Retired NBA star Kobe Bryant dies in helicopter crash
Last updated 1/27/2020 at 8:54am
CALABASAS (AP) — NBA legend Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter and seven others were killed in a helicopter crash on a remote, steep hillside in Southern California on Sunday, his sudden death at age 41 touching off an outpouring of grief for a star whose celebrity transcended basketball.
The chopper went down in Calabasas, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) northwest of downtown Los Angeles. Authorities said that nine people died, with no survivors, after earlier putting the death toll at five. Bryant, an all-time basketball great who spent his entire 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, was among the victims, a person familiar with the situation told The Associated Press.
A different person familiar with the case confirmed that Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna also was killed. Bryant's wife and mother to his four children, Vanessa Bryant, lived for a time in Temecula while growing up, and has not yet made a statement.
Among those killed in the crash were John Altobelli, 56, longtime head coach of Southern California's Orange Coast College baseball team; his wife, Keri; and daughter, Alyssa, who played on the same basketball team as Bryant's daughter, said Altobelli's brother, Tony, who is the sports information director at the school.
Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley tweeted that the dead also included Christina Mauser, a girls basketball coach at a nearby private elementary school. Her husband, Matt Mauser, founded the Tijuana Dogs, a popular Orange County band. In a Facebook post he said: “My kids and I are devastated. We lost our beautiful wife and mom today in a helicopter crash.”
The medical examiner's office said specialists were working at the scene to recover the bodies, and investigators were trying to confirm identities. Federal transportation safety investigators were en route.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva would not confirm the identities of the victims Sunday afternoon pending official word from the coroner.
“God bless their souls,” Villanueva said at a news conference.
Word of Bryant’s sudden death rocketed around the sports and entertainment worlds, with many taking to Twitter to register their shock, disbelief and dismay.
“There's no words to express the pain I'm going through,” tweeted Lakers teammate Shaquille O’Neal, who won three NBA titles with Bryant. “(at)kobebryant I love u and u will be missed. ... IM SICK RIGHT NOW.”
“Man I don’t even know where to start,” tweeted Philadelphia 76ers superstar Joel Embiid.
“I started playing ball because of KOBE after watching the 2010 finals. I had never watched all before that and that finals was the turning point of my life. I WANTED TO BE LIKE KOBE. I’m so FREAKING SAD right now!!!!”
“Words can't describe the pain I am feeling. I loved Kobe — he was like a little brother to me," retired NBA great Michael Jordan said. “We used to talk often, and I will miss those conversations very much. He was a fierce competitor, one of the greats of the game and a creative force."
NBA players were in tears during pregame warm-ups as crowds chanted “Kobe! Kobe!” Tiger Woods was unaware of the news during his final round at Torrey Pines in San Diego when he started hearing the gallery yell “Do it for Mamba,” referring to Bryant by his nickname.
Jordan was the most notable of former and current NBA stars to express how shocked they were at the news. Jordan commended Bryant for his fierce competitive streak and called him “one of the greats of the game.”
Bryant's legacy is often compared to that of Jordan. Bryant won five NBA championships, compared to Jordan's six.
Bryant retired in 2016 as the third-leading scorer in NBA history, finishing two decades with the Lakers as a prolific scorer with a sublime all-around game and a relentless competitive ethic. He held that spot in the league scoring ranks until Saturday night, when the Lakers’ LeBron James passed him for third place during a game in Philadelphia, Bryant’s hometown.
“Continuing to move the game forward (at)KingJames,” Bryant wrote in his last tweet. “Much respect my brother.”
Bryant had one of the greatest careers in recent NBA history and became one of the game’s most popular players as the face of the 16-time NBA champion Lakers franchise. He was the league MVP in 2008 and a two-time NBA scoring champion, and he earned 12 selections to the NBA’s All-Defensive teams.
He teamed with Shaquille O’Neal in a combustible partnership to lead the Lakers to NBA titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002. He later teamed with Pau Gasol to win two more titles in 2009 and 2010.
Bryant retired in 2016 after scoring 60 points in his final NBA game.
Jerry West, the Lakers' former general manager struggled to maintain his composure Sunday as he discussed Bryant's life and career, telling CBS2 sportcaster Jim Hill that the father of four was known for "hard work, dedication beyond many and this enormous desire to succeed.''
"A lot of people were inspired by him. I think he'll inspire more people. He'll be revered forever,'' West said, his voice breaking. "To think I won't see him, his family won't see him.
