It’s been a year since Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others died in a helicopter crash. The Crossover staff reflects on the day and his legacy.
Where were you when you found out the news about Kobe’s death last year? What was your reaction?
Howard Beck: I was at home, scrolling Twitter, when the TMZ report popped into my timeline. Two thoughts simultaneously hit me: This cannot possibly be true. TMZ is rarely wrong on something this big. But it had to be wrong, I thought. A hoax. A cruel prank. A mistake. Maybe another Kobe Bryant? So I refreshed, and I scrolled, and I waited for clarity, hoping a major news outlet would debunk the report. Maybe 30 minutes passed before the L.A. Times confirmed it. That’s when it truly hit me. I gasped, my throat got tight, my chest ached. I sat down. And I broke down.
Michael Rosenberg: I was home. My wife, Erin, saw the news first. She gasped and said that Kobe Bryant had died. My first thought was that it was a helicopter crash, which seems weird; who guesses accurately about a cause of sudden death like that? At the time I figured that my mind went to the helicopter simply because we all knew Bryant traveled via helicopter, and helicopters and small planes always seem risky to me. But over time, I realized it said something about how I viewed Bryant. It was hard to imagine him succumbing to illness or even a car accident; he seemed indomitable, and his whole life was about doing things his way and doing them full tilt.
Rohan Nadkarni: I was driving down Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles when I first heard the news about Kobe via phone call. My very initial reaction was that it couldn't be true. I remember I just kept wishing that somehow TMZ had made an egregious mistake and that everything would go back to normal. Kobe’s presence always loomed large in Los Angeles. He had been at Staples Center not even a month earlier to watch the Lakers take on the Mavericks. I was expecting to hear or see more from him soon after LeBron passed him on the all-time scoring list. I don't even remember the exact moment it dawned on me his death was real, only that I kept staring at my phone waiting for the news to be some kind of misunderstanding.
Jeremy Woo: I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but I know I was at home watching college basketball and remember looking at my phone and just doing a triple take to figure out what I had read. Obviously, it was pretty shocking. Piecing together the situation was pretty surreal. For me, growing up in Chicago proper I think there was a level of indifference toward the Lakers, so relatively speaking, Kobe’s death didn’t shake me emotionally in the way I know it did for so many others. But it was definitely a hard reality check, knowing that he was so young and still such a present figure across basketball. There are only so many genuine what the f--- moments we experience, and this was so out of nowhere that it felt like one of them. I hate to ascribe extra weight to deaths like these from my own perspective, but the scope and reach of Kobe’s impact—and the sheer tragedy—really made this a strange thing for everyone to grapple with, not just for basketball fans.
Chris Mannix: I was at an airport when the TMZ story hit Twitter, and instantly you hope that it's a mistake. What I vividly remember is how word started to spread in the terminal through social media. People staring at their phones, sharing the information with people nearby. This was in Boston. Bryant was a figure who transcended the typical sports fan; his death resonated with everyone.
Michael Pina: I was sitting in my living room and received a text from a close friend that just said “Kobe??” I went to Twitter and just sat there silently scrolling through my phone in total disbelief. Along with millions all over the world, I felt a deep sadness for his family and everyone who was personally impacted by the tragic loss of life that morning. I remember choosing not to attend a game at Madison Square Garden that evening because I just couldn’t be around other people.
Ben Pickman: As I was walking into my New York City apartment after taking my dog out for a walk, I checked Twitter on my iPhone and saw the initial TMZ story that Kobe Bryant was involved in a helicopter crash and had died. At the time of the initial tweet from TMZ, we didn’t have a ton of specifics, but the headline was, of course, both alarming and shocking. I remember just continuing to refresh Twitter, deep down hoping to see conflicting reports. Instead, as the minutes turned to hours and I continued to refresh various feeds, the specifics of the crash became clearer and the news was confirmed.
Michael Shapiro: I had just returned home from running errands on the day of Bryant’s death, settling in on the couch as I prepared to watch the Rockets face the Nuggets in an afternoon tilt in Denver. The TMZ report of Bryant’s death came first, and initially, there was a wave of disbelief. It’s not that I didn’t trust the TMZ report. It was more the fact that I didn’t want to. As the news confirming Bryant’s death trickled in, a wave of sadness followed, not just for me, but the nation writ large. The following days were filled watching highlight videos and reading various remembrances, mourning the loss of someone I’d never met, but felt a real connection to. Seeing Bryant and the Lakers at the Pepsi Center remains one of my favorite childhood memories. The three-peat with Shaq marked the start of my basketball fandom. The back-to-back titles with Pau Gasol only entrenched my love for the game. Bryant reached a special place in American life, where even those who have never met him felt a true connection. His absence from the game is still felt to this day.
