Kobe Bryant, a prodigy at Lower Merion High who leaped into the NBA at age 17 and became a basketball legend during two spotlit decades in Los Angeles, and his second-oldest daughter Gianna were among nine people killed Sunday when his private helicopter crashed in Calabasas, Calif.
Mr. Bryant was 41 and had been retired since the 2015-16 season.
Ironically, on Saturday, during a Lakers-76ers game at the Wells Fargo Center, LeBron James surpassed Mr. Bryant’s career point total of 33,643 points to move into third place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.
The crash occurred shortly before 10 a.m. (1 p.m. Philadelphia time), according to a watch commander for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Allen Kenitzer said the helicopter was a Sikorsky S-76 built in 1991, and it was not known what caused the crash.
Bryant lived south of Los Angeles in coastal Orange County for much of his adult life, and he often used helicopters to save time and avoid Southern California’s notorious traffic. He often traveled to practices and games by helicopter before his playing career ended in 2016, and he kept up the practice after retirement as he attended to his business ventures.
Bryant, who had four daughters with his wife, Vanessa, dedicated himself to boosting women’s sports in recent years, coaching and mentoring basketball players. Gianna, better known as Gigi, was a talented basketball player.
The crash occurred about 20 miles from Mamba Sports Academy, Bryant’s basketball training complex in Thousand Oaks.
Jerry Kocharian was standing outside the Church in the Canyon in Calabasas, drinking coffee when he heard a helicopter unusually low struggling overhead.
“It [didn’t] sound right and it was real low,” Kocharian told the Los Angeles Times. “I saw it falling and spluttering. But it was hard to make out as it was so foggy.”
The helicopter vanished into a cloud of fog and then there was a boom.
“There was a big fireball,” he said. “No one could survive that.”
The helicopter departed John Wayne Airport at 9:06 a.m. Sunday, according to publicly available flight records. The helicopter passed over Boyle Heights, near Dodger Stadium, and circled over Glendale during the flight.
The National Transportation Safety Board database does not show any prior incidents or accidents for this aircraft. The helicopter is registered to the Fillmore-based Island Express Holding Corp., according to the California Secretary of State business database.
“We extend our sincerest condolences to all those affected by today’s Sikorsky S-76B accident in Calabasas, California,” the helicopter’s manufacturer, Sikorsky, said in a tweet. “We have been in contact with the NTSB and stand ready to provide assistance and support to the investigative authorities and our customer.”
Long before his retirement, Mr. Bryant was one of those rare superstars whose first name was sufficient identity. Even those unfamiliar with basketball knew Kobe, and his No. 24 jersey was one of the league’s all-time best sellers. One of the NBA’s leading attractions, he also was immensely popular in Europe, where he’d grown up, and in Asia, where crowds at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing chanted his name.
A fiery competitor, he also projected an icy cool, a dichotomy that gave him cachet with young basketball players everywhere.
“I wear No. 24 because of Kobe,” Imhotep Charter senior KamRohn Roundtree said Sunday. “That was my favorite player growing up. To find out he died, it really hit me hard.”
Mr. Bryant’s professional resumé was striking. In addition to two Olympic gold medals, he captured five NBA titles with the Lakers, twice was the league’s scoring leader and ranks fourth in points in both the regular season and postseason. The league’s 2008 MVP, he twice was NBA Finals MVP. He was an 18-time All-Star and 11 times a first-team all-NBA performer. The 81 points he scored against Toronto in 2006 remains the second highest single-game point total in NBA history, a figure topped only by Wilt Chamberlain’s 100. And his defense was nearly as impressive as his offense. Nine times, he earned a spot as a first-team all-NBA defender.
“[He] made an everlasting mark on our league,” the 76ers said in a statement. “His determination, passion to win and fierce competitiveness fueled the Los Angeles Lakers to five NBA championships and inspired millions of people around the world.”
Surprisingly, while he was one of the greatest talents to emerge from the basketball-rich Philadelphia area, Mr. Bryant wasn’t universally loved here, in large part because of two controversial comments early in his career.
During one of his first returns here as a Laker, he insisted on a distinction that riled area fans, claiming he wasn’t really a Philadelphian because he’d been raised and played outside the city, in one of its more upscale suburbs. Then, after his Lakers lost to the 76ers in Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals, Mr. Bryant predicted he would come back here and “cut their hearts out.”
The Lakers did capture the title in Philadelphia, the second of the five he won, and even his most ardent critics came to acknowledge him as among the best to ever play the game.
All wasn’t rosy, however. In addition to the heat he took from Philadelphia fans, Mr. Bryant feuded often with Lakers teammate Shaquille O’Neal and was called “uncoachable” in a book by longtime Lakers coach Phil Jackson.
