘cuz I love you” from her song “Cuz I Love You.” The evening’s host, Alicia Keys, followed with a heartfelt, subdued speech and was then joined by Boyz II Men for an a cappella performance of their song “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.”
A few minutes later, an emotional Lizzo used her award acceptance speech to remind viewers of the importance of connection. “All my little problems I thought were big as the world are gone,” she said. “I realize there are people hurting right now… Let’s continue to reach out, hold each other down and lift each other up.”
Cause of helicopter crash under investigation
The Los Angeles County Fire Department received the first report of the crash at 9:47 a.m. on Sunday in a hilly area of Los Angeles County near Las Virgenes Road and Willow Glen Street, according to Fire Chief Daryl Osby.
Some 56 personnel, including paramedics, responded and found a quarter-acre brush fire that was caused by the crash, Osby said. Firefighters hiked into the crash site and a helicopter hoisted paramedics down to search for survivors, but rescue crews found no one alive.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are investigating the cause of the crash.
The helicopter took off from John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Calif. at 9:08 a.m.
During a Monday press conference, Jennifer Homendy, a spokesperson for the NTSB, said that the final transmission from the pilot of the helicopter said that he was climbing to avoid cloud layer.
The crash occurred as dense fog covered the area, which grounded other helicopters nearby, including those from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office, the AP reported.
Homendy also said that there was no black box in the helicopter and that one was not required for the flight. She added that the impact crater left from the accident is 1,085 feet above sea level and that the helicopter was flying at about 160 knots (184 m.p.h.) when it crashed.
Homendy added that the investigation will look into the record of the pilot, identified as Ara Zobayan, an experienced pilot who had held a commercial flight license since 2007 and was qualified to fly in inclement weather, according to Federal Aviation Administration records.
“We are not just focusing on weather,” Homendy said. “We look at man, machine and the environment, and the weather is just a small portion of that.”
Authorities are still gathering evidence at the scene and Homendy expects that the investigation will continue at the site for at least a few more days.
What do we know about the helicopter?
Authorities have not confirmed details about the helicopter that crashed, but according to flight tracking site flightaware.com and the Los Angeles Times, the aircraft was a 1991 Sikorsky S-76B twin-engine helicopter. It was owned by Island Express Holding Corp., registered in Fillmore, Calif., according to Flightaware.com records.
The S-76 is a popular helicopter that has been in service since 1977, with hundreds of aircraft delivered around the world, according to Lockheed Martin, the company that owns Sikorsky.
“Sikorsky is proud of the S-76 fleet’s legacy. With more than 7.4 million hours of safe, successful flight, we are committed to supporting the platform and to continuous product improvements,” according to the website for the helicopter.
“These aircraft are regularly used for emergency medical services and VIPs,” says Tony Osborne, the London bureau chief of Aviation Week, adding the brand enjoys a strong reputation for safety, even in low-visibility weather. (The Sikorsky S-76B is used as a search and rescue helicopter, for medical evacuations and 10 countries employ it to transport their head of state. A newer model of the S-76 helicopter is used to fly Queen Elizabeth II and other royals.)
“Twin-engine helicopters routinely operate in what we call instrument flying regulations, where they use their instruments rather than looking outside for cues,” Osborne continues. “The question is, whether the meteorological conditions changed unexpectedly midway through the flight, or the pilot decided to take a different route. It’s not clear at the moment.”
Sikorsky said in a statement: “We extend our sincerest condolences to all those affected by today’s Sikorsky S-76B accident in Calabasas, California. We have been in contact with the NTSB and stand ready to provide assistance and support to the investigative authorities and our customer. Safety is our top priority; if there are any actionable findings from the investigation, we will inform our S-76 customers.”
Kobe Bryant’s legacy
Bryant worked his way into the GOAT conversation—”Greatest Player of All-Time”—through his five NBA championships, two NBA Finals MVP awards, two scoring titles, a regular season MVP, a pair of Olympic gold medals, selection to 18 All-Star teams with the Los Angeles Lakers, and spot as the fourth leading scorer in NBA history, with 36,643 points. He’s up there with Michael Jordan, LeBron James and anyone else. In a cruel coincidence, current Laker James, who looked up to Bryant and was in tears Sunday after the team plane returned from a road trip, had just passed Bryant on the all-time scoring list. Bryant’s last ever Tweet, sent at 10:39 Eastern Time on Saturday, was a shoutout to James: “Much respect my brother,” Kobe wrote.
Bryant was a ruthless basketball competitor, known as the “Black Mamba.” He’d rip an opponent’s heart out with a devastating dunk, or an artful fadeaway jump shot, a signature move. He scold less talented teammates, and craved the ball in big situations.