Robin Lundberg: I had actually just woken up from a nap and when I checked my phone and saw the news I was in disbelief. That’s the feeling that stayed with me. I couldn’t believe it was real, but once I processed that it was it hit me hard. Never before had the loss of someone I didn’t know personally make me feel like that.
Being in this industry, you always have to be available, no matter the situation. How tough was it to cover the crash while still mourning/being in shock of the news? Has Kobe’s death impacted the way you live your life in any way?
Beck: To be honest, I didn’t want to write anything that day.
I’d known Kobe since 1997, when he was a 19-year-old phenom, and I was a rookie beat writer for the L.A. Daily News. I covered him up close for seven years, and continued writing about him after moving to the New York Times in 2004.
We had our ups and downs over the years, as athletes and reporters do. But we had a strong rapport, a genuine mutual respect and, over time, a fondness. We crossed paths a few times each season, chatting a little about basketball and a little about our girls. Gigi was born the same year as my daughter Talia.
So yes, it hit me hard. Especially when we learned that Gigi was on that flight, too. I don’t think I’ve ever hugged my daughter tighter.
Then I sat down and wrote this remembrance—the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write.
Rosenberg: At the risk of sounding callous, that part was not that difficult for me. I have written about people I knew well who died or were dying, including in my own family. I did not have a personal relationship with Kobe Bryant. I was certainly sad, and I did not run from those emotions, but they did not keep me from writing. I decided to focus my column on Gigi, whose death hit me in a different way. Kobe died far too young, and that's terribly tragic, but he also lived a full life, and he became the person he was going to be. Gigi never had that chance. Devoted parents generally worry far more about something terrible happening to their children than to themselves. Kobe was an extremely devoted parent.
Nadkarni: Covering the aftermath of the crash in Los Angeles was pretty jarring. I remember seeing other reporters openly crying at a Calabasas police station as we waited for a press conference by city officials. By the next day it felt like the city was already covered in Kobe memorials, which only drew more emotion out of people. You couldn't really go anywhere in L.A. without being reminded of Kobe almost instantly. The scene at Staples Center, with fans, flowers, photos and messages basically taking over the outside of the arena, was arresting.
Woo: I didn’t end up with much to do personally on the coverage front, but it was a pure coincidence that I was in Los Angeles a week later to see some college games and take what was supposed to be a mental break. While there I considered trying to write a Kobe piece—the fact that it had just happened was pretty inescapable, being in the area—but ultimately scrapped that plan and just kind of absorbed what was going on. It was kind of intimidating in a way to think about encapsulating that loss and that type of history, particularly knowing his legacy was ultimately complicated. Noting that this happened pre-COVID-19, I think it’s just a valuable reminder that everyone’s time is borrowed. All of last year felt like that to me, honestly.
Pina: In the days and weeks after, I remember recording a series of Open Floor podcast episodes with my co-host, Ben Golliver, who was doing a lot of great on-site reporting in Los Angeles. We had multiple conversations about the crash, Bryant’s legacy, our own personal memories and reflections about who he was as a human being and basketball icon. It wasn’t easy. I found myself emotionally drained after every episode. It was such a heavy event, unspeakably tragic, sad and inescapable. It was also therapeutic, just to get out how I felt and speak about it with someone who was as affected as I was.
Pickman: It was definitely tough to cover the crash in real time. I remember initially seeing conflicting information about whether Kobe’s daughter Gianna was involved in the crash and whether fellow former Lakers forward Rick Fox was also involved (he wasn’t, and the reports of Fox’s involvement shook him and his friends and family).
That afternoon, I worked a shift on Sports Illustrated’s digital news desk and I ended up writing 14 different posts for the website, capturing different news-related angles to the story. We put together posts of how the sports world reacted in the moment and how fans immediately started gathering at Staples Center. We wrote about Alicia Keys’s Grammy Awards opening and how the Mavericks announced that night that no player would ever wear No. 24 again.
Kobe’s death sparked reaction from all of the most important figures in sports, and so we felt it was important to document so many different reactions, which kept coming throughout the day and into the evening from almost every party. All the while, it still wasn’t clear exactly what had happened, who was involved and why the crash occurred in the first place. Nevertheless, it was full speed ahead on the news front until around midnight ET, when I finally felt as if I had time to more emotionally digest the news and try and understand it. All day, the words and stories had a numbing effect and it wasn’t until I started getting ready to go to sleep that the gravity of the news fully started to sink in.
