By Agence France-Presse
LOS ANGELES (AFP) – NBA legend Kobe Bryant died Sunday when a helicopter he was riding in crashed and burst into flames in thick fog, killing all nine people on board including his teenage daughter and plunging the sports world into mourning.
Bryant, 41, was traveling with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven other passengers and crew when their Sikorsky S-76 helicopter slammed into a rugged hillside in Calabasas, west of Los Angeles. There were no survivors.
Gianna was one of Bryant’s four children with his wife Vanessa.
Bryant and Gianna were flying to a game his daughter was expected to play in when their helicopter crashed, according to US reports.
Local media said the other victims included another player and a parent.
Orange Coast College confirmed that its baseball coach, John Altobelli, 56, was also on board the helicopter.
CNN said Altobelli’s wife, Keri, and one of their two daughters, Alyssa, were aboard the chopper, as well.
Bryant, a five-time NBA champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist, is widely regarded as one of the greatest basketball players in history, an iconic figure who became one of the faces of his sport during a glittering two-decade career with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Dozens of firefighters and paramedics battled across steep terrain to reach the flaming wreckage at the crash site but found no survivors, officials said.
The National Transportation Safety Board said an 18-strong team of investigators would be sent to California to probe the causes of the crash.
Bryant’s death sent shockwaves throughout the world, with basketball stars stunned by the news.
“Laker Nation, the game of basketball & our city, will never be the same without Kobe,” former Los Angeles Lakers star Magic Johnson wrote on Twitter.
Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan said Bryant was “like a little brother” to him.
“Words can’t describe the pain I’m feeling,” Jordan said. “We used to talk often and I will miss those conversations very much.”
Tributes to Bryant flooded in from former US presidents, pop stars and athletes from different sports, a sign of how the man known as the “Black Mamba” had transcended basketball.
“Kobe was a legend on the court and just getting started in what would have been just as meaningful a second act,” former US President Barack Obama wrote on Twitter.
American football star Tom Brady wrote simply: “We miss you already Kobe.”
Brazilian soccer star Neymar paid tribute to Bryant after scoring for his French club side Paris Saint-Germain, making the number 24 – Bryant’s old shirt number – with his fingers.
At the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, several hundred shocked fans gathered to pay tribute as the venue which witnessed many of Bryant’s career highlights hosted the music industry’s Grammy Awards.
“This dude is everything to me man. It makes no sense,” said distraught Lakers fan Bobby Jimenez, sobbing as he stood outside the venue.
The Grammys got underway with a somber tribute from singer Alicia Keys.
“To be honest with you, we’re all feeling crazy sadness right now,” Keys told the audience. “Los Angeles, America and the whole wide world lost a hero. And we’re literally standing here heartbroken in the house that Kobe Bryant built.”
Across the NBA, tributes were held at several of the eight games scheduled for Sunday.
Denver Nuggets fans began chants of “Kobe, Kobe” as a minute’s silence was held before their game against the Houston Rockets.
In San Antonio, where the Spurs hosted the reigning champion Toronto Raptors, both teams took 24-second shot-clock violations on their first possessions of the game in honor of Bryant –- who wore the number 24 in the later years of his career.
And in a move that other NBA teams are also expected to adopt, the Dallas Mavericks announced that they were retiring the number 24 jersey.
In New York, Madison Square Garden was lit up in purple and gold colors of the Lakers, alongside a giant image of Bryant captioned: “Kobe Bryant, 1978-2020.”
The crash came only hours after Bryant was passed by current Lakers star LeBron James for third on the all-time NBA scoring list in a Saturday game at Philadelphia.
Bryant’s final post on social media had been a tweet congratulating James on surpassing him.
“Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames,” Bryant wrote. “Much respect my brother #33644.”
On his Instagram account, Gilas Pilipinas player Kiefer Ravena paid tribute to his childhood idol by remembering his very first personal and close encounter with the basketball superstar.
“The world lost a great one. You inspire so many kids to appreciate and love the game in many ways you couldn’t imagine. You gave me inspiration on how to believer in the work you put in – not to stop and always try to find an edge,” he said.
Ravena first met Bryant in 1998 when the sports legend visited the Philippines for a basketball event.
An old photo shows Bryant carrying the four-year-old Kiefer. Years later, Ravena would meet Bryant in several sports endorsement events.
Television personality Bianca Gonzales also shared in a tweet that even though not an athlete, Bryant’s attitude on and off the court inspired her to become a fan.
“I’ve never been an athlete but I became a fan of Kobe Bryant because of how he stretched the limits of what a human being can do and what the human spirit can achieve and how he inspired us to do the same,” she said.
Malacañang Palace has expressed sadness over Bryant’s tragic death.
“The Office of the President is saddened after learning about the tragic news of the death of NBA superstar and legend, Kobe Bryant, and his daughter, who were killed in a helicopter crash. Mr. Bryant was a frequent visitor in the Philippines. He was well-loved by his Filipino fans,” Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo said in a statement Monday.
“On the hardcourt, he was a sight to behold with his dexterity and accuracy in sinking that ball in the ring. He was a master of his craft. The basketball world has lost one of its legendary greats,” he said.
“The Palace extends its deepest condolences to the family, friends, colleagues, loved ones and fans around the globe who Kobe left behind. We share in their grief,” he said.
Bryant was a five-time NBA champion in a career that began in 1996 straight out of a high school and lasted until his retirement in 2016.
He also was a two-time Olympic gold medalist, helping spark the US squad of NBA stars to titles in 2008 in Beijing and 2012 in London.
Bryant bowed out of the NBA in 2016, scoring 60 points in his final appearance before his adoring fans at the Staples Center.
It was a fairytale farewell to a sporting career which had begun two decades earlier.
The son of former NBA player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, the Lakers legend was born in Philadelphia in 1978 while his father played for the 76ers.
The elder Bryant played from 1984 to 1991 in Italy, giving young Kobe a global worldview as he grew up dreaming of following his dad into the NBA.
He would eventually join the ranks of professionals at the age of 17, jumping directly into the NBA, only the sixth player and first guard to make such a leap.
At 18, Bryant became, at the time, the youngest player or starter in an NBA game and the youngest winner of the NBA Slam Dunk Contest.
With Bryant paired alongside Shaquille O’Neal, the Lakers captured three NBA crowns in a row from 2000-2002, returning the team to glory days unseen since 1988.
Bryant’s career was almost derailed in 2003 when he was arrested in Colorado over a sexual assault complaint filed by a 19-year-old hotel employee where Bryant was staying ahead of knee surgery.
Bryant was accused of rape. He admitted to adultery but said he did not commit rape. The case was dropped in 2004 after the accuser refused to testify in a trial.
A separate civil suit was settled under terms kept private.
Bryant saw out his career with the Lakers, successfully branching out into the entertainment industry following his retirement.
In 2018, he won an Oscar for his animated short film “Dear Basketball”, a love letter to the sport which brought him fame and fortune.(With reports from Hanah Tabios and Genalyn Kabiling)