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You hear it and your first thought is it cannot be true. It just can’t. Hoax. Cruel joke. Awful mistake. Unconfirmed. Something will come out to make it not real.
It was real, and the NBA and all of sports mourns. The news hit Los Angeles like an earthquake on Sunday but Kobe Bryant was bigger than any one city. He was one of the most iconic, electric stars of all time, any sport, any time. His first name was all you needed.
And that awful past tense — was, instantly turning a man into a memory — just doesn’t feel right.
Bryant died Sunday in a private helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, TMZ Sports first reported at 2:24 p.m. Eastern time. Four others were confirmed dead as well, including 13-year-old daughter Gianna. Other reports indicated nine were dead, with no survivors. Victims reportedly did not include wife Vanessa Bryant or their three other girls, Natalie, Bianka and infant Capri.
We use the word tragedy too freely in sports, applying it to knee injuries and big losses. This is a tragedy.
The crash, its cause being investigated, happened in L.A. County, in hills west of the San Fernando Valley. Bryant, his daughter and the others, still unidentified, were headed to Mamba Academy in Thousand Oaks for a basketball practice.
Bryant was 41, in his fourth year of retirement after a stellar 20-year Lakers career that included 18 all-star appearances, five NBA championships, a league MVP trophy and two NBA Finals MVPs.
Any conversation about the greatest basketball players of all time had to have included Kobe. Just Saturday, LeBron James passed Bryant for third on the all-time scoring list. Kobe tweeted his congratulations: “Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother.”
Bryant would perish the next day. The former player had been known to prefer private helicopter travel dating to his Lakers days. The chopper, a Sikorsky S-76 reportedly was his.
Shock and condolences poured forth across the NBA and the sports world. The tragedy surely will hang over the league as it pauses for its upcoming all-star break.
Miami Heat president Pat Riley, Sunday night: “Kobe Bryant was a Godsend to this world. Not just to the NBA, but to all those who hold dear and cherish family, friends and faith. Today I mourn the tremendous loss of Kobe, his daughter Gianna, and the other passengers.”
Bryant, like most, was not perfect. A 2003 scandal involved his arrest for alleged sexual assault. Bryant admitted to an adulterous encounter but not the assault, and the case later was dropped.
To most, to NBA history, the scandal does little to diminish the Hall of Fame career of a champion who stands as one of the most colorful and prolific scorers the game has known.
The news was the most unexpected and gut-wrenching I had heard regarding a sports star since the morning of September 25, 2016, when South Florida awakened to the news Miami Marlins star pitcher Jose Fernandez had been killed in a boating accident.
Fernandez was an active player in his prime. Bryant was retired but a much bigger star nationally. Do not parse grief, though. Tragedy is tragedy.
And this hurts, reminding us, again, of the capriciousness of life, and how fate is not impressed by wealth or celebrity, and plays no favorites.
Rest in peace, Kobe Bryant.
You were just a man, fallible like all of us, but with the rarest of gifts.
Your name is immortal.