The sudden death of Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant has rocked the world of sports and culture at large.
Bryant, only 41 years old and less than four years into retirement from the Lakers, where he spent his entire record-breaking career, died Sunday morning when a helicopter he was flying in crashed into a hillside in Calabasas, Calif.
The Los Angeles Times reported the crash, but did not identify Bryant as being on board. TMZ first reported Bryant was among those killed, which has since been confirmed by police and Calabasas city officials. TMZ has since reported that one of Bryant’s four daughters, Gianna, was on the helicopter as well and was also killed. She was 13 and a basketball player, too, inspiring her father’s more recent championing of the WNBA and women in sports.
As hundreds of fans started to gather informally in front of the Staples Center in Downtown Los Angeles, where the Lakers played, scores of athletes and public figures took to social media to express their shock at the death.
In a string of posts, famed Laker Magic Johnson praised Bryant. In one he said, “My friend, a legend, husband, father, son, brother, Oscar winner and greatest Laker of all-time is gone. It’s hard to accept. Kobe was a leader of our game, a mentor to both male and female players.”
Michael Jordan, arguably the most famous NBA player of all time and someone Bryant often expressed admiration for, released a statement on the death. Jordan said, in part, “Words cannot describe the pain I’m feeling. I loved Kobe — he was like a little brother to me.”
Paul Pierce, formerly on famed Lakers rival the Boston Celtics, simply said on Twitter: “This is not real right now.” Dwyane Wade, formerly of the Miami Heat, wrote: “Noooooo God please no.” Scottie Pippen, formerly of the champion-era Chicago Bulls, wrote: “I’m stunned. Words can’t even come close to describing it. Just an incredibly sad and tragic day.” Drake posted a photo of a custom jacket he wore to Bryant’s last game in 2016. Tom Brady, of the New England Patriots, wrote, “We miss you already Kobe.” Presidential candidate and California native Andrew Yang also took to Twitter, writing, “This is the worst news.”
Former U.S. President Barack Obama wrote, “Kobe was a legend on the court and just getting started in what would have been just as meaningful a second act. To lose Gianna is even more heartbreaking.”
Kobe was a legend on the court and just getting started in what would have been just as meaningful a second act. To lose Gianna is even more heartbreaking to us as parents. Michelle and I send love and prayers to Vanessa and the entire Bryant family on an unthinkable day.
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) January 26, 2020
I’m stunned. Words can’t even come close to describing it. Just an incredibly sad and tragic day.
— Scottie Pippen (@ScottiePippen) January 26, 2020
Disney chief executive officer Robert Iger said the entire company is mourning the death, calling it a “tragic loss” and that Bryant was “a giant of sports and a person so full of life.”
“Terrible news and so hard to process,” Iger added.
Director Spike Lee, famously a fan of the New York Knicks but a friend of Bryant’s who did a documentary on him in 2009, posted on Instagram a poem, saying in part: “For these are the last days, Of a legendary fade away, As he Fades away back to Blackness.”
Fellow Laker and NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar posted a video of himself in a Lakers shirt, saying, “It’s difficult for me to put into words how I feel about the loss of Kobe Bryant.” Abdul-Jabbar briefly described meeting Bryant when he was 12 years old, then just the son of a fellow basketball player, and seeing him grow into one of the all-time best scorers in the league.
“This loss is hard to comprehend,” he added.
Shaquille O’Neil, who played with Bryant during a Lakers’ championship streak in the Aughts and famously butted heads with his teammate, said he had “no words to express the pain I’m going through,” describing Gianna as his “niece” and Bryant as his “brother.”
