How Kobe Bryant’s sudden death is first of its kind in a wireless world

Monte Poole | NBC SPORTS

Most of us with an early love of sport were drawn to a particular athlete who touched us and became our first favorite. For me, that was Roberto Clemente.

Baseball was my first sports passion, inherited from my mother, who told stories of her youth in Louisiana, where several relatives were good enough to play in the Negro Leagues — the only one available to them — and make a buck while entertaining locals.

Growing up in Oakland, baseball meant choosing between the Giants and the A’s. I liked both, really, with a slight edge to the A’s. No one on either team captured my attention as Clemente did, even though he played for the Pittsburgh Pirates, 2,500 miles away.

He captured my attention with his style and performance, and he maintained it with his intensity, which burned through the TV screen. He was fierce and clutch. Playing the game as if obsessed with getting all he could from it before it was taken away, he left no room to question how much it meant to him.

I pleaded for and received a Clemente bat, with the distinctive thick handle, and tried imitating his violent swing. I wanted a Clemente glove, which I did not get. Through it all, I read every page of every newspaper article or book that I could find. I still remember one sportswriter’s description of Clemente’s skin as “so tight it barely fits.”

So, when the news came on Dec. 31, 1972 that Clemente had been on a plane that dived into the Atlantic Ocean and was lost at sea, my naïve mind somehow imagined he could survive. That he would swim ashore. Not until a few days later, when reality set in, did I weep, along with all of baseball.

I later learned a few things. One, that Puerto Rico, as a nation, went from frantic to distraught. That day after day, for weeks, people would line up along shore to watch scuba divers scour the ocean. That one of Clemente’s teammates, catcher Manny Sanguillen was so hysterical that for three days he insisted on joining recovery efforts that never recovered Clemente’s remains.

I also learned that Clemente had, over a period of years, told numerous people he would die young. He was 38.

There was Hall of Famer Tracy McGrady on Monday, trying and failing to suppress his sobbing, saying Kobe Bryant had talked of dying young. He wanted to be immortalized.

Kobe was 41.

Died in an air disaster.

Was there ever any room to wonder how much competing meant to Kobe?

But 47 years later, the world is much different. Technology has made it a much closer place. Whereas Clemente’s sudden death hit specific areas exceedingly hard, Kobe’s death is the first of a superstar athlete dying, while still vibrant, in our wireless world.

It is that component that makes the sadness so massive. It is Day 4 and we still are reeling. All of us, to varying degrees. Businesses unaffiliated with sports are sending emails to employees notifying them of Kobe Remembrance days.

Have we ever seen so many men, from so many walks of life, shedding tears? Droplets streaming down the face of 7-foot-1, 350-pound Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe’s teammate with the Lakers for eight seasons. Jerry West, a certified legend and the man who ensured Kobe would be a Laker, blubbering “I don’t know if I can get over this.”

Players, coaches and fans wiping tears, a lump in every throat. Every pocket of the planet is shaken, every continent grieving. Never have so many sneakers been scribbled on, so many No. 8s and No. 24s gracing jerseys across so many sports. So many moments of silence in so many gyms. Kobe jerseys are being worn in China, in Europe, in Brazil, in Canada, even in Boston and Sacramento. Probably in Russia and certainly in Italy.

Nike, the largest athletic wear company on earth, has been raided of its Kobe apparel. All out. Orders must wait.

Kobe was known to billions. And the first favorite for millions.

The games go on, as Kobe would have demanded. The Warriors and 76ers played Tuesday night in Philadelphia, a few miles from where he was born.

Joel Embiid, who normally wears No. 21, asked permission to wear No. 24, which is retired as the number worn by Sixers legend Bobby Jones. Jones gave his OK. Embiid, who had not played in three weeks, scored 24 points and grabbed eight rebounds. Those numbers. Again.

