By RICHARD WINTON, DAN WOIKE, SONALI KOHLI, TANIA GANGULI, BEN POSTON Los Angeles Times - Los Angeles Times
Kobe Bryant, 41, the legendary basketball star who spent 20 years with the Lakers, was killed Sunday morning when the helicopter he was traveling in crashed amid foggy conditions and burst into flames in the hills above Calabasas.
His daughter Gianna, 13, was also on board, NBA authorities confirmed.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said nine people were on the copter — a pilot and eight passengers. He would not confirm who had died until all the next of kin have been notified, he said. The L.A. County coroner’s office said Sunday night that the recovery effort is expected to take several days because of the condition of the crash site and its remote location. Officials have shut down roads leading to the site because of a throng of visitors trying to get there.
The helicopter, a Sikorsky S-76B built in 1991, departed John Wayne Airport at 9:06 a.m. Sunday, according to publicly available flight records. The chopper passed over Boyle Heights, near Dodger Stadium, and circled over Glendale during the flight.
The crash occurred shortly before 10 a.m. near Las Virgenes Road and Willow Glen Street in Calabasas. Authorities received a 911 call at 9:47 a.m., and firefighters arrived to find that the crash had ignited a quarter-acre brush fire in steep terrain, said L.A. County Fire Chief Daryl Osby. Responders included 56 fire personnel — firefighters, a helicopter with paramedics, hand crews — and sheriff’s deputies.
“Our firefighters hiked into the accident site with their medical equipment and hose lines to extinguish the stubborn fire as it included the brush fire … and the helicopter,” Osby said during a news conference Sunday afternoon. “The fire also included magnesium, which is very hard for firefighters to extinguish because magnesium reacts with oxygen and water.”
The Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the crash. The FBI is also assisting in the probe, which is standard practice. The NTSB database does not show any prior incidents or accidents for the aircraft. The helicopter was registered to the Fillmore-based Island Express Holding Corp., according to the California secretary of state’s business database. The helicopter’s manufacturer, Sikorsky, said in a statement Sunday that it is cooperating with the investigation.
The fog was severe enough Sunday morning that the Los Angeles Police Department’s Air Support Division grounded its helicopters and didn’t fly until later in the afternoon, department spokesman Josh Rubenstein said.
“The weather situation did not meet our minimum standards for flying,” Rubenstein said. The fog “was enough that we were not flying.” LAPD’s flight minimums are 2 miles of visibility and an 800-foot cloud ceiling, he said.
The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department made a similar assessment about the fog and had no helicopters in the air Sunday morning “basically because of the weather,” Villanueva said.
Kurt Deetz, a former pilot for Island Express Helicopters who used to fly Bryant in the chopper, said weather conditions were poor in Van Nuys on Sunday morning — “not good at all.”
The crash was more likely caused by bad weather than engine or mechanical issues, he said. “The likelihood of a catastrophic twin engine failure on that aircraft — it just doesn’t happen,” he said.
Judging from a public record of the flight path and the wide debris field, Deetz said, it appears the helicopter was traveling very fast at the time of impact, about 160 mph. After a 40-minute flight, Deetz added, the craft would have had about 800 pounds of fuel on board. “That’s enough to start a pretty big fire,” he said.
The Los Angeles County coroner’s office is working on retrieving the bodies and has not officially identified any of the victims. But Orange Coast College confirmed that baseball coach John Altobelli was among the others who died in the crash. As a mentor and coach for 27 years, he helped students earn scholarships to play at four-year colleges and treated players like family, the school said in a statement.
“Coach Altobelli was a giant on our campus — a beloved teacher, coach, colleague and friend. This is a tremendous loss for our campus community,” OCC President Angelica Suarez said in a statement.
Altobelli’s wife, Keri Altobelli, and their 13-year-old daughter, Alyssa, who played on the club team with Bryant’s daughter, were also among the victims, according to his family.
Bryant was scheduled to coach Sunday in a game at his Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks and was en route there when the helicopter crashed. The tournament, called the Mamba Cup, featured boys’ and girls’ travel teams of from fourth through eighth grade.
Scores of flowers, a Lakers banner and a photo of Bryant on the cover of Sports Illustrated were left at a growing memorial outside the locked front doors of the academy.
