By Joe Piasecki, Christina Campodonico, Stephanie Bell & Anthony Torrise
Shock. Disbelief. Grief.
Los Angeles and much of the world is still coming to terms with the untimely death of Lakers great Kobe Bryant, a larger-than-life sports icon whose influence on the city’s identity reached far beyond Staples Center.
Bryant, 41, and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna died with seven others in a helicopter crash on Sunday in Calabasas, reportedly on the way to a basketball tournament at Bryant’s basketball academy in Thousand Oaks. For many, Mamba Sports Academy represented the second act of Bryant’s storied career, a transition from NBA superstar to a dedicated father of four girls and energetic supporter of basketball programs for women and girls.
Mourners gathered almost immediately near the crash site, at Staples Center and at the Lakers’ practice facility in El Segundo. Outside the UCLA Health Training Center near LAX, visitors placed flowers, candles, jerseys, basketballs and sneakers around 10 large-format photos of Bryant throughout his career, including a portrait of him smiling that fans draped in rosary beads. A large white banner and basket of markers invited handwritten tributes the likes of “You are my hero,” “Your legacy lives on,” and “Thanks for teaching everyone what hard work looks like.”
Many of Bryant’s fans say they most admired his work ethic and commitment to excellence.
“Kobe taught us how to be men,” said practice center vigil participant Zach Alpuerto. “In basketball and anything else you can have the Mamba mentality — hard work and dedication.”
Loyola Marymount University Lions Basketball Head Coach Mike Dunlap witnessed Bryant’s unrelenting competitiveness from the other side of the court as head coach of the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets) in 2012.
“We had Kobe beat, but in overtime he made the winning shot. That was the dagger,” he recalled of Bryant and the Lakers battling back from a massive point deficit. “After he made the shot he came around the corner and he tapped me on the back and looked at me and with a death stare. I took it as a playful gesture.”
Dunlap’s current players “all said they remembered Kobe when they were little,” he said. “They revered him. He inspired them to play the game. … He had his Kobe smile that showed he really enjoyed competing. Expectations get in the way of joy, but Kobe never let his expectations of greatness get in the way of the game.”
Santa Monica High School boys basketball coach James Hecht also noted Bryant’s impact on his team.
“Our students were able to enjoy watching Kobe play his final seasons, where he made a profound positive impact on boys and girls playing sports and to others for being a family man. Students have benefited from his local basketball camps and ongoing presence in sports and community service,” he said.
The Boys & Girls Clubs of Venice is home to a chapter of the Mamba League, a youth basketball program that Bryant created in partnership with Nike and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Los Angeles, where participation is about equal among girls and boys.
Erikk Aldridge, CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Venice from 2006 to 2013, credited the Lakers Youth Foundation for remodeling the nonprofit’s basketball court and praised Bryant for inviting club youth to a special event with Nike at the Venice Beach Basketball Courts. (The cover of this week’s issue shows Kobe greeting youth from the club during the event.)
“In classic Kobe fashion, it was packed. … He was slapping hands and giving high-fives and showing kids how to dribble,” Aldridge recalled. “He was like a mentor for the city: the mamba mentality. People just loved him. … He was always prepared and gave it all to the fans.”
Working for the Lakers in community and public relations from 1991 to 2000, Aldridge knew Bryant before he was a star and remembers a 17-year-old Bryant breaking his wrist while playing streetball on Venice Beach.
“I’d never seen someone so focused and so ambitious at such a young age. It was quite amazing how he would attack success and failure. He was equally relentless. If he failed, he was going to fix it. If he succeeded, he was going to do even better,” Aldridge said. “He was an old soul … The thing that fascinated me the most: All he talked about was getting married and having kids. That’s not the normal thing for an 18-, 19-year-old to talk about.”
In the immediate aftermath of the fatal crash, many who were close to Bryant spoke in great detail of Bryant’s transition in retirement from basketball star to a father of girls and girls’ sports advocate.
Outside of written obituaries, media tended to avoid direct mention of the 2003 rape allegation against Bryant (settled out of court) and related sexual assault charge (ultimately dropped) for what Bryant maintained was a consensual encounter. Those who raised the issue on social media faced intense public backlash. Many instead focused on Bryant’s maturity afterward, reflected in his switching uniforms from No. 8 to No. 24.
“The rape case brought him up short and really changed him,” said Los Angeles Times columnist Robin Abcarian, who wrote about that aspect of Bryant’s legacy five years ago when he announced his retirement.
In death, however, “I think it’s really important to respect people’s grief in a situation like this,” she said. “It’s totally legit to talk about the case — how it changed his perceptions and how it changed him … [but] there’s a time for everything.
“You can honor [Bryant’s] life and legacy and say he was a flawed character,” she said. “He ended up redeeming himself in a lot of ways, becoming deeply committed to girls’ basketball. … You can’t become the father of four girls and not change in some way.”
On Sunday, prolific Venice-based street artist Jules Muck painted a mural of Bryant and daughter Gianna on the wall of Pickford Market near Washington Boulevard and LaBrea Avenue.
“More people reached out to me to do a Kobe mural than for anyone else ever,” she said. “I felt it was important to include his daughter who also perished. The significance of them dying together was incredibly moving. I hope this piece brings comfort to some of the heartbroken people.”