“That was cool,” Embiid told reporters in Philadelphia. “I didn’t know it was actually 24 points as I shot that fadeaway. That was what he was about. I actually yelled, ‘Kobe!’ A lot of us, since I started playing basketball, that’s how we’ve always done it. You shoot something in the trash and you just go ‘Kobe!’ so that was cool.”

The shock is fading ever so slightly, giving way to heartfelt remembrances and testimonials, a futile effort to breathe life into a perished legend.

“A few days out, we’re able to reflect a little bit and think about Kobe’s career and his life,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.

“The reality that Kobe has passed gets a little bit more, for me, real,” 76ers coach Brett Brown said. “It’s final and the impact that he has had on our game … really, it’s been interesting for me to see the connection that the basketball fraternity has, in an incredibly sad way, been forced to make. Everybody reaches out and there is a connection that you feel as a basketball world.

“It’s deeper than the NBA.”

Thousands continue to wander, at all hours, the area of downtown Los Angeles near Staples Center. They’re bringing flowers. They’re writing messages. They’re hugging. They’re crying. They’re staring at images of Kobe.

Los Angeles and the world in January 2020 are aching, just as my little corner of Oakland, along with all of Pittsburgh and Puerto Rico, were in January 1973.

Warriors’ Steve Kerr shares one amazingly hilarious memory of Kobe Bryant that stands out

Drew Shiller | NBC SPORTS

Warriors coach Steve Kerr played and coached against Kobe Bryant.

He also broadcasted a ton of his games.

So is there one specific memory or moment or image of the late NBA legend that stands out the most?

“I’ve been asked a few times the last couple of days what’s my memory of Kobe and it’s similar to saying, ‘What’s your memory of Michael?’ And the point with those guys is that there is no one memory because they were putting on a show every single night,” Kerr recently explained to ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt on the “SVPod” podcast. “It’s what made them special.

“But I do have a memory of Kobe in the (2010) West finals when I was the general manager in Phoenix. Lakers were up (three-games-to-two) and we came back to Phoenix for Game 6. We had a lead most of the game, and Kobe hit a series of impossible shots right in front of the Phoenix bench that completely turned the game.

“And on a couple of them, Kobe literally fell back into the bench and he slapped (Suns coach) Alvin Gentry’s behind twice. And Alvin just shook his head. All you could do is marvel and smile. Anybody else, Alvin would have been ready to fight. But at that point, you just tip your cap. That game always stands out.”

Kobe finished that game with 37 points, and Kerr wasn’t lying about the five-time NBA champion slapping Gentry:

He averaged 33.7 points, 8.3 assists and 7.2 rebounds that series against Phoenix while shooting 52 percent overall and 43.2 percent from deep.

Just incredible.

Kawhi Leonard uncertain on future helicopter use after Kobe Bryant crash

Ryan Young | Yahoo Sports

Kawhi Leonard had nothing but good things to say about the helicopter pilot who was flying Kobe Bryant and seven others on Sunday morning when it crashed just outside of Los Angeles.

The pilot, Ara Zobayan, was also Leonard’s personal pilot.

“Flown with him a lot. Great guy, super nice. He was one of their best pilots,” Leonard said Wednesday, via Andrew Greif of the Los Angeles Times. “That’s a guy who you ask for to fly you from city to city.

“It’s just surreal still for me. He’ll drop me off and say he’s about to go pick up Kobe … He’ll just be like, ‘I just dropped Kobe off, he said, ‘Hello,’’ and vice versa. It’s just a crazy interaction. He’s a good dude. I’m sorry for everybody.”

Zobayan — an experienced pilot and certified flight instructor with more than 8,000 hours of flight time under his belt — was among those killed in the tragic accident that killed Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna. The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the crash, though heavy fog and low visibility in the area are believed to be the major factors.

Leonard, after deciding to join the Los Angeles Clippers last summer and return to his hometown, talked with Bryant about traveling around Southern California and his helicopter use. Bryant told him he had been flying around the city “for about 17 years or so.”

While Leonard does have a home near the Staples Center in Los Angeles, he frequently travels down to San Diego to stay at his property there — and used a helicopter to do so.