Shapiro: There can be a certain numbness to the news being a writer and reporter, with the task of getting out information superseding one’s own need to process events in real time. That wasn’t the case with Bryant’s death. Writing about the game’s great loss in the days after his passing became somehow increasingly difficult, with the shock of his death fading as a certain sadness set in. Sportswriting is, all things considered, a pretty cushy gig. But it was admittedly difficult to a degree to continue covering Bryant’s tragic death in the days that followed Jan. 26, 2020.
Lundberg: It was tough in the sense that I was emotional doing it. But at the same time, I wanted to honor Kobe the only way I felt that I could in those moments, by doing his life/career/legacy justice in the way I and we covered his loss.
I recall several times shortly after his death thinking about him in talking or hanging out with my kids. The death of his poor daughter Gianna and the others aboard, as well as Kobe, certainly reinforced that life is not promised and we should cherish the time we have and the time we have with our loved ones the best we can. He almost felt like an invincible figure and if Kobe could go, any of us could.
How was your experience covering Kobe? Did you have any personal interactions with him? Memorable moments?
Beck: Kobe was 19 when I met him, 26 when I left L.A. for New York, and 38 when I attended his mesmerizing, preposterous, fantastical final game. So I knew many versions of him over that time. At 19, he was precocious and charming, confident but grounded, warm and open, quick with a smile and easy to chat with. During difficult times, he could be prickly and intimidating, but those moments usually passed.
A harder, edgier, less personable Kobe (the Black Mamba) emerged after the breakup with Shaq. But I think that was mostly artifice, a funhouse version of his darkest tendencies.
The Kobe everyone saw in his later years—the savvy veteran who regaled the media with stories and jokes and words of wisdom, who opened up on every subject imaginable—was much closer to the Kobe I knew in the beginning.
I shared some of those stories in this piece, the night of his final game.
Rosenberg: My experience was limited to being around him a few times in group settings, most memorably for me in the 2004 Finals. That was the end of the Kobe-Shaq era, and he was not in a great mental place. At the time I thought he was so selfish and self-involved that he put himself ahead of the team. Over time, I saw that the situation was much more complex than that. He was not a great teammate in the conventional sense, but he could make his teammates great through sheer force of will. I don't know that those last two Lakers championship teams (in '09 and '10) would have won with any other modern superstar.
Woo: By the time I started covering the league as part of my real job, Kobe was more or less on the way out. The one notable memory I have was from Toronto at All-Star weekend in 2016, which more or less doubled as Kobe’s proper sendoff. I was waiting to grab quotes at his media scrum—NBA PR initially brought him out to one table, where there were a few dozen people already waiting, and then shuttled him all the way across the ballroom to a different one. Naturally, I got stuck walking directly behind him and was overwhelmed by the giant throng of thirsty reporters from all over the world chasing him (I don’t think I necessarily qualified on those lines). But experiencing the degree of celebrity he held firsthand definitely stuck with me.
I actually ended up consulting and providing some light edits on Kobe’s book, The Mamba Mentality, which was published a couple of years ago. I was working through the publisher and never dealt with him, but getting to read through some of his thoughts on the game and work on that project actually did increase my appreciation for the way he approached basketball. It didn’t feel overwrought or fake, in the way some athletes come off. I don’t think the craft aspect of what he brought to the table is in danger of being forgotten in any way, but that was really what grabbed me and made the work enjoyable.
Mannix: My personal memories of Kobe preceded the professional. In the late '90s, when Bryant was a young Laker, I was working the visiting locker room for the Celtics. There was one trip where Bryant was injured and didn't play. Somehow, we got to chopping it up in the locker room during the game. About life, about growing up in the northeast—regular stuff. To this day I wish I remembered more about that conversation. What stuck with me was just how happy Bryant was to be in the NBA. And how eager he was to prove he belonged.
Pina: I covered Kobe Bryant’s final season with the Lakers, attending every home game and practice. Even though they were atrocious, after he announced his retirement in November, it felt like you were covering history in real time. Whenever I asked Kobe a question—almost all had to do with granular on-court strategy or some trivial statistic—he responded with patience and detail, going in depth to describe, say, why Serge Ibaka’s pick-and-roll defense in the fourth quarter of a relatively meaningless game forced him to make an unanticipated adjustment, what his first, second and third reads were as a series of possessions unfolded before him. Kobe turned some of those press conferences into class rooms.