"People loved him, people admired him. He was definitely a gift, he definitely was. Losing was not in his vocabulary.''
West said "the thing that brought me great joy was watching him with his wife and kids. It was truly inspiring. He lived in a world of testosterone, as all athletes do, and for him to be able to separate the athletic accomplishments with his personal accomplishments ... This wasn't some athlete who happened to be a great basketball player. He was more than that. It's going to take a long time for me to get over this.''
"We mourn the tragic and untimely death of a California icon and basketball legend, Kobe Bryant,'' California Gov. Gavin Newsom said."In his 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, he made history with raw talent and unparalleled dedication that raised the bar and paved the way for a newer generation of players.
"Despite winning five NBA championships and two gold Olympic medals, and achieving countless accolades in the athletics world, he also helped improve the lives of youth and families through the Kobe Bryant and Vanessa Bryant Foundation, and was an outspoken advocate for combating homelessness through partnerships with organizations such as My Friend's Place and Step Up on Second.
"Our deepest condolences go to his wife, family, colleagues, friends and fans. He was taken too soon and he will be missed.''
“Kobe Bryant was a giant who inspired, amazed, and thrilled people everywhere with his incomparable skill on the court — and awed us with his intellect and humility as a father, husband, creative genius, and ambassador for the game he loved. He will live forever in the heart of Los Angeles, and will be remembered through the ages as one of our greatest heroes,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.
President Donald Trump reacted to the reports of Bryant's death soon after they began to surface, tweeting: “That is terrible news!”
Bryant’s helicopter left Santa Ana shortly after 9 a.m. and circled for a time just east of Interstate 5, near Glendale. Air traffic controllers noted poor visibility around Burbank, just to the north, and Van Nuys, to the northwest.
After holding up the helicopter for other aircraft, they cleared the Sikorsky S-76 to proceed north along Interstate 5 through Burbank before turning west to follow U.S Route 101, the Ventura Highway.
Shortly after 9:40 a.m., the helicopter turned again, toward the southeast, and climbed to more than 2,000 feet above sea level. It then descended and crashed into the hillside at about 1,400 feet, according to data from Flightradar24.
When it struck the ground, the helicopter was flying at about 160 knots (184 mph) and descending at a rate of more than 4,000 feet per minute, the Flightradar24 data showed.
At the time of the crash, the Los Angles County Sheriff's Department had grounded its own helicopters because of the poor weather conditions. The impact scattered debris over an area about the size of a football field, Villanueva said.
Colin Storm was in his living room in Calabasas when he heard “what sounded like a low-flying airplane or helicopter.”
“Ït was very foggy so we couldn’t see anything,” he said. “But then we heard some sputtering, and then a boom.”
The fog then cleared a bit and Storm could see smoke rising from the hillside in front of his home.
Juan Bonilla of Calabasas said he was working on his roof Sunday morning when he heard a helicopter flying low nearby. He said he thought it was a sheriff’s helicopter on a training mission. He heard nothing amiss with the engine or rotors and said he did not see any mechanical issue with the chopper. It was foggy Sunday morning, but he said visibility didn’t seem to be low at the time of the crash.
Firefighters worked to douse flames that spread through about an acre (.40 hectares) of dry brush, said Art Marrujo, a dispatch supervisor with the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
The National Transportation Safety Board sent a “go team” of investigators to the site. The NTSB typically issues a preliminary report within about 10 days that will give a rough summary of what investigators have learned. A ruling on the cause can take a year or more.
“They will look at man, machine and environment,” said Gary C. Robb, an aviation attorney in Kansas City who wrote a textbook on helicopter-crash litigation.
“They will look at the pilot — was there any indication of fatigue, any indication of a training issue? They’ll scour his or her record,” Robb said. “They will look at this helicopter from stem to stern. They will take the engine to the NTSB metallurgical laboratory outside Washington, D.C., and examine it to see if there was something that malfunctioned in flight.”
Investigators will also consider what role might have been played by weather, terrain, radio towers or bird strikes, he said.
Robb said he has handled many cases involving Sikorsky S-76 crashes and regards the machine as having a good reputation.
“It is generally regarded as a good helicopter with a good safety record,” he said, “but parts fail, parts break. Anything can happen.”