Christina Mauser, Bryant’s top assistant coach on the travel basketball team, was also killed in the crash.
“My kids and I are devastated,” her husband, Matt Mauser, wrote on Facebook. “We lost our beautiful wife and mom today in a helicopter crash.”
Jerry Kocharian was standing outside the Church in the Canyon drinking coffee when he heard a helicopter that was flying unusually low and struggling.
“It [didn’t] sound right and it was real low. I saw it falling and spluttering. But it was hard to make out as it was so foggy,” Kocharian said. The helicopter vanished into a cloud of fog and then there was a boom.
“There was a big fireball,” he said. “No one could survive that.”
Across the country Sunday, public figures, former teammates and fans alike mourned the basketball star.
“Particularly when he was young, to be a part of his life and to watch his career grow, watch him grow, this is one of the most tragic days of my life,” said fellow Lakers legend Jerry West, 81.
West was the general manager for the Lakers in 1996 and maneuvered Bryant’s immediate trade to the Lakers when he was drafted.
“I know somewhere along the way I guess I’ll come to grips with it. But now I have all these different emotions regarding him. The things I watched him do on the basketball court, but more importantly … he was making a difference off the court. It’s so unexplainable. This is going to take a long time for me.”
“Kobe was a legend on the court and just getting started in what would have been just as meaningful a second act,” former President Obama tweeted. “To lose Gianna is even more heartbreaking to us as parents. Michelle and I send love and prayers to Vanessa and the entire Bryant family on an unthinkable day.”
It was a sad and surreal scene both in and out of Staples Center on Sunday, where a dress rehearsal for the Grammy Awards was taking place around noon. As word of Bryant’s death swept through the arena, crews worked quickly to move Bryant’s rafter jerseys side by side and masked the other retired jerseys with curtains. By 1 p.m., the switch had been made. No. 8 and No. 24 were side by side, illuminated by floodlights.
News of the crash dominated the rehearsal. Ariana Grande had just finished a lavish performance, and Billie Eilish was about to perform an acoustic song with her brother. But all eyes were on the jerseys at the other end of the floor, as staff and observers watched in disbelief.
Fans gathered across the city to mourn. Outside Staples Center and at L.A. Live, a sea of purple orchids and yellow chrysanthemums formed. Among the crowd packed along the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a pattern emerged: purple and yellow and white; 24 and 8 on people’s chests; “BRYANT” emblazoned across their backs.
At the intersection of Hollywood and Highland in Hollywood, a dance crew asked people in the crowd to yell out where they were visiting from — Argentina, Korea, India. “I love you, Black Mamba!” one man shouted.
The ones who couldn’t get to L.A. landmarks mourned online. Some left basketballs outside their homes and posted photos on social media, offering Kobe and Gianna a ball in case they want to play a pickup game in heaven.
If you need a ball for a pickup game in heaven, I left one out for you tonight. — CaMeRoN (@rice_cameron) January 27, 2020
On Sunday evening, it was impossible to ignore the city’s heartbreak. Television screens in the Los Angeles International Airport terminal bars were playing footage of the news as travelers paused to stare. Outside, the airport’s pillars were lit up in Lakers purple and gold in honor of Bryant. Downtown, the U.S. Bank Tower shone in the same colors, blocks from Staples Center.
Within half an hour of the news breaking, a Barnes & Noble store in Orange had sold out of all photo books featuring Bryant.
“It’s kind of morose, but people just came in 10 or 15 minutes after we found out about it, “ said Armando Romero, a bookseller at the cash register. He said his general manager announced Bryant’s death to the employees over their wireless headsets. “We knew right away people would be coming.”
Minutes later, Romero said, he received phone calls from customers, asking to put Bryant-related books on hold.
At the Fullerton Mexican restaurant El Camino Real, the staff was “really sad,” said manager Rodolfo Garcia. Bryant patronized the restaurant for 20 years with his wife, a Fullerton native. If he couldn’t come in person, Bryant would have friends get big orders to take back to his Newport Coast home.
“He liked the carnitas and flan,” Garcia said, over the thud of a butcher breaking down carne asada for tacos. “He loved this place because people treated him like a normal person. Kobe would just stand in line, like anyone else. He’d tell us, ‘Don’t treat me like a star; I’m just a customer here.’”