There’s no words to express the pain Im going through with this tragedy of loosing my neice Gigi & my brother @kobebryant I love u and u will be missed. My condolences goes out to the Bryant family and the families of the other passengers on board. IM SICK RIGHT NOW pic.twitter.com/pigHywq3c1
— SHAQ (@SHAQ) January 26, 2020
Athletes playing games on Sunday, a big day for sports, paid tribute as well. Neymar, a star forward of European soccer team Paris St. Germain, somberly flashed the numbers two and four at the cameras after scoring a goal. Bryant’s jersey number was 24. (He switched jersey numbers from 8 to 24 halfway through his NBA career.) Both numbers were retired by the Lakers when Bryant left the league.
Drew Brees, quarterback for the New Orleans Saints, said on TV after a game that Bryant’s death is “a tragic loss.”
“I had so much respect for him as a competitor and I know he inspired so many people in so many different ways,” Brees added. “One of the all time great competitors and not just with sports, in the way he approached a lot of things.”
In Bryant’s long career, he had a number of releases of apparel and shoes, mainly with Nike, with which he partnered since 2003. But his first endorsement deal was with Adidas, which signed him in 1996, Bryant’s first year in the NBA, and stayed his partner until mid-2002.
Steve Wynne, former Adidas America president and chief executive officer recalled to WWD how the company’s “basketball guru” Sonny Vaccaro recognized Bryant’s big time potential. “He told us when Kobe was in one of our camps at the age of 15 or 16, ‘This kid is going to be one of the best players ever.’”
Remembering how Bryant’s deal with Adidas was first announced with New York City press conference, Wynne added: “We took a beating from the New York media about him being so young and why were we spending so money on somebody that way.”
“Not that long after that,” Wynne continued, “I was at one of the NBA playoff games and I sat with [former commissioner] David Stern. David said to me, ‘I only have one question for you – why Kobe Bryant.’ I said, ‘Well, I guess we’re all going to see.’ And I guess we all did.”
“Kobe Bryant leaves a lasting legacy on the sports world,” a spokesman for Adidas told WWD. “He was an inspiration on and off the court. The Adidas family’s thoughts and condolences are with all the families, friends and those affected by this tragedy.”
A spokesman for Nike, which has a current deal with Bryant and offers three styles of shoes in his name and Mamba brand, said, “Along with millions of athletes and fans throughout the world, we are devastated by today’s tragic news.”
“We extend our deepest sympathies to those closest to Kobe, especially his family and friends,” a Nike spokesman added. “He was one of the greatest athletes of his generation and has had an immeasurable impact on the world of sports and the community of basketball. He was a beloved member of the Nike family. We will miss him greatly. Mamba forever.”
Mamba is a nod to his professional nickname while with the Lakers: Black Mamba. After retiring from basketball in 2016, Bryant started the Mamba Sports Academy, along with an investment fund for media and tech companies and a media company, Granity Studios.
Speaking about his relationship with Nike in 2016, Bryant told WWD that the company was the embodiment of his “personal brand,” which was based on innovation and that the relationship would “never change.”
“We’re going to continue to create innovative products for athletes,” Bryant said. “In terms of where I go, it’s time for me to transition. What comes next must be able to stand on its own two feet. I’m the one that’s pushing it. It’s going to be my standards. I’m going to be building a team, having a creative vision, but it’s on me to go and find the right people in this world and give them the ability to create timeless stories and to be able to share them with the world.”
Unlike many star athletes today, Bryant did not see himself as a fashion plate and had no desire to start his own brand outside of his work with Nike. He told WWD that his wife Vanessa “has a much better eye for fashion and design than I do.”
“I know generally what I want to feel like or look like,” Bryant said. “Then it’s on somebody to actually put it together.” He added that his daughters gave him style tips, too, and that he was already bringing them into the fold of his post-pro athlete turn, the entirety of which he dubbed Kobe Inc.
“They’ll draw. They’ll sit in meetings with me,” he said of his children. “They’ll ask questions: ‘What about this? Maybe this story should do that.’ Children have such a beautiful imagination that hasn’t been beaten down by society and the realities of the world. Their mind can just go. The imagination is endless. For us, as adults, hopefully we never lose that.”