How Kobe Bryant's tragic death rocked the sports world and put a spotlight on grieving a public icon

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  • Kobe Bryant's death may have been unlike any celebrity death to date because of the massive reaction and the messy aftermath of discussing his legacy.
  • The reporting on Bryant's death was shocking in nature and showed the danger of real-time reporting, as several erroneous reports muddled the situation.
  • Bryant's death also raised questions of how to grieve and honor a public icon who had also been accused of sexual assault.
  • This is the story of what happened on that tragic Sunday and the shockwaves it sent around the world.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
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At 11:32 A.M. PT, on January 26, a seemingly innocuous winter Sunday, a report from TMZ sent shockwaves through the universe.

"Breaking: Kobe Bryant Has Died in a Helicopter Crash," the tweet read. The report claimed Bryant was one of five people dead in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California.
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Experiencing breaking events in real-time is a relatively new phenomenon. On that day, it was as if the entire world was following the same Twitter timeline, waiting for more information. Perhaps TMZ was wrong? Maybe there had been some mistake? Surely, Bryant, a borderline mythological athlete still very much in the public eye, could not be gone so suddenly.

kobe bryant crash smoke

Ringo Chiu/Reuters

Smoke rises from the scene of a helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant in Calabasas, California, on January 26, 2020.

What felt like hours was less than 20 minutes. Local reports came in, confirming a helicopter crash. Stomachs tightened. Perhaps in a cruel irony, the worst was confirmed by top NBA reporter Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, at 11:51 P.M. PT. "Kobe Bryant is among those dead in a helicopter crash outside Los Angeles, a source confirms to ESPN."Over the next hour, the developments continued. The crash had killed nine people, including Bryant. His 13-year-old daughter Gianna, aka "Gigi," was with him. The tragedy included members of Gigi's basketball team, parents, coaches, and the plane's pilot. They were on their way to a basketball game at Bryant's Mamba Sports Academy.
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The grieving, tributes, and discourse that followed over the coming days and weeks may be unlike any other celebrity death to date.

Kobe Bryant's second life expanded beyond basketball

For many athletes, the end of their careers feels like the end of their lives. But Kobe Bryant was different. He told The New Yorker's Ben McGrath in 2014 that he cringed at the suggestion that he would retreat to a golf course and live life slowly upon retirement."I get questions all the time: 'What are you going to do when you retire?' As if I had no life, no talent outside of playing basketball," Bryant said. "It absolutely drives me crazy. 'You just going to golf all day?' I'm, like, 'No. Who the f--- said that?' It's maddening."
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Kobe Bryant

Jerod Harris/Getty Images for Dow Jones

Kobe Bryant had a passion for "storytelling" in retirement.

Bryant's next passion was "storytelling." Following his retirement, Bryant dove head-first into the creative world, forming Granity Studios, a multimedia company that creates children's books, podcasts, TV series, and films, many of which focused on youth sports to teach life lessons.  

"Having four daughters at home, it was like I need to create content for my children," Bryant told Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim in 2019. "Because I didn't see that, I didn't see content for kids that enjoy playing sports. So I wanted to take something that had a fantasy appeal to it and connect that to sports. Magic and pathology and some of the inherent magic that is within the sport itself. How do you take that and put it into a story that kids would enjoy?"

Bryant won an Oscar in 2018, just two years after retiring, for Best Animated Short for "Dear Basketball," based on the poem he wrote about retiring.
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"As basketball players, we're supposed to shut up and dribble," Bryant said during his acceptance speech, alluding to infamous comments made by Fox's Laura Ingraham. "I'm glad we do a little bit more than that."

Bryant's post-retirement connection to basketball was atypical. He didn't pursue the traditional, sit-behind-the-desk, analyst role. Instead, he had an ESPN+ series called "Detail," in which he broke down film. In his mind, however, it was more "storytelling."

"If that was my passion, to be able to sit at a studio desk, do that day in, day out, I would certainly do it. That's not my passion," Bryant said on an ESPN conference call to promote "Detail" in 2018. "My passion is writing, creating, putting beautiful stories together, weaving them in the form of a narrative."
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Bryant, by all accounts, had seemed to move past basketball - or at least the rolling boil inside of him had become a simmer.

