Kobe Bryant, former NBA star and Los Angeles Lakers legend, dies at 41

The basketball legend's unexpected death rippled across the sports world and beyond. On the court, he helped the Lakers win five NBA championships.
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By Erik Ortiz

Retired Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant, who authorities say was killed Sunday in a helicopter crash near Los Angeles, is being remembered as a five-time NBA champion who powered a franchise into a dominant dynasty and thrilled fans as one of the greatest basketball players of his generation.

Bryant, 41, was killed along with one of his daughters, Gianna, 13, Calabasas City Council member David Shapiro said. Seven other people also died, authorities said.

Bryant's death sent shock waves across the sports world and beyond, blindsiding current and former NBA players who were confronted with the enormous and unexpected loss of a titan of the sport.

"He inspired a whole generation of young athletes," Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the legendary Laker, said in an emotional video posted on Twitter.

"I had the privilege of being there when he scored his 81-point game, and it's something I'll always remember," Abdul-Jabbar said, adding, "Rest in peace, young man. This loss is just hard to comprehend."

Kobe Bryant, then age 17, holds his Los Angeles Lakers jersey during a news conference in Inglewood, California, in July 1996.Susan Sterner / AP file

Bryant had basketball in his blood: He was born in Philadelphia to Joe "Jellybean" Bryant, a former NBA forward and coach of many teams around the world, and Pam Fox, the sister of former NBA player John "Chubby" Cox. He became one of the NBA's most prolific scorers, playing his entire 20-year career with the Lakers after he entered the league straight out of high school in 1996 — a choice that would become a trend among other phenoms. His time on the court was marked by scoring records that also came with criticism that he was being selfish with the ball and hogged the spotlight from his teammates.

Bryant had given himself the nickname The Black Mamba, which he described in the 2015 Showtime documentary "Kobe Bryant's Muse" as his way to help him cope after dealing with struggles off the court in 2003 and 2004, including an allegation of sexual assault.

As a shooting guard, he helped the Lakers win championships after the 2000, 2001, 2002, 2009 and 2010 seasons — cementing his status in the pantheon of franchise legends, alongside Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Magic Johnson. Johnson had been his boyhood idol.

In 2006, at age 27, Bryant scored an amazing 81 points in a single game against the Toronto Raptors. Two years later, he won the league's Most Valuable Player award, calling the trophy a blessing at the time.

"It's Hollywood. It's a movie script," he said of his achievement.

At 34, Bryant became the youngest player in NBA history to score 30,000 career points, edging other scoring greats such as Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, Karl Malone and Michael Jordan.

He is the fourth-highest scorer of all time; on Saturday, LeBron James, who plays for the Lakers and had been an adversary of Bryant's, surpassed him for third.

It was an accomplishment that didn't go unnoticed by Bryant on social media.

Former NBA star Shaquille O'Neal, who won three championships with Bryant during his time with the Lakers, tweeted Sunday that "there's no words to express the pain Im going through with this tragedy of loosing [sic] my neice [sic] Gigi & my brother @kobebryant I love u and u will be missed."

Although O'Neal and Bryant were teammates, they also carried on one of the great feuds in the sport. Bryant had complained that O'Neal lacked the work ethic to win more championship rings, and O'Neal grumbled about his diminishing role on the team. Their on-again, off-again relationship culminated with O'Neal asking to be traded to the Miami Heat in the summer of 2004.

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In a 2015 interview with Bryant, GQ magazine described the pair's complex relationship.

Bryant told GQ that when he and O'Neal played together, "the perception was that Kobe was trying to break up the team."

"That was wrong," he said. "I am a maniacal worker, and if you're not working as hard as I am, I am going to let you know about it. That's why Shaq and I still have a good relationship: He knows I have zero fear of him. I would tell him what he was doing and what he wasn't doing. And vice versa."

Former Lakers coach Phil Jackson wrote about the rivalry and his difficulties with Bryant in his 2004 tell-all book, "The Last Season: A Team in Search of Its Soul." Jackson wrote that Bryant was uncoachable and that his star player wanted more freedom, while Jackson believed he needed discipline.

Jackson said in subsequent interviews that he had learned to communicate better with Bryant in his last few seasons coaching the Lakers, although the pair's relationship was strained.

Kobe Bryant, Lindsey Hunter and Shaquille O'Neal of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrate after winning the NBA championship against the New Jersey Nets in East Rutherford, New Jersey, in June 2002.The Sporting News / via Getty Images file

"I've always seen Kobe as a truly great player, an intelligent guy and a remarkable person," Jackson told ESPN in 2015.

Jackson was at the helm when Bryant was embroiled in controversy off the court: A 19-year-old hotel desk clerk in Colorado accused him of raping her in 2003.

The charges were dropped after the woman declined to testify in 2004, and a civil suit was later settled. Bryant, who married Vanessa Laine in 2001, also admitted to a consensual affair but denied the allegation of assault.

"I had to separate myself," Kobe said in his Showtime documentary. "It felt like there were so many things coming at once. It was just becoming very, very confusing. I had to organize things. So I created The Black Mamba."

Bryant hung up his two jersey numbers — 8 and 24 — for good after the 2015-16 season. His retirement had been widely anticipated after he suffered a devastating Achilles tendon injury. But even in his final game as an NBA player, he sunk 60 points against the Utah Jazz — proving The Black Mamba could still shoot.

Bryant earned hundreds of millions of dollars in endorsements during his time in the NBA, and his post-hoops career continued by intersecting sports with business, including opening a youth training facility, the Mamba Sports Academy in California, to give other young athletes a place to be nurtured.

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In 2018, Bryant surprised even himself when he won an Academy Award as executive producer of the year's best animated short film, "Dear Basketball: The Legend of Kobe Bryant," which was loosely based on his retirement letter.

It was yet another accolade for a man whose stellar career included selection to 18 NBA All-Star teams and winning two Olympic gold medals in men's basketball, in 2008 and 2012.

"I don't know if it's possible," Bryant said upon his Oscars win. "I mean, as basketball players, we are really supposed to shut up and dribble. But I am glad we do a little bit more than that."

Bryant is survived by his wife and three other daughters.