He and O’Neal long ago reconciled and, like the rest of the world, the former Lakers center was shocked by the news that his ex-teammate and daughter Gianna were dead.
“There’s no words to express the pain I’m going through with this tragedy of losing my niece Gigi and my brother @kobebryant,” O’Neal said in a tweet. “I love u and u will be missed.”
But the biggest controversy came in July 2003 when a 19-year-old hotel employee at a Colorado resort accused him of sexual assault. Mr. Bryant admitted to the encounter but denied it was an assault. Charges were dropped after the victim refused to testify. She eventually filed a civil suit that was settled out of court, with Mr. Bryant apologizing but not admitting guilt.
Kobe Bean Bryant was born Aug. 23, 1978, in between his father’s third and fourth seasons with the 76ers. His unusual middle name was a nod to Joe Bryant’s nickname, “Jelly Bean.”
When the elder Bryant’s NBA career concluded in 1983, he moved his family to Italy where he played professionally for another seven seasons. Growing up there, Mr. Bryant learned the language, eagerly absorbed the culture, and most significantly began to hone his rare basketball talents. By the time the family returned to the United States and settled in Lower Merion, he was primed for a record-setting high-school tenure.
A four-year starter there, Mr. Bryant would set a Philadelphia-area scholastic scoring career record, his 2,883 points surpassing the totals of both Chamberlain and Lionel Simmons. His unusual name was already known nationally when, as a Lower Merion senior, he averaged 30-plus points a game, led the Aces to a Pennsylvania state championship, and won the Naismith High School Player of the Year Award.
As a 6-foot-6 high-schooler, he could — and did — play all five positions. He was wiry strong, quick, physically gifted, and intelligent, assets that teammates and coaches said were burnished by a frightening competitiveness.
“There’s an oft-told story of him chasing 5-7 Bobby Schwartz through the hallways after a Schwartz turnover cost Kobe’s team a victory during a drill,” said Michael Egan, a Lower Merion assistant coach then.
Heavily recruited by Villanova, Duke, Michigan, North Carolina, and dozens of other schools, he was invited to a workout by 76ers coach John Lucas. After Lucas said the teenager was good enough to be the first overall choice, Mr. Bryant opted to enter the NBA draft.
The Lakers reportedly worked out a pre-draft arrangement with the Charlotte Hornets, who selected Mr. Bryant with the 13th pick of the first round. The trade was finalized in July, when Mr. Bryant was still 17. Because of his age, his parents had to initially co-sign his three-year, $3.5 million deal.
His game, especially his high-flying athletic flair, was made for Los Angeles. Mr. Bryant started only six games his first season and averaged just 7 points, but he won the All-Star Game’s Slam Dunk Competition and made the All-Rookie team. The best was yet to come.
Paired with O’Neal, he and his Lakers won three consecutive NBA titles from 1999-2000 to 2001-02. Mr. Bryant averaged a combined 25 points a game those three seasons, a figure he would surpass 12 times in the years to come. In 2005-06 (35.4) and 2006-07 (31.6), he was the NBA’s top scorer.
Without O’Neal, Mr. Bryant carried the Lakers to the NBA Finals in 2007-08, where they lost to the Boston Celtics. But he picked up his fourth and fifth title trophies in 2008-09 and 2009-10.
A series of injuries hampered him throughout his final three seasons and in November 2015, he revealed that it would be his final season. He asked that opponents hold no on-court festivities for his retirement, a request that many teams, including the 76ers, ignored. In his final appearance in Philadelphia, the hometown he had never entirely reconciled with, the Wells Fargo Center gave him a stirring ovation.
His final game, April 13, 2016, provided a fitting farewell. Mr. Bryant scored 60 points as the 17-65 Lakers defeated the Utah Jazz, making him, at 37, the oldest to reach that total.
As he accumulated points and fame, Mr. Bryant also picked up another nickname. He began referring to himself as “Black Mamba,” a particularly deadly and aggressive snake.
In retirement, Bryant opened a production company and entered the entertainment field. 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.
Word of his sudden death elicited stunned reactions from NBA players, past and present.
“Most people will remember Kobe as the magnificent athlete who inspired a whole generation of basketball players,” tweeted Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the man atop the NBA’s all-time scoring list. “But I will always remember him as a man who was much more than an athlete.”
Michael Jordan said Mr. Bryant was “like a little brother to me.”
“I am in shock," Jordan said in a statement. “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. Kobe was also an amazing dad who loved his family deeply — and took great pride in his daughter’s love for the game of basketball.”
This story contains information from the Associated Press and Los Angeles Times.