Bryant was born in Philadelphia. His father, Joe, played eight seasons in the 1970s and ’80s for the Philadelphia 76ers, San Diego Clippers and, in his last stop, the Houston Rockets under then-coach Del Harris. A lighthearted, 6-foot-10 stringbean who went by his Philadelphia playground nickname, Jellybean, Joe Bryant played college ball at La Salle and married Pam Cox, the sister of a starting guard at Villanova. They named their first son Kobe, after the city in Japan.
Bryant excelled at Lower Merion High in Ardmore, Pa., near Philadelphia, winning numerous national awards as a senior before announcing his intention to skip college and enter the NBA draft. He was selected 13th overall by Charlotte in 1996, but the Lakers had already worked out a deal with the Hornets to acquire Bryant before his selection.
Bryant impressed Lakers general manager Jerry West during a pre-draft workout session in Los Angeles. Less than three weeks later, the Lakers traded starting center Vlade Divac to the Hornets in exchange for Bryant’s rights. Bryant, whose favorite team growing up was the Lakers, had to have his parents co-sign his NBA contract because he was 17 years old.
The 6-foot-6 guard made his pro debut in the 1996-97 season opener against Minnesota; at the time he was the youngest player to appear in an NBA game. He started in only a handful of games during his rookie season, coming off the bench in support of Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones. However, Harris played him more as the season progressed, allowing Bryant to showcase his skills, which were on display when he won the 1997 NBA slam dunk competition.
Bryant continued to improve during his sophomore season in the league, averaging 15.4 points per game. But his breakout came in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season when he started in all 50 games after the Lakers traded away Van Exel and Jones.
Bryant and leading scorer Shaquille O’Neal quickly morphed into one of the most lethal scoring and defensive combinations in the league. Together, with coach Phil Jackson guiding them, they led the Lakers to three consecutive championships (2000-02) as Bryant began to cement his place as the game’s top player.
“There’s no words to express the pain I’m going through with this tragedy of loosing my neice Gigi & my brother,” O’Neal tweeted Sunday. “I love u and u will be missed. My condolences goes out to the Bryant family and the families of the other passengers on board. IM SICK RIGHT NOW.”
Despite coming together to win some of the most closely fought playoff series in Lakers history, friction started to develop between Bryant and O’Neal. Tension between the two stars continued to build during the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons as the Lakers failed to capitalize on their status as top contenders for the NBA title. Making matters worse, Bryant was arrested in July 2003 on allegations of sexual assault.
The charges were eventually dropped, but Bryant’s reputation took a hit and he settled a civil lawsuit with the accuser. In exchange for not testifying in the criminal case, the accuser negotiated an apology letter from Bryant that read, in part, “Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual … I now understand how she sincerely feels that she did not consent.”
After the Lakers lost to Detroit in the NBA Finals with a star-studded team that included Karl Malone and Gary Payton, O’Neal was traded to Miami and Jackson’s coaching contract was not renewed. As the team’s undisputed leader, Bryant signed a seven-year contract to remain with the team.
Bryant summed up the tensions between him and O’Neal after the Lakers won the NBA title in 2009: “We’re great as individuals, but … it’s probably the first dynamic duo that had two alpha males on one team. We managed to make it work for three championships.”
Bryant posted some of the best offensive numbers of his career over the next three seasons, but the team struggled, failing to make the playoffs in 2005 before suffering consecutive first-round defeats to Phoenix in 2006 and 2007. Jackson returned to the team for the 2005-06 season, and Bryant went on to lead the league in scoring that season with a career-best 35.4 average. He scored 40 points or more in 27 games and became the first player since Wilt Chamberlain in 1964 to finish with 45 points or more in four consecutive games.
His biggest single-game achievement came Jan. 22, 2006, against Toronto when he scored a career-high 81 points, the second most in NBA history. Earlier that season, on Dec. 20, 2005, he scored 62 points in 33 minutes through three quarters of a game against Dallas; he had outscored the entire Mavericks team, 62-61, entering the final quarter, in which Bryant did not play. Bryant continued to impress during the 2006-07 season, scoring 50 or more points in a team-record 10 games and averaging 31.6 points a game to capture his second NBA scoring title.
