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Kobe Bryant fans express enduring disbelief as they mourn anniversary of his death

"It affected me like I knew him personally — like we talked every day," said one fan.
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Tony Starks of Accokeek, Maryland, remembers where he was one year ago when he learned that NBA great Kobe Bryant had died.

Starks was waiting for food at a restaurant after a trip to the gym when he got a phone call from his son, Markel, a former Georgetown University player who plays professionally in Russia. Starks told his son he'd call him back after he picked up his food. Before his order was ready, his son, also a Bryant fan, called him again.

"Dad, Kobe died," he said.

Shocked, Tony Starks said, "You sure?" He then grabbed his food and hurried to his car, where the dreadful news was on the radio.

"I couldn't believe it," Starks said. "It's been a year, and I still can't believe it. Or I don't want to believe it. My son and I talked about Kobe weekly. He'd tell me to check out a YouTube video from a particular year. We are so appreciative of his talent. Kobe was all skill and determination. I don't understand how someone who is a true basketball fan couldn't love his game."

Jerseys, flowers and candles at a makeshift memorial as fans mourn the death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant in front of Staples Center in Los Angeles on Jan. 27, 2020.Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images

In addition to Bryant, 41, and his daughter Gianna "GiGi" Bryant, 13, other passengers were Payton Chester, 13; Sarah Chester, 45; Alyssa Altobelli, 14; Keri Altobelli, 46; John Altobelli, 56; Christina Mauser, 38; and the pilot, Ara Zobayan, 50.

"I was at home when I heard the news, and all I could think was, 'Please don't be true,'" said Al Williams, CEO of BK Global Luxury Limousine Service in Atlanta. "It affected me like I knew him personally — like we talked every day."

Several days before the crash, Williams had been in California, at Sports Academy, then known as Mamba Sports Academy. He watched Bryant coach his daughter's team, and he nearly met his favorite player after the game.

"But Kobe had to leave, so that didn't happen," Williams said. "I went to the Staples Center for the celebration of his life, hoping to get a ticket. I didn't, but I was there at the Staples Center and able to take in that vibe. His passing was a big deal for me. I think of him often."

So do millions of fans around the world. Countless pages on social media are dedicated to Bryant, video shrines that keep alive his memory and the brilliance of his 20-year NBA career, punctuated by five league championships. Many social media tributes highlight the connection between Bryant and his basketball-playing daughter who died.

A fan pauses at a memorial to Kobe Bryant in front of Staples Center in Los Angeles before a game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Portland Trail Blazers on Jan. 31, 2020.Ringo H.W. Chiu / AP file

Ryan Javidzad said that he felt connected to Bryant and that after his death, he was consumed by thoughts of Bryant as he played recreational basketball. Finally, in May, he created the Instagram page Kobe.24.Ever. Now with over 13,000 followers, it is loaded with video of Bryant, images, quotations, commercials and interviews.

"I sat down and started going through videos and posts about him, and I wanted to share them with the world in some way," Javidzad said. "I couldn't stop thinking about how he was such an inspiration to both basketball players and non-basketball players alike, due to his dedication, unstoppable work ethic, the 'Mamba mentality.'

"I hope it can serve as a dedication and remembrance page for years to come and people don't forget about the amazing legacy that Kobe Bryant has left behind," he said.

Syrenthia Brown, a high school media specialist in Chicago, follows "at least 10" Bryant fan accounts on social media. "I won't lie: Sometimes I shed a tear watching him and especially Kobe with his daughter," Brown said. "They had so much more to give. Kobe was only 41, GiGi 13. It's so sad. And I can't say it's a surprise that I'm just as sad a year later as I was when I heard it, because I still see him so much on social media. Then I come back to that really sad reality."

The Lakers included Bryant's legacy in their championship rings after they won the title in last year's season, which the coronavirus pandemic truncated. One of Bryant's credos, "Leave a Legacy," is emblazoned on the ring, along with his number 8 and number 24 jerseys. It's expected that a statue will be erected in Bryant's honor outside the Lakers' home, the Staples Center, in downtown Los Angeles.

Williams and Starks said they continually find themselves in debates about Bryant's stature among the all-time greats, like Michael Jordan and LeBron James.

"It's easy for me: Mike and Kobe," said Williams, who said he has a Bryant basketball on a stand underneath his television. "Nothing against LeBron. He's a great athlete. Kobe was a great basketball player."

Starks has made a similar argument to friends for years. "There was no weakness to Kobe's game," he said. "He was tough, the best player ever in the clutch, amazing footwork, played D, hit the 3, made his free throws, probably the best mid-range game since Jordan. And he did it beautifully. He was a basketball artist."

And yet, Bryant's legacy goes beyond his game; he advised, trained and inspired many athletes, many of whom were struck by his self-proclaimed "Mamba mentality" of relentless effort.

After he retired from the NBA in 2016, Bryant began to hit his stride away from the court. In 2018, he won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film for "Dear Basketball," which he wrote and voiced. That year he published "The Mamba Mentality: How I Play," going deep into the mechanics of his game.

"He impacted so many people just through his work ethic," Starks said. "Whether as an athlete or in business, he put his all into it. And he looked out for others who wanted to get better."

Brown said: "It's been a tough year, and when you think about it, it seemed to start after Kobe's helicopter crash. That was the first national tragedy of 2020. Then Covid-19 and George Floyd and on and on. And here we are a year later and still suffering and missing Kobe. And I guess that won't change for a while."

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