The helicopter may have crashed into a hillside in Calabasas, California, on Sunday, January 26, 2020, but it was immediately felt around the world. The headline accompanying it was completely surreal: Basketball great Kobe Bryant was dead at the age of 41.
The way Bryant mastered the sport, it seems as if he was invincible. He was a five-time NBA champion, 18-time All-Star, two-time NBA finals MVP — and two-time Olympic gold medalist to boot. And unlike players who zig-zagged around through teams, for all 20 seasons he played, he remained a Los Angeles Laker. In 2006, he scored 81 points in a single game — the second-highest in NBA history. Even though he retired from the sport in 2016, scoring an impressive 60 points in his final game, he found his way in other realms, most notably winning an Oscar in 2018 for his animated short Dear Basketball.
Despite all that greatness, what made Bryant most human was his love for his family — his wife Vanessa, who he married in 2001, and their four daughters, Natalia, Gianna, Bianka and Capri.
And ultimately, it was for the love of basketball and his daughter Gianna that he met his untimely end that Sunday morning on his way to the second day of his daughter’s basketball tournament.
The weekend was an exciting one in the Bryant household. The Orange County girls’ basketball team that Bryant coached — which included his 13-year-old daughter Gianna — was playing their first tournament at the two-day Mamba Cup, with players ages 9 to 14 from all over California and a few other states competing. Of course, with the tournament being held at a Thousand Oaks gym co-owned by Bryant called Mamba Academy (later renamed Sports Academy, out of respect to Bryant), the basketball legend himself was the star attraction.
Nevertheless, for him, his eyes were on his family. He rushed home to Orange County, avoiding Southern California traffic by going by helicopter, and by about 5 p.m., he was at the Fashion Island mall in Newport Beach with his then 3-year-old Bianka, enjoying looking at the koi fish in the pond.
Though he was focused on family time, he was well aware that across the country in his hometown of Philadelphia, LeBron James beat his career-points record, knocking Bryant into fourth place. But there wasn’t an ounce of jealousy. He sent what would become his final tweet, congratulating James for “continuing to move the game forward” and the two even chatted briefly after 8 p.m.
There was no lazy Sunday morning for Bryant on January 26. By 7 a.m, he had already stopped by his Catholic church, Our Lady Queen of Angels, since he had to get from his Newport Coast home to John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana by 9 a.m. in order to catch the helicopter to get to day two of the tournament in time for the team’s first game at 12 noon.
While Bryant had been focused on getting his daughter and her teammates to the game, his private helicopter’s team had long been preparing for the flight. The day before, a group text had been started among the crew members. Pilot Ara Zobayan and the flight coordinator had been texting about the conditions and within an hour of departure, the coordinator asked how things looked for the 9 a.m. departure. “Should be OK,” Zobayan replied with the coordinator replying, “I agree,” CNN reported of the texts.
Other flights that were scheduled to leave that morning had been grounded because the official visibility around the airport was only four miles. Further north, the Los Angeles County’s sheriff’s department had grounded their helicopters. Nonetheless, the Sikorsky S-76B took flight, carrying Bryant, his daughter and six other passengers, lifting off at 9:06 a.m.
About 15 minutes into the flight, the helicopter with the registration N72EX went into a holding pattern west of Glendale. It circled for about 10 to 15 minutes since it couldn’t cross from the L.A. airspace to the part controlled by the Hollywood Burbank airport.
Eventually, the helicopter was given access to go north tracing Interstate 5 through Burbank and then to 101 westward. But then just after 9:40 a.m., it turned southeast. The vehicle then climbed 2,300 feet before falling 1,085 feet into the hill,The New York Times reported, estimating it missed clearing the hill by about 20 to 30 feet. Previously flying at a speed of 184 miles per hour, it fell at more than 4,000 feet per minute, ESPN wrote.
More than a year later, the National Transportation Safety Board will hold a hearing to officially determine the cause of the crash on February 9, 2021, taking into account the more than 1,700 pages of documents that have been examined, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Various speculations have been made, but one thing is for sure — the Los Angeles County coroner’s report showed that the crash was “brutal,” ESPN reported, painting a picture of “broken bones, dismembered body parts, and a stench of fuel on what remained of the clothing that burned.” The extent made it clear that they had likely all died instantaneously from “blunt trauma.”
Along with the famous father and daughter, were Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, along with his wife Keri and daughter Alyssa; fellow basketball coach for the girls’ team Christina Mauser; and Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton. Pilot Zobayan also died.
One notable fact is that the helicopter was not equipped with a terrain awareness and warning system that indicates when an aircraft might hit the ground. Though the Federal Aviation Administration only requires it for air ambulances, the NTSB does recommend it. Since the incident, a push has been made to turn it into a requirement.
As the news spread, the disbelief and tributes poured out. Among the words of sympathy was a tweet from Barack Obama: “Kobe was a legend on the court and just getting started in what would have been just as meaningful a second act. To lose Gianna is even more heartbreaking to us as parents. Michelle and I send love and prayers to Vanessa and the entire Bryant family on an unthinkable day.”
On what would have been his 42nd birthday in August, his widow Vanessa posted on Instagram: “I love you and miss you more than I can ever explain. I wish you and Gigi were here to celebrate YOU! I wish I could make you your fav food or a birthday cake with my Gigi. I miss your big hugs, your kisses, your smile, your loud ass deep laugh… Our lives feel so empty without you and Gigi. I’ve been completely broken inside.”
But his legacy will forever live on with the Lakers, as James — one of the last people he talked to — showed in an Instagram tribute in December 2020 after the team won the season. With a photo of Bryant looking over him, he wrote, “What I felt last night when I grabbed that ring from the case. Love and miss you my brother!!!! #Mamba4Life.”