It feels closer to five years later given what’s gone on in the world since.
On Jan. 26, 2020, a helicopter crash on a foggy Sunday morning in Southern California claimed the lives of nine people. Among them, Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna.
The crash occurred in the hills above Calabasas, California, about 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. The details surrounding Bryant’s death were murky for most of that morning and early afternoon. Some couldn’t believe he was gone and most didn’t want to.
When confirmation finally came it marked one of the most shocking deaths of a public figure in recent memory.
The others killed were the pilot Ara Zobayan: Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife, Keri, and their daughter Alyssa; Christina Mauser, who helped Bryant coach his daughter’s basketball team; and Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton. Alyssa and Payton were Gianna’s teammates.
The group were on their to watch the girls play in a basketball tournament and many of the details of how exactly the helicopter ended up slamming into the side of a hill at high speeds remain a mystery.
What followed in the hours, days, and weeks after the news of Bryant’s passing was an endless stream of stunned reactions, praise, tribute, adulation and love for Bryant’s family and the families of the other seven people that died that day.
Bryant was only a basketball player but his death at the age of 41 illuminated the impact he made over his career. What Bryant meant to Los Angeles, the game of basketball, and sport in general, was immeasurable.
Kobe Bryant was born in Philadelphia, spent a large chunk of his early childhood in Italy before moving back to Philly for high school. He chose to forego college and was drafted straight out of Lower Merion High into the NBA by the Charlotte Hornets. He never played a game in North Carolina. He was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. He never wore another jersey in his NBA career.
As a pro his stock rose fast. He was an all-star by 19. He won his first championship at 21. He had three by the time he was 23.
Yes, Bryant was really, really good at what he did for a living but there is some ugliness to Bryant’s legacy as well.
Within the game there were constant rumblings throughout his early career about him being a difficult or hostile teammate.
Away from the game, his darkest hour came in the summer of 2003 when Bryant was arrested in Colorado in connection to a sexual assault investigation.
A 19-year-old hotel employee accused him of raping her. The case was eventually dropped after the accuser refused to testify, a civil suit was later filed against Bryant and settled out of court. Bryant, then 26, would publicly apologize to his accuser, admitting to a sexual encounter, while continuing to deny the other allegations.
The reputation of the brash kid out of Lower Merion High who could do no wrong was gone. Bryant lost endorsements and any problems he had with teammates was put under a larger microscope.
During this period his relationship with fellow superstar and Lakers teammate Shaquille O’Neal eroded to the point that the two essentially had open contempt for one another publically.
Kobe and Shaq formed, arguably, the most formidable duo in NBA history and despite their success on the court the Lakers were forced to make a decision between the two.
The phrase “this town ain’t big enough for the both of us” never so aptly applied.
The Lakers chose to stick with the younger Bryant, baggage and all, trading O’Neal to Miami where he won a championship in his second season.
Thus sparked the “Kobe can’t win without Shaq” talk. Bryant, undoubtedly buoyed by the chatter, would go onto lead the Lakers to two more titles in 2009 and 2010 while simultaneously shedding his ‘bad teammate’ label and replacing it with ‘good leader.’
‘The Last Dance,’ a ten-part documentary on Michael Jordan released last spring, sparked fresh arguments about whether or not the uber-competitive Jordan was a bully to his teammates or just encouraging motivation by lighting a fire underneath them.
Jordan famously punched teammate Steve Kerr in the face after a blowup in practice but it’s hard to argue with results. All the Chicago Bulls did was win.
That was the reputation of Bryant too. His bullishness and his competitive drive mirroring that of his idol.
There is an episode of ‘The Last Dance’ that highlights the 1998 NBA All-Star Game. Where Jordan, aged 34 in his final season, is on one side and Bryant, aged 19 in his second season, is on the other.
There is footage of Jordan, sitting in the locker-room at halftime, sounding partly frustrated and partly proud of what he was seeing from a young Kobe.
“That little Laker boy’s gonna take everybody one-on-one,” said Jordan. “He don’t let the game come to him, he just go out there and take it.”
Twenty-two years later at Bryant’s funeral, Jordan spoke about how the two stayed in touch and how Bryant would call him at any hour to pick his brain on the game.
“When Kobe Bryant died, a piece of me died,” said Jordan.
With all his flaws and imperfections, whether rightly or wrongly, Kobe Bryant will ultimately be remembered as one of the top ten or so greatest basketball players to ever exist on this planet.
Toronto sports fans have been forever tormented by a January 2006 night when Bryant dropped 81 points on the Toronto Raptors. The highlights would resurfaced anytime the Raptors would play Bryant and the Lakers moving forward.
Those highlights are a much more welcome sight now that Bryant is gone.
The shock of his passing was helped by the fact that, on the court at least, Kobe never seemed mortal. For him winning felt inevitable. If he didn’t beat you this time he would be back to get you next time.
That immortality started to wane in his final years. Injuries caught up to him and a lack of team success took away that sense of inevitability.
Bryant retired in 2016 at the age of 37. He fittingly put a bow on his 20 year career by scoring 60 points in his final game.
Whether you loved him or loved to loathe him, for him to be gone only four years after hanging up his sneakers remains a gut punch to the NBA and sports fans around the globe.
The night before the fateful helicopter crash LeBron James passed Bryant to move into third on the NBA all-time scoring list. Fittingly, LeBron and the Los Angeles Lakers took home the Larry O’Brien trophy in October. The first championship for the franchise since Bryant led the team to their previous title in 2010.
When he stepped away from the game he stepped into a more ever-present role, at least publically, as a father.
It’s impossible for anyone with so much competitive fire to fill the hole of competition when competing is no longer feasible. But Bryant seemed content in his post-playing days.
The role he was taking on mentoring Gianna’s development as a basketball player was, by all accounts, his new passion.
Shortly after his passing, ESPN’s Elle Duncan shared an anecdote about meeting Bryant backstage at an event in New York a couple years earlier. Bryant asked Duncan, who was pregnant at the time, if she was having a boy or a girl.
“A girl,” said Duncan.
“I would have five more girls if I could,” responded Bryant. “I’m a girl dad.”
The conversation turned to sports and Bryant talked about how his eldest was playing volleyball and his toddler was still too young for sports. His fourth daughter wasn’t born at the time.
“But that middle one,” said Bryant about Gianna. “She’s a beast. She’s better than I was at her age. She’s got it.”
Kobe and Gianna are survived by their wife and mother Vanessa and three daughters and sisters, Natalia, Bianca and Capri.
Kobe is set to be posthumously inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame this spring.