Laker legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was at that game, he said in a Twitter video Sunday. “It is something that I will always remember as one of the highlights of the things that I have learned and observed in sports.”
“He was an incredible athlete and a leader in a lot of ways. He inspired a whole generation of young athletes. He was one of the first ones to leave high school and come into the NBA and do so well, dominating the game and becoming one of the best scorers that the Los Angeles Lakers has ever seen,” Abdul-Jabbar said.
“He is the No. 1 player in the league, by far,” Washington guard Gilbert Arenas said in 2006. “With a player like him, he just wants that challenge. He’s just that fierce competitor. He doesn’t want to get out-showed. He’s the one who everybody’s afraid of.”
Bryant’s 2007-08 NBA MVP season got off to a tumultuous start after he reportedly demanded to be traded. He was reportedly unhappy with Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak and Jackson. “I would like to be traded,” Bryant said during a radio interview. “Tough as it is to come to that conclusion, there’s no other alternative. It’s rough, man, but I don’t see how you can rebuild that trust. I just don’t know how you can move forward in that type of situation.”
Bryant eventually backtracked on his trade demands and posted perhaps his best all-around season, leading a team re-energized by Pau Gasol’s arrival from Memphis in February 2008 to a first-place finish in the Western Conference. The Lakers embarked on a memorable playoff run before losing to Boston in the Finals. Later that year, Bryant went on to win a gold medal with the U.S. team at the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing.
With Bryant pleased about the direction the team was heading, he guided the Lakers to back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010. He was named the NBA Finals MVP both years as the team once again ascended to the top of the NBA.
Ongoing soreness in Bryant’s knee and ankle coupled with the team’s heavy reliance in him played a role in the Lakers’ championship run coming to an end in 2011. Bryant posted his lowest points per game totals since the 2003-04 season as he dealt with the aftereffects of offseason arthroscopic knee surgery. He went on to win his fourth NBA All-Star Game most-valuable-player award but fell short of his ultimate goal of winning a sixth NBA title. Bryant also became the youngest player in NBA history to amass 27,000 career points.
Bryant finished third in league scoring in 2011-12 despite dealing with ongoing knee and ankle issues. In January 2012, he scored at least 40 points in four consecutive games, which included a 48-point effort against the Phoenix Suns.
Following the team’s acquisition of Dwight Howard in August 2012, the Lakers were regarded as a favorite for the NBA title. However, friction between Bryant and Howard started to develop as the team struggled. Despite this, Bryant led the NBA in scoring for much of the first half of the season and surpassed Chamberlain for fourth all-time in league scoring. But Bryant’s season came to a disappointing end when he suffered a torn Achilles tendon against the Golden State Warriors on April 10. The injury and subsequent surgery prevented Bryant from playing in the early portion of the 2013-14 season.
Bryant, who signed a two-year, $48.5-million contract extension with the Lakers before the start of the 2013-14 season, did not return from injury until December. He played in only six games before suffering a lateral tibial plateau fracture in his left knee. The injury forced him to miss the remainder of the season as the Lakers limped to a 27-55 record, missing the playoffs for only the second time since Bryant joined the franchise.
He retired from the NBA but began a new career in Hollywood.
In 2018, he won an Oscar along with director Glen Keane for the animated short film “Dear Basketball.”
Just Saturday night, Laker LeBron James passed Bryant for third on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.
Allen Kenitzer, an FAA spokesman, said his agency and the National Transportation Safety Board were investigating the helicopter crash.
“Kobe Bryant was a giant who inspired, amazed, and thrilled people everywhere with his incomparable skill on the court — and awed us with his intellect and humility as a father, husband, creative genius, and ambassador for the game he loved,” L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a news statement Sunday afternoon. “He will live forever in the heart of Los Angeles, and will be remembered through the ages as one of our greatest heroes.”
Times staff writers Paul Pringle, Gale Holland, Marisa Gerber, Nathan Fenno, David Carrillo, Michael DiGiovanna, Matthew Ormsth, Priscilla Vega, Chris Erskine, Alex Wigglesworth, Broderick Turner, Cindy Carcamo and Gustavo Arellano contributed to this report.
©2020 Los Angeles Times