He arrived in the NBA straight out of high school, in 1996, as the first guard to skip college basketball straight for the pros. This decision was seismic: Bryant’s success inspired a generation of players, including James, to seize their pro opportunity as soon as possible. After winning three straight championships with Shaquille O’Neal from 2000-2002, the Lakers suffered some down years in the mid-aughts following O’Neal’s 2004 trade to the Miami Heat. Then Bryant willed the Lakers to a renaissance, winning back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010. He was the MVP of both series: those championships, without Shaq, validated his all-time greatness. Those were his own.
His singular performances thrilled his followers. In January of 2006 Bryant scored 81 points in an LA victory over the Toronto Raptors; only Wilt Chamberlain, who went for 100 points in a game in 1962, scored more in a single game. Bryant’s final game, in 2016, set a new standard for last hurrahs: Bryant scored 60 points, on 50 shots, in a Laker win over the Utah Jazz. For the Mamba, this basketball ending was all too fitting.
Who were the other victims?
Bryant was traveling with eight other passengers, including families and young players from his Mamba Sports Academy in Ventura County, where the helicopter was reportedly headed.
Gianna, Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, was killed in the crash, as were two of her teammates, both also 13. Alyssa Altobelli was with her father John Altobelli, a baseball coach at Orange Coast College, and her mother Keri Altobelli. The college confirmed the deaths in a statement.
Another teammate, Payton Chester, was on board the helicopter with her 45-year-old mother, Sarah Chester, AP reported.
The assistant coach of the basketball team, Christina Mauser, 38, was also killed in the crash. She was also a coach at a Southern California elementary school.
The pilot of the helicopter, Ara Zobayan, died in the crash. According to records from the Federal Aviation Administration, the 50-year-old has been a licensed commercial pilot since 2007. He has reportedly flown Bryant and other celebrities a number of times.
Tributes from around the world for Kobe Bryant
The tributes that have poured following Bryant’s sudden death are one small indication that Bryant made an impact well beyond the basketball court—from former President Barack Obama, to fellow NBA legend Michael Jordan to President Donald Trump.
In a statement, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti called Bryant “a giant who inspired, amazed, and thrilled people,” adding that “he will live forever in the heart of Los Angeles, and will be remembered through the ages as one of our greatest heroes,” he said.
ESPN personality Stephen A. Smith, a longtime friend of Bryant’s, highlighted the athlete’s uniqueness in remarks on ESPN 2. “It wasn’t just about basketball with him. It was about life,” Smith said of Bryant’s passions. “This guy was highly, highly intellectual, he was a brilliant mind. He was on a mission to constantly elevate himself intellectually.”
Athletes, artists and others quickly expressed their shock to the news of Bryant’s death on social media, including Saquon Barkley, running back for the New York Giants, Lil Nas X, NBA legends Dwayne Wade and Magic Johnson, gymnast Simone Biles, former Indianapolis Colts player Pat McAfee and 50 Cent.
“This came out of nowhere,” McAfee said. “Absolutely devastating.”
Former NBA star Scottie Pippen tweeted that he was “stunned.”
President Donald Trump tweeted about Bryant’s death on Sunday afternoon. “That is terrible news,” he said.
Former President Barack Obama also made a statement on Bryant’s loss. “Kobe was a legend on the court and just getting started in what would have been just as meaningful a second act,” he said. “To lose Gianna is even more heartbreaking to us as parents.”
The Prime Minister of Jamaica posted about Bryant’s death on Twitter. “Kobe Bryant is a name that is synonymous with basketball,” he said.
“Kobe, we love you brother. We’re praying for your family and appreciate the life you’ve lived and all the inspiration you gave,” Kanye West said in a post on Twitter.
Actor Leonardo DiCaprio posted a tribute on Twitter. “L.A. will never be the same,” it said.
“There’s no words to express the pain I’m going through with this tragedy,” former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal posted on Twitter.
“My heart is broken for his wife and family,” television show host Ellen DeGeneres posted on Twitter.
Legendary Argentine soccer player Lionel Messi posted a tribute on Instagram. “You were a genius like few others,” it said.
“Today, we lost a legend,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a tribute posted on Twitter.
Fans gather at Staples Center to pay tribute
Hundreds of fans gathered outside the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Sunday to pay tribute to the Lakers legend. “Thank you, Kobe,” fans could be heard chanting in a video posted to Twitter by ABC News.
Photos circulating on social media showed flowers and signs left by fans outside the arena. “R.I.P. Mamba,” read one sign.
Kyle Robinson, 28, a lifelong Lakers fan, was among those who gathered at the Staples Center.
“I knew there would be a nice crowd down here, and it’d be a place to come talk about it and hang with other fans that are hurting too,” he said, according to the Los Angeles Times.
University of Southern California student Ryan Apfel also joined the crowd. “I was at my apartment by myself and I broke down crying. I looked for my Kobe jersey and said, ‘I have to go down there. I’m too restless. I have to pay my respects,’” he said, reports the Los Angeles Times.