Pickman: I never met Kobe, but the two on-court moments that stick out most to me were the waning moments of the 2010 NBA finals against the Celtics as Bryant retrieved Lamar Odom’s outlet pass in an empty frontcourt and dribbled the clock out. He promptly jumped into the arms of Metta World Peace and eventually made his way to the scorer’s table where, with confetti falling from the rafters, he let out his trademark Kobe fist-pumps to the Staples Center crowd. Kobe acknowledging the fans in that moment, in what turned out to be his final title, is pretty unforgettable and it was a fitting way to cap off a thrilling finals agains the Celtics. The other moment that jumps out related to his on-court legacy is his final game, which in it itself was polarizing. You either love that Kobe took 50 shots and scored 60 points against the Jazz in his final game or found it classic Kobe for all the wrong reasons. Who else would take that many shots in what was a meaningless game for L.A.? But the way Kobe lit up Staples Center that night was tangible, even for those not there, and it’s another image that is pretty unforgettable.
Shapiro: I was never fortunate enough to meet Bryant, let alone cover him. But watching him on television and briefly in person marked some of the top basketball moments of my childhood. I got to see a patented Bryant buzzer-beater stun a Denver crowd on a cold winter night. His epic playoff series against the Suns in 2006 is seared in my memory. I watched part of the 2009 Western Conference finals in a hotel bar in Scranton, Pa. (no need to divulge further), shouting at the television to the chagrin of both the bartender and fellow patrons. Bryant’s brilliance captured the hearts and minds of basketball fans everywhere for two decades. My story is no different.
Lundberg: I didn’t have any personal interactions with Kobe but he sure felt like he was a part of my life. He was not much older than me when he died so our timelines really aligned, so I grew up with him. And one way or another he was a part of seemingly every basketball conversation (of which I’ve had a lot) in some form or another. As a result, another more trivial takeaway I had from his death, is to never discredit greatness. It’s necessary to nitpick when making an argument for one great over another, but I would hope not to tear down a great to make a point. Losing Kobe suddenly made me want to be more cognizant of that and appreciative of the legends we get to see.
The NBA honored Kobe by naming the ASG MVP after him. Is there another way you would like to see the league honor him?
Beck: I think the All-Star MVP award is appropriate. Also glad to see the WNBA create an award, in Kobe and Gigi’s honor, to recognize others making a significant contribution to women’s basketball.
Rosenberg: I think renaming the All-Star Game MVP award is the perfect way to honor him. This is a guy who loved the spotlight, who stood out even from his elite peers, and who always, always wanted to go get his. Kobe Bryant never really played an exhibition in his life. He won the award four times, and it would not surprise me if he expected to win it every time he made an All-Star team.
Nadkarni: I thought the NBA honoring Bryant with the All-Star Game MVP trophy was a nice touch. I don’t know that there's ever really a proper or best way to honor someone who clearly impacted as many people as Bryant. If the league does want to do more, I hope it continues the work Bryant was doing with youth sports, or girls youth sports in particular.
Woo: I think he’ll live on through the players, particularly as this younger generation of guys who grew up wearing Kobes and watching the Lakers continues to filter into the league. I don’t know that the NBA should feel any more pressure to go out of its way. I thought they handled the whole thing fairly well to begin with. Sometimes it’s better to let tributes happen naturally and not force it. The All-Star MVP thing is cool—and adds a little bit of weight to the game, maybe, as well.
Mannix: All-Star MVP is fitting. Bryant was an intense competitor, even in exhibitions.
Pina: This seems like an appropriate way to commemorate a player who felt like an All-Star among All-Stars whenever he competed in those games. He injected them with an old-school determination: Bryant actually played hard and wanted to win, which can’t be said about everybody who takes the floor.
Pickman: This isn’t league-wide, but I think Staples Center re-name the court in honor of Bryant would be a nice tribute. I also think broadly that continuing to make charitable contributions to organizations he supported, whether that be the Mamba and Mambacita Sports Foundation, which supports "underserved athletes and young women in sports" or other organizations that Kobe supported would be a decent gesture. The league could also retire No. 8 and No. 24 league-wide.
Shapiro: Naming the All-Star Game MVP is a nice way to honor Bryant, and I’m unsure whether there is another award or honor that should bear his name. The Larry O’Brien Trophy is unlikely to change names anytime soon, and frankly, I recoil at the idea of renaming the Bill Russell Finals MVP award. I doubt Bryant would really care much about earning any posthumous honor from the league. His legacy as an all-time great is secured for generations to come.
Lundberg: I supported the idea of making him the new NBA logo. However, I think the outpouring of love following his death from the league, his peers and fans ensured he will be forever honored appropriately.
How will you remember Kobe Bryant?