Bryant had one of the greatest careers in recent NBA history and became one of the game's most popular players as the face of the 16-time NBA champion Lakers franchise. He was the league MVP in 2008 and a two-time NBA scoring champion, and he earned 12 selections to the NBA's All-Defensive teams.
He teamed with Shaquille O'Neal in a combustible partnership to lead the Lakers to NBA titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002. He later teamed with Pau Gasol to win two more titles in 2009 and 2010.
Bryant retired in 2016 after scoring 60 points in his final NBA game.
Bryant looms large over the current generation of NBA players. After James passed Bryant on Saturday, he remembered listening to Bryant when the superstar came to speak at a childhood basketball camp
"I remember one thing he said: If you want to be great at it, or want to be one of the greats, you've got to put the work in," James said. "There's no substitution for work."
James later teamed up with Bryant on the 2008 U.S. Olympic team in Beijing.
"He had zero flaws offensively," James said. "Zero. You backed off of him, he could shoot the 3. You body him up a little bit, he could go around you. He could shoot from mid-range. He could post. He could make free throws. ... He was just immortal offensively because of his skill set and his work ethic."
Thousands of people gathered to mourn Bryant outside the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. Mourners in No. 24 jerseys mixed with those in fancy dress arriving at the downtown arena for Sunday evening’s Grammy Awards.
People carried flowers and chanted “Kobe!” and “MVP!” under giant video screens showing Bryant’s smiling face.
“This is where we needed to be,” said Naveen Cheerath, 31.
Bryant was a basketball superstar for his entire adult life. He entered the NBA draft straight out of high school in 1996 after a childhood spent partly in Italy, where his father, former NBA player Joe "Jellybean" Bryant, played professionally.
The Lakers acquired the 17-year-old Bryant in a trade shortly after Charlotte drafted him, and he immediately became one of the most exciting and intriguing players in the sport alongside O'Neal, who had signed with the Lakers as a free agent. Bryant won the Slam Dunk Contest as an upstart rookie, and the Lakers gradually grew into a team that won three consecutive championships.
Bryant and Gasol formed the nucleus of another championship team in 2008, reaching three straight NBA Finals and eventually winning two more titles.
The Lakers confirmed that Bryant was one of the victims just after noon.
"We can confirm that Kobe Bryant passed away today from the causes of a helicopter accident. The entire Los Angeles Lakers family wishes to support their family and friends. RIP KOBE,'' the team tweeted at 12:24 p.m.
A slew of famous names from sports, entertainment and politics quickly
reacted to Bryant's death.
Former Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- the NBA's all-time leading scorer -- said "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.''
The NBA Players Association tweeted: "We are stunned and devastated by the news of the sudden passing of Kobe Bryant. Words cannot express his impact on our players, the NBA and the game of basketball. This is a monumental loss for the entire basketball community and our hearts are quite simply broken. We send love an prayers out to his wife Vanessa and the entire family.''
Steve Ballmer, chairman of the Los Angeles Clippers, said: "The Clippers mourn the sudden and devastating loss of Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna. Kobe, an icon and an institution in this city and this sport, inspired teammates and opponents alike with his commitment, determination and drive. Kobe was a singular figure who left an indelible mark on the community and the world. His family, friends and the Lakers organization are in our thoughts and prayers. We will miss him.''
Former Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade tweeted: "Nooooooooooo God please No!''
Former Boston Celtics star Paul Pierce -- who battled Kobe twice in the NBA Finals -- tweeted: "This is not real right now.''
Robert Iger, chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Co., called Bryant "a giant in sports and a person so full of life. Terrible news and so hard to process....''
President Donald Trump also weighed in Sunday, tweeting that Bryant's death was "terrible news!''
Along with his work boosting women’s sports, Bryant opened a production company and entered the entertainment field in retirement. He won an Academy Award in 2018 for his contributions to “Dear Basketball,” an animated short about his relationship to the game. He also produced content for ESPN.
In 2003, Bryant was charged with attacking a 19-year-old employee at a Colorado resort. He said the two had consensual sex, and prosecutors later dropped the felony sexual assault charge against Bryant at the request of the accuser. The woman later filed a civil suit against Bryant that was settled out of court.
Associated Press staffers Christopher Weber in Los Angeles, David Koenig in Dallas, Mark J. Terrill and John Antczak in Calabasas and Michael Rubinkam in northeastern Pennsylvania contributed to this story.
Jeff Pack and City News Service contributed to this report.