- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 26, 2020

One month ago, Kobe Bryant sat courtside with his daughter Gianna Maria in Brooklyn, New York, breaking down the NBA game unfolding in front of them. When his daughter chimed in with her own feedback, the former Los Angeles Laker star proudly nodded his head in approval, prompting a grin from the 13-year-old.

That father-daughter interaction seemed fitting for Bryant — one of the sport’s greatest players, passing down knowledge amassed over a 20-year career to the next generation. Even in retirement, Bryant eagerly embraced teaching others the game he loved.

Now the basketball community and greater sports world are left to mourn.

Bryant, 41, a five-time champion and 18-time All-Star with the Lakers, and his 13-year-old daughter died in a helicopter crash Sunday in Calabasas, California.

The crash occurred Sunday shortly before 10 a.m. Pacific time. Authorities said nine people were on the helicopter and that all were presumed dead

There was no determination of what caused the crash, with Los Angeles County’s investigation still ongoing.

Bryant and his daughter were on their way to her youth basketball game, and another player and parent from that team were on board, ESPN reported.

Over the course of his career, Bryant was named to the All-NBA team 11 times and won NBA Finals MVP in 2009 and 2010. Nicknamed “Black Mamba,” the 6-foot-6 guard was known for his shutdown defensive skills, his ability to score from anywhere on the court and, perhaps most of all, his ultracompetitive nature.

On Saturday night, LeBron James passed Bryant in career points scored to move into third place all-time. Bryant’s final tweet was to congratulate James, who also plays for the Lakers.

“Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames,” Bryant wrote. “Much respect my brother.”

Bryant became eligible for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame for the first time in 2020, five seasons after his retirement in 2016, and it is a foregone conclusion that he’ll be inducted on Aug. 29.

Born in Philadelphia, Bryant was the son of Joe “Jellybean” Bryant and Pamela Bryant. He spent part of his childhood growing up in Italy during his father’s professional basketball career and went to high school at Lower Merion in suburban Philadelphia. In 1996, at age 17, he declared for the NBA draft — making the leap straight from high school, which was rare at the time.

It was then the legend of Bryant began to grow.

In a predraft workout with the Lakers, the lanky shooting guard relentlessly attacked — and dominated — Michael Cooper, a former defensive player of the year who had retired six years earlier, in a one-on-one session. The Lakers brass became enamored with Bryant and traded for him on draft night.

As a player, Bryant emulated his idol, Michael Jordan. He mastered Jordan’s signature turnaround jumper and went straight at opposing defenses.

Like Jordan, he demanded greatness of those around him — famously clashing with center Shaquille O’Neal in the early 2000s. The pair won three straight titles from 2000 to 2002, but O’Neal was eventually traded in 2004 because of their feuding.

In 2003, Bryant was the subject of a highly publicized sexual assault case. Bryant was arrested after a woman accused him of a nonconsensual sexual encounter at a hotel in Colorado. The charges were dropped when the woman refused to testify, but the two later settled a civil case.

The controversy would follow Bryant for the rest of his life, including when he won an Academy Award for the 2017 animated feature “Dear Basketball,” a short he wrote and narrated based on his retirement letter. Bryant’s win was criticized in the “#MeToo” era, with women speaking out against sexual misconduct in the entertainment industry and other facets of society.

In the world of basketball, though, Bryant had the unquestioned respect of his peers, and his death prompted widespread shock across the NBA community. O’Neal said on social media there were “no words to express the pain I’m going through” in reacting to Bryant’s death, and the former teammate posted a series of photos of the two of them together.

Pau Gasol, who won two championships with Bryant, tweeted he was “beyond devastated,” calling Bryant his “big brother.” Wizards star John Wall tweeted two hearts, one broken and the other black.

Teams spent Sunday honoring Bryant, as well. A moment of silence was held before several games, while the Toronto Raptors and San Antonio Spurs began the game with matching 24-second violations — a tribute to Bryant wearing “No. 24” for the latter half of his career.

Others in Los Angeles gathered outside Staples Center, the home of the Lakers, Sunday afternoon to mourn.

After retirement, Bryant became an unofficial ambassador for the sport. He worked with ESPN to produce shows detailing the craft of some of the league’s top players and even hosted his own camp last summer for NBA stars.

Noting Bryant’s impact, Wizards coach Scott Brooks said Sunday the former MVP was the idol to many current-day players.

“My generation, it was Dr. J,” Brooks said. “And then maybe Michael Jordan was a little bit after. The generation now is Kobe. He’s exactly what everybody dreamed about playing (against) on the playground.”

On Saturday, after passing Bryant in points, James recalled how much it meant to him that Bryant gave him a pair of sneakers when James was in high school.

“I was a (size) 15 and he was a 14,” James said, “and I wore them anyway. … He was just immortal offensively because of his skill set and his work ethic.”

Bryant is survived by his wife Vanessa and his three other daughters.

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