Culture / Sporting Life

Kobe Bryant’s Shocking Death Joins Thurman Munson’s as One of Sports’ Most Heartbreaking Real Life Tragedies

Helicopter Crash Kills NBA Force at Age 41, Leaves Sports World Absolutely Stunned

BY // 01.26.20

The news hit like a brick on an otherwise largely quiet sports Sunday. Kobe Bryant is dead at age 41, killed in a fiery helicopter crash over Calabasas, California that left no survivors.

Even more tragically, TMZ reports that Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna — a promising basketball player in her own right — also perished in the crash. Former University of Houston baseball player John Altobelli, his wife Keri and his daughter Alyssa, who played on the same basketball team as Gianna Bryant, also died in the crash, devastating close-knit baseball communities from California to Houston.

Details of the crash that killed all people people on board are still coming in.

Bryant, one of the most driven athletes of all time, a man who turned his Mamba Mentality philosophy into a mantra for a generation of basketball players, is gone. It’s one of the more shocking sports deaths ever. It will quickly join Thurman Munson’s demise in a plane crash in August 1979  and Len Bias’ cocaine overdose two days after being selected by the Boston Celtics as the No. 2 overall pick in the 1986 NBA Draft as one of those indelible tragic moments that shake any joy in the games.

As the news came out — first reported by TMZ Sports — the Houston Rockets were already in Denver’s Pepsi Center, warming up for a game against the Denver Nuggets that somehow tipped off as schedule. The NBA never thought of cancelling games?

Back in Houston, the University of Houston basketball team was in the middle of its game against USF when word of Kobe’s death started to rock the sports world. UH point guard DeJon Jarreau tells PaperCity that he found out mid game.

“It’s just sad,” UH coach Kelvin Sampson says after Houston’s 68-49 win. “Makes today seem so insignificant.”

Bryant is one of the greatest players of all time — and while he wasn’t always a lovable public figure, it’s impossible to overestimate the impact he had on the next generation of stars. Bryant was the basketball player that other pro basketball players looked up to and tried to model their games after.

Kobe’s ferocity and determination to win only may have been matched by Michael Jordan. He even turned to Houston Rockets icon Hakeem Olajuwon in a quest to become a more effective post scorer.

Hakeem called Kobe his best student ever. That was Kobe Bryant. The man who once scored 81 points in an NBA game was always looking for an edge.

The Unfathomable Loss of Kobe’s Daughter

The basketball star and his daughter were reportedly two of the nine people killed when the private helicopter crashed over the wealthy Los Angeles area neighborhood at around 10 am California time Sunday morning. The other three have not been identified yet, but initial reports say that Bryant’s wife was not on the helicopter.

The news swept through the sports world, leaving some basketball players playing games in an almost shocked state. It extended beyond the court too.

Sampson — a basketball lifer who’s been coaching for more than 40 years— remembered the first time he met Kobe Bryant when the coach was a first-time NBA assistant for the San Antonio Spurs.

“He was in the tunnel there at AT&T arena and unsoliciated he just walked up and said, ‘Coach, welcome to the league. I’ve always enjoyed watching your (college) teams play,’ ” Sampson recalls. ” Never spoken to him before. That was awfully nice wasn’t it? He didn’t need to do that.”

Houston junior forward Fabian White Jr. remembered shooting waded up paper into the trash can and yelling “Kobe!” as an elementary schooler. “Not really words to explain it,” White says of Bryant’s death.

“Not you!! RIP mamba!” Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic wrote on Instagram. “Thank you for everything you showed and did for the world!” Doncic’s late-game determination can be traced to Kobe Bryant in some ways. Kobe was the true Hero Ball icon, forever changing how NBA stars wanted to play, for better or worse.

Bryant packed a lot of life into his 41 years, winning five NBA Championships with the Los Angeles Lakers and two Olympic Gold Medals with USA Basketball, ranking as the league’s fourth all-time scorer and even winning an Oscar in 2018 for an animated short based on his poem.

No matter what one thinks of Kobe Bryant the man (he was accused of sexual assault in Colorado in 2003 in a case that was eventually dropped after a 20-month odyssey that drew worldwide attention and included Bryant settling a civil suit with his 19-year-old accuser), anyone human has to feel for his wife Vanessa Bryant and his daughters who often came to games with him after he retired.

Like with Munson, whose death in that plane crash still resonates 40 years later, this is one of those days that will be forever seared into memories. There have been other tragic sports deaths in aviation accidents, including baseball legend Roberto Clemente, who perished when the engine on the plane he was traveling on failed in 1972, and PGA Tour star Payne Stewart who went down in Lear Jet that lost pressurization, rendering everyone on board incapacitated, just four months after he won the 1999 U.S, Open.

Now Kobe.

It’s a reminder that no matter how rich or successful you are, life is still fleeting and precious. Tragedy can touch us all.

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