Beck: As the most dazzling player I ever covered up close. As one of the most complicated, fascinating (occasionally maddening) people I’ve known. As a devoted, loving #girldad. As the most passionate, demanding, curious, dedicated, hard-working person I’ve ever met, in any walk of life.
Rosenberg: The answer to this evolves. As with anybody who dies young, over time my thoughts should shift from how he died back to how he lived. I keep thinking about what he meant to people. It went beyond how good he was. He was an all-time great player, obviously, but I don't think he was the best player of his era. In some ways, he was the most exciting. But he was the ultimate seize-the-day athlete. He inspired far more people than similarly accomplished contemporaries like Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal. Bryant was proof of the power of self-belief.
Nadkarni: I'll remember Kobe as someone who was incredibly influential. His basketball career was complicated, and his style of play certainly polarizing. Off the court, he was clearly an intelligent person with deep curiosities he could finally pursue in retirement. His 2003 sexual assault case happened at a time when the public wasn't having particularly good conversations about those situations, and to this day I have trouble contextualizing that part of his life. Ultimately, as someone who was never necessarily a fan of Kobe growing up, what I've come to respect more than anything over the last year is how many different people from so many disparate walks of life felt a connection to Bryant. Perhaps the quality about Kobe that's most undeniable is his ability, even now, to inspire.
Woo: At the end of the day, I think the positive impact he had on kids, the type of father he seems to have been, by all accounts, and the personal lengths he took to mentor players on the men’s and women’s side is what stands out to me the most. We like to glorify guys for winning championships and completing unusual feats, but hero worship in sports can honestly feel uncomfortable a lot of the time. When you spend enough time around athletes in various situations, that tends to lose its sheen. Ultimately, from a human perspective, I really respect the time and energy Kobe seemed to pour into his own evolution as a person, during his career and after it, and how he could affect others in a meaningful way. That’s the piece of him I think most people can earnestly learn from and work with.
Mannix: As a great player, but as one that left a lasting legacy. I spoke to Jayson Tatum this month for a profile in the magazine. Tatum and I got to talking about Kobe. Back when he was in elementary school, Tatum would study YouTube videos of Bryant. He would study his footwork and shooting form. And Tatum wasn't alone. A generation of players in the NBA came up emulating Bryant, just as Bryant came up on Michael Jordan. Bryant is gone, but his legacy will last for decades longer.
Pina: Growing up in Boston as a diehard Celtics fan, Bryant the basketball player was a mortal enemy I came to respect and eventually applaud. I’ll always remember the 2008 and 2010 NBA Finals, how even in his least efficient efforts Kobe still petrified me every time he touched the ball. You expected every shot to go in. There are few players, ever, who squeezed more out of their own natural gifts and physical ability. All that was on display 10 years ago.
Pickman: On the court, I think I’ll remember Kobe Bryant for his endless self-confidence and fearlessness, always being willing to take big shots in important moments and, more times than not, coming through in them. His accolades are of course impressive—the five championships, the two Finals MVP awards, the 15 All-NBA team appearances, being just some—but it’s many of the individual moments in which Kobe willed his team to victory that stick out and represent his mindset, or in his words, the “Mamba Mentality.” Leading up to the anniversary of Bryant’s death and the death of his daughter and the seven others on the helicopter, I’ve thought about a story Seattle Storm guard Jewell Loyd told me earlier this fall about Bryant. A few years back, Bryant pushed Loyd, who has dyslexia, to “face your fears” and use your fears to motivate yourself in the context of finishing reading a novel, specifically Kobe’s first novel. It was the kind of gesture that I think also exemplifies how Kobe has mentored a younger generation of basketball players and how many built strong relationships with him. Loyd, who is know as the Gold Mamba, told me that she felt that the moniker conveys that “the value you have, your purpose and your drive is unique.” Kobe was certainly a unique figure, and one whose broader legacy remains complicated, but was unquestionably a transcendent figure in the sport.
Shapiro: I assume most will cite Bryant’s legendary competitiveness as his most lasting legacy, but personally, I’ll choose to remember Bryant for the sheer joy he brought me in my early years as a basketball fan. Nothing in the league was more fun than a Bryant game-winner, an occurrence you could count on multiple times per year. Bryant would rip off 20-point quarters with relative ease. He’d bury the most acrobatic shots imaginable. There was an unmatched creativity with Bryant, a zeal for finding just the slightest edge against an opponent. Perhaps it’s just the nature of aging, but I doubt I’ll ever find as much joy from a player as I did watching the Lakers’ legend. Thank you for the memories, Kobe. I’ll never forget them.
Lundberg: A true competitor. The best difficult shotmaker ever. An intelligent and supremely interesting individual. And someone whose impact will be forever felt.