By Nikhila Natarajan
New York, Jan 27 (IANS) “Brokenhearted” and “devastated” Kobe Bryant fans and sport icons fought back tears and shock as news of the 18-time NBA All-Star basketball legend’s death in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California plunged the sporting world into gloom Sunday. Kobe Bryant was 41.
Bryant’s daughter Gianna, 13, was also confirmed dead. They were among 9 people on board who were all killed in the crash. The group was travelling for Gianna’s basketball game which was to begin at noon, local time, in the Thousand Oaks area. Bryant was riding in an S-76 helicopter when it crashed just before 10 a.m. into a steep hilly area about 30 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
As screens began flashing the dateline ‘Kobe Bryant, 1978-2020’, the Bryant fandom struggled to come to terms with their hero’s mention in past tense.
“This hurts real bad”, Elena, a young basketball player in New Jersey local league told IANS. “It’s after I watched him play that I picked up a basketball for the first time”.
Bryant is frequently hailed as one of the acebest basketball minds” by the game’s greatest stars.
“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”, said NBA’s All-Time Leading Scorer Kareem Abdul Jabbar, in a video statement.
“For 20 seasons, Kobe showed us what is possible when remarkable talent blends with an absolute devotion to winning,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said.
Bryant, he said, would be best remembered for “inspiring people around the world to pick up a basketball and compete to the very best of their ability.”
Los Angeles Lakers Star LeBron James broke down after learning of Kobe Bryant’s passing. James passed Kobe Bryant on the all-time scoring list barely 24 hours ago.
“How a family is shattered, it’s just incomprehensible”, said Ernie Johnson, Host of ‘Inside the NBA on TNT’. “I’m just at a loss”.
Former US President Barack Obama tweeted Bryant’s life after basketball was “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.”
As the news exploded across geographies, talking heads on network television kept breaking down as they spoke about Bryant the legend.
Tennis star Maria Sharapova tweeted that she would never forget Bryant’s “generosity” and the time he “set aside in some of my most difficult moments.”
“I am forever grateful. My heart is with you and your beautiful family.”
Words cannot describe the pain I’m feeling, a statement from Chicago Bulls’ 15-time NBA star Michael Jordan said. “I loved Kobe. He was like a little brother to me”, he said.
When he was barely 18, Kobe Bryant announced famously, “I’ve decided to skip college and take my talent to the N.B.A”. Around that time, Bob Costas a career sportscaster interviewed Bryant and today pressed the rewind button to those memories as news broke.
“He was an unusual 18 year old, very mature and he always had superstar quality”, Bob Costas told CNN.
Fans in Los Angeles mourning Bryant’s passing posted videos on social platforms of their teams sitting out from their practice sessions, basketballs in hand, crying.
Bryant’s father too was an NBA player and trained Kobe in both the US and Italy. Bryant never wore any uniform other than the Lakers’ which is increasingly rare in pro sports and certainly in pro basketball. Bryant wore two numbers though – 8 and 24.
At many games around the US on Sunday, players took a 24 second shot-clock violation or 8 second backcourt violations to honour Bryant’s memory and his legendary jersey numbers as applause for Bryant’s achievements rang through the bleachers.
Fans dressed in Kobe Bryant gear thronged Staples Center in Los Angeles which put up a giant screen honouring the basketball legend.
Bryant was the winner of the NBAs Most Valuable Player Award for the 2007-08 season, and the Finals MVP in 2009 and 2010. Bryant’s career highlights include a jaw dropping 81-point game in 2006 that is the second-highest single-game total in NBA. history. He won gold for the US. Basketball in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. Bryant also has an Academy Award to his name for his animated short film Dear Basketball in 2018.
Bryant was associated with the Nike brand for almost his entire career and signed on for a $40 million contract in the early 2000s. “He was a beloved member of the Nike family. We will miss him greatly. Mamba forever”, Nike said in a statement.
The ‘Mamba’ name became a metaphor for Kobe Bryant after Nike released a commercial in 2011 featuring an idea called The Black Mamba, which is portrayed as Bryant’s alter-ego. The Black Mamba, is being pursued by a crime lord who wants to get his hands on Mamba’s shoes. Bryant wore the first Mamba shoes during the 2005-2006 NBA. season, including in the game in which he scored 81 points in January 2006.
(Nikhila Natarajan can be contacted at @byniknat on Twitter)