It’s hard to believe NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, whose prodigious talent and win-at-all-costs spirit made him one of the most famous and decorated athletes in history, is gone.
He was the rare celebrity who didn’t need a last name. Oprah. LeBron. Beyonce. Kobe. Everyone knew who you were talking about.
Still youthful at 41, Bryant – who died in a helicopter crash Sunday in California – looked like he could suit up and drop 30 points on a rival NBA team. It doesn’t seem that long ago that he was scoring 60 points in his final NBA game, soaking up the cheers of Los Angeles Lakers fans who worshiped him for two decades as one of the city’s favorite sons.
After his 20-year NBA career – all with the Lakers – Bryant is all but assured of being a first-ballot inductee into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame later this year.
“He was a fierce competitor, one of the greats of the game and a creative force,” said fellow NBA icon Michael Jordan.
Kobe Bryant's life in pictures
An 18-time All-Star, Bryant was known for his remarkable scoring ability – his turnaround jumper was nearly unstoppable – and his championship pedigree. He teamed with fellow All-Star Shaquille O’Neal to win three consecutive NBA titles from 2000 to 2002 and later won two more rings, in 2009 and 2010.
Known as the Black Mamba – a nickname he gave himself – Bryant twice led the NBA in scoring and won the league’s Most Valuable Player award in 2008.
Bryant’s daughter Gianna, 13, was with her father on the helicopter and was also killed in the crash, a source with knowledge of the situation told CNN.
“Kobe was so much more than an athlete, he was a family man. That was what we had most in common,” O’Neal wrote on Twitter Sunday. “We love our families. Whenever we got together I would hug his children like they were my own and he would embrace my kids like they were his.”
“The NBA family is devastated by the tragic passing of Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna,” said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver in a statement.
“For 20 seasons, Kobe showed us what is possible when remarkable talent blends with an absolute devotion to winning. He was one of the most extraordinary players in the history of our game with accomplishments that are legendary … But he will be remembered most for inspiring people around the world to pick up a basketball and compete to the very best of their ability.”
He entered the NBA at age 17
Bryant was born on August 23, 1978, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His parents, Joe and Pam Bryant, gave him the namesake after seeing a type of steak on a restaurant menu. Kobe beef is from a species of cattle, Wagyu, raised in the Kobe region of Japan.
He lived in Italy from the age of six to 13 while his father played professional basketball, and he spoke Italian fluently. In one of his final interviews before he died, Bryant told CNN how he developed a love of soccer in Italy but also witnessed racism before moving back to the United States.
“When I was growing up in Italy, I’ve obviously witnessed it firsthand going to certain soccer matches and things of that nature,” Bryant told CNN’s Andy Scholes. “My parents have taught me and educated me on how to deal with those sorts of things.”
Bryant played high school basketball at Lower Merion in Pennsylvania.
“This is a difficult day for everyone in our school community,” said Amy Buckman, a spokeswoman for Lower Merion School District.
“Mr. Bryant’s connection to Lower Merion High School, where he played basketball prior to joining the NBA, has raised the profile of our high school and our district throughout the world. Our school community will always be grateful for his ongoing generosity to his alma mater, including his dedication of our Kobe Bryant gymnasium and his support of our girls and boys basketball teams.”
Bryant went straight from high school to the NBA, drafted by the Charlotte Hornets with the 13th overall pick of the 1996 draft, making him the youngest NBA player in history at age 17. Bryant was then traded to the Los Angeles Lakers for veteran center Vlade Divac.
He soon became one of the most decorated players in NBA history and also won two Olympic gold medals for USA men’s basketball, in 2008 and 2012.
Off the court his dazzling smile sold everything from Nike shoes to McDonald’s hamburgers.
There was controversy, however, when Bryant was accused of sexual assaulting a 19-year-old Colorado hotel worker in 2003. Bryant insisted the encounter was consensual. The criminal sexual assault charge was dropped in 2004, and the accuser agreed to settle her civil lawsuit against Bryant in 2005.
LeBron James: ‘Kobe is a legend, that’s for damn sure’
At 6 feet, 6 inches, Bryant could run the point or play shooting guard, even though his position was small forward.
One of the most memorable games in NBA history came on January 22, 2006, when Bryant scored 81 points in a Lakers’ 122-104 win over Toronto. Only Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game in 1962 tops this performance.
And in his final game of his career in 2016, the Black Mamba did it his way, dropping 60 points – on 50 shots – in a Lakers win against the Utah Jazz at a frenzied Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Bryant finished his NBA career with 33,643 points. A day before he died, he was passed by another Laker and superstar, LeBron James, on the league’s all-time scoring list. James accomplished the feat in – of all places – Philadelphia, against the 76ers.
Bryant took to Twitter after James passed him, writing, “Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother.”
James, who had “Mamba 4 Life” and “8/24 KB” in gold marker on his sneakers before Saturday’s game, talked after the game about Bryant’s influence on him.
“The story is just too much,” James said Saturday night. “It doesn’t make sense. … Now I’m here in a Lakers uniform, in Philadelphia, where he’s from… it’s surreal.”
James – who, like Bryant entered the NBA straight out of high school – said Bryant was someone he looked up to when he was in grade school and high school.
“Seeing him come straight out of high school, he is someone that I used as inspiration,” James said. “It was like, wow. Seeing a kid, 17 years old, come into the NBA and trying to make an impact on a franchise, I used it as motivation.
“He helped me before he even knew of me because of what he was able to do. So, just to be able to, at this point of my career, to share the same jersey that he wore, be with this historical franchise and just represent the purple and gold, it’s very humbling and it’s dope.
“Kobe’s a legend, that’s for damn sure.”
Another Lakers legend, Magic Johnson, posted a series of tweets on the loss of Bryant, including one showing a picture of Bryant with his two different jersey numbers – 8 and 24 – being retired.
“Kobe and I shared so many special conversations about life and basketball,” Johnson wrote in one tweet. “We had so much in common off the court. I used to love talking to him about Lakers basketball, being fathers and husbands and how much we loved Italy. I will miss those conversations and him so much.”
He coached his daughter, Gianna
Bryant married wife Vanessa in 2001. They had four daughters: Natalia (born in 2003), Gianna (2006), Bianka (2016) and Capri (2019).
He and his daughter Gianna were expected at the Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks for a basketball game scheduled for Sunday afternoon. Bryant was to coach his daughter’s team in the game.
Bryant said that he had watched little basketball after retiring – in 2018, he won an Oscar for best animated short for “Dear Basketball,” which was based on a poem he wrote – but Gianna’s love of the game sparked his interest in coaching her team.
The two were seen together at numerous NBA games recently, and videos of Gianna’s basketball skills went viral despite her just being 13.
Bryant described Gianna – who had WNBA aspirations – as “hellbent” on going to the University of Connecticut, the alma mater of Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore, two players Bryant recently told CNN “could play in the NBA right now.”
“The best thing that happens is when we go out and fans will come up to me – and she’ll be standing next to me – and be like, ‘Hey you’ve got to have a boy. You and V gotta have a boy and then have somebody carry on the tradition, the legacy,’” Bryant once said in an interview with ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel.
But, Bryant added, Gianna would then pipe up, saying, “I got this.”
CNN’s Brandon Griggs contributed to this report.