LOS ANGELES, US (AFP) – Basketball legend Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash along with his teenage daughter sparked an outpouring of grief across the worlds of sports and entertainment on Monday.
Bryant, 41, was traveling Sunday with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven other passengers and crew when their helicopter slammed into a rugged hillside in thick fog in Calabasas, west of Los Angeles. There were no survivors.
A five-time NBA champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist, Bryant is widely regarded as one of the greatest basketball players in history.
He was an iconic figure who became one of the faces of his sport during a glittering two-decade career with the Los Angeles Lakers.
All-time basketball great Michael Jordan said Bryant was “like a little brother” to him.
“Words can’t describe the pain I’m feeling,” the former Chicago Bulls star said. “We used to talk often and I will miss those conversations very much.”
Dozens of firefighters and paramedics battled across hilly terrain to reach the flaming wreckage of the Sikorsky S-76 but found no survivors, officials said.
Fans and mourners descended on the area but police warned people to stay away.
“As you can imagine, it’s a logistical nightmare in a sense because the crash site itself is not easily accessible,” Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva told reporters.
The National Transportation Safety Board said an 18-strong team of investigators would be sent to California to probe the crash.
– Worldwide tributes –
Tributes to Bryant flooded in from former US presidents, pop stars and athletes from different sports, a sign of how the man known as the “Black Mamba” had transcended basketball.
“Kobe was a legend on the court and just getting started in what would have been just as meaningful a second act,” Barack Obama tweeted.
“Laker Nation, the game of basketball & our city, will never be the same without Kobe,” former Los Angeles Lakers star Magic Johnson tweeted.
American football star Tom Brady wrote simply: “We miss you already Kobe.”
At the Australian Open, Australian tennis player Nick Kyrgios wore a Lakers jersey before he took on Rafael Nadal.
At the Staples Center in Los Angeles, crowds of shocked fans gathered to pay tribute as the venue which witnessed many of Bryant’s career highlights hosted the music industry’s Grammy Awards.
Hundreds, many wearing purple and gold Lakers shirts, placed flowers and candles at a makeshift memorial for their hero.
“This dude is everything to me man. It makes no sense,” said distraught Lakers fan Bobby Jimenez.
Singer Alicia Keys paid a somber tribute at the Grammys.
“To be honest with you, we’re all feeling crazy sadness right now,” Keys told the audience. “Los Angeles, America and the whole wide world lost a hero. And we’re literally standing here heartbroken in the house that Kobe Bryant built.”
Across the NBA, tributes were held at several of the eight games played Sunday.
Denver Nuggets fans began chants of “Kobe, Kobe” as a minute’s silence was held before their game against the Houston Rockets.
In New York, Madison Square Garden was lit up in purple and gold alongside a giant image of Bryant captioned: “Kobe Bryant, 1978-2020.”
The crash came only hours after Bryant was passed by current Lakers star LeBron James for third on the all-time NBA scoring list in a Saturday game at Philadelphia.
Bryant’s final post on social media had been a tweet congratulating James.
“Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames,” Bryant wrote. “Much respect my brother #33644.”
– Five-time champion –
Bryant was a five-time NBA champion in a career that began in 1996 straight out of a high school and lasted until his retirement in 2016.
He also was a two-time Olympic gold medalist, helping spark the US squad of NBA stars to titles in 2008 in Beijing and 2012 in London.
Bryant bowed out of the NBA in 2016, scoring 60 points in a fairytale farewell appearance at the Staples Center.
The son of former NBA player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, the Lakers legend was born in Philadelphia while his father played for the 76ers.
The elder Bryant played from 1984 to 1991 in Italy, giving young Kobe a global worldview as he grew up dreaming of following his dad into the NBA.
He would eventually join the ranks of professionals at the age of 17, jumping directly into the NBA, only the sixth player to make such a leap.
At 18, Bryant became, at the time, the youngest player or starter in an NBA game and the youngest winner of the NBA Slam Dunk Contest.
With Bryant paired alongside Shaquille O’Neal, the Lakers captured three NBA crowns in a row from 2000-2002, returning the team to glory days unseen since 1988.
Bryant’s career was almost derailed in 2003 when he was arrested in Colorado over a sexual assault complaint filed by a 19-year-old hotel employee where Bryant was staying ahead of knee surgery.
Bryant was accused of rape. He admitted to adultery but said he did not commit rape. The case was dropped in 2004 after the accuser refused to testify in a trial.
A separate civil suit was settled under terms kept private.
After his playing career, Bryant successfully branched out into the entertainment industry.
In 2018, he won an Oscar for his animated short film “Dear Basketball”, a love letter to the sport which brought him fame and fortune.