In the wake of the tragedy, however, Leonard isn’t sure if he’ll continue flying back and forth.

“I mean, the things that you hear, you don’t know what’s real yet,” Leonard said, via the Los Angeles Times. “I can’t really speak on it. I don’t know. I don’t know yet. It’s a lot of thoughts in my head.”

Vanessa Bryant: ‘There aren’t enough words to describe our pain right now’

ESPN

In her first public comments since the death of husband Kobe and daughter Gianna on Sunday, Vanessa Bryant thanked the millions of fans who have shown support during what she called a “horrific” time.

She also announced the formation of a fund to help support the other families that were affected by the crash.

“There aren’t enough words to describe our pain right now,” Bryant wrote in an Instagram post accompanied by a picture of the entire family. “I take comfort in knowing that Kobe and Gigi both knew that they were so deeply loved. We were so incredibly blessed to have them in our lives. I wish they were here with us forever. They were our beautiful blessings taken from us too soon.”

View this post on Instagram

My girls and I want to thank the millions of people who’ve shown support and love during this horrific time. Thank you for all the prayers. We definitely need them. We are completely devastated by the sudden loss of my adoring husband, Kobe — the amazing father of our children; and my beautiful, sweet Gianna — a loving, thoughtful, and wonderful daughter, and amazing sister to Natalia, Bianka, and Capri. We are also devastated for the families who lost their loved ones on Sunday, and we share in their grief intimately. There aren’t enough words to describe our pain right now. I take comfort in knowing that Kobe and Gigi both knew that they were so deeply loved. We were so incredibly blessed to have them in our lives. I wish they were here with us forever. They were our beautiful blessings taken from us too soon. I’m not sure what our lives hold beyond today, and it’s impossible to imagine life without them. But we wake up each day, trying to keep pushing because Kobe, and our baby girl, Gigi, are shining on us to light the way. Our love for them is endless — and that’s to say, immeasurable. I just wish I could hug them, kiss them and bless them. Have them here with us, forever. Thank you for sharing your joy, your grief and your support with us. We ask that you grant us the respect and privacy we will need to navigate this new reality. To honor our Team Mamba family, the Mamba Sports Foundation has set up the MambaOnThree Fund to help support the other families affected by this tragedy. To donate, please go to MambaOnThree.org. To further Kobe and Gianna’s legacy in youth sports, please visit MambaSportsFoundation.org. Thank you so much for lifting us up in your prayers, and for loving Kobe, Gigi, Natalia, Bianka, Capri and me. #Mamba #Mambacita #GirlsDad #DaddysGirls #Family ❤️

A post shared by Vanessa Bryant 🦋 (@vanessabryant) on

Kobe and Gianna, 13, died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, on Sunday. They were among nine victims in the crash, which remains under investigation.

Kobe and Vanessa married in 2001, and they had four daughters together. Their oldest, Natalia, is 17, and their youngest, Capri, is 7 months old. They also have a 3-year-old, Bianka.

“I’m not sure what our lives hold beyond today, and it’s impossible to imagine life without them,” Bryant said as part of the post. “But we wake up each day, trying to keep pushing because Kobe, and our baby girl, Gigi, are shining on us to light the way. Our love for them is endless — and that’s to say, immeasurable. I just wish I could hug them, kiss them and bless them. Have them here with us, forever.”

Shaqille O’Neal and Jerry West share emotional memories and feelings about Kobe Bryant

Shaq revealed that the last time he spoke to Bryant was right before his legendary, 60-point final game.

“The last time I talked to him was when I asked him to get 50 and he got 60. That’s the last time I spoke to him,” he said.

He lamented that he didn’t just pick up the phone more often.

“I wish I could say one last thing to the people that we lost,” Shaq said. “Because once you’re gone, you’re gone forever – and so we should never take stuff like that for granted…”

“Honestly, I felt like his father for two years… I don’t know if I can get over this — I really don’t…” — Jerry West