"I don't have a hard time watching it at all," Bryant said on the same conference call, of having an itch to play. "I have this other thing that is calling me that I enjoy doing ... I've really been able to move on from the game."

"Girl Dad"

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AP Photo/Michael Owen Baker

Kobe and Gigi Bryant.

In retirement, Bryant was also focused on life with his daughters - Natalia, Gigi, Bianka, and Capri, born in June 2019.

After his death, ESPN's Elle Duncan relayed a story about giving birth to a girl and speaking to Kobe Bryant about it. Bryant reportedly boasted he was a "girl dad," saying, "Just be grateful that you've been given that gift because girls are amazing ... I would have five more girls if I could." The hashtag #girldad went viral after Duncan's story, with fathers posting pictures of their daughters."I love having girls. I love it," Bryant told Jimmy Kimmel in September 2019. "They're awesome, man. I think my wife wants a boy more so than I do."
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Bryant seemed especially close to Gigi, who may have been his strongest connection to basketball in retirement. 

Gigi aspired to play in the WNBA. Bryant told McGrath in 2014 that Gigi was "insanely, insanely competitive - like, mean." He compared her to himself.

He coached Gigi's AAU team - aptly named "The Mambas" - and told Kimmel in 2018 that Gigi sought to carry on his athletic legacy.
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"The best thing that happens is when we go out, and fans will come up to me, and she'll be standing next to me. They'll be like, 'You gotta have a boy. You and [Vanessa] gotta have a boy, y'all gotta have someone to carry on the tradition, the legacy,'" Bryant said. "And [Gigi's] like, 'Hey, I got this. You don't need no boy for that.'"

In late December, the two were sitting courtside for a game between the Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks. Cameras caught Bryant appearing to be teaching Gigi the game.

The sports world grieves

Though Bryant may have disconnected from basketball in retirement, he was forever linked to the sport. He was an icon to a generation of athletes and a pillar in the sports world, thanks to 20 years with the Los Angeles Lakers, 18 All-Star Games, five championships, and an MVP award.
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Bryant had been in the news the weekend of the crash. The night before, LeBron James had passed him for third all-time in scoring. Bryant, who had told reporters during the week that he was happy for James to move ahead of him - a "records-are-made-to-be-broken" sentiment - tweeted his congratulations that night.

Separated as he had become from the game, the game did not easily let go of Bryant. News of his death rocked the NBA world. The reactions were like dominoes, falling one after another.

There was ESPN's Stephen A. Smith and Jay Williams, crying through live TV hits shortly after the news was announced.
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There was the elusive Michael Jordan releasing a statement: "Words cannot describe the pain I'm feeling. I loved Kobe - he was like a little brother to me."

There was footage of James crying on a tarmac. It was later reported that James and Bryant had spoken on the phone early on Sunday after James had passed him in scoring.There was Shaquille O'Neal choked up, saying, "My spirit just left my body," lamenting not speaking to Bryant more often.
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The Rockets' Austin Rivers and P.J. Tucker grew emotional after news of Kobe Bryant's death.

Players paid tribute across the league. Some wrote messages on their shoes. The Atlanta Hawks' Trae Young began the game wearing a No. 8 jersey in honor of Bryant. Teams held moments of silence before games and started games with eight-second back-court violations and 24-second shot-clock violations, tributes to Bryant's jersey numbers. Madison Square Garden changed its colors to yellow and purple.

Tennis players mourned. Soccer stars paid tribute. The Super Bowl recognized Bryant before the game and at halftime.

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kobe bryant staples center

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A makeshift memorial to Kobe Bryant outside of Staples Center.

Meanwhile, Staples Center in Los Angeles became an unofficial funeral home. Fans gathered outside the Lakers' home arena, joining together in chants of "M-V-P," writing messages in chalk around the plaza, leaving flowers, thousands of basketballs, and more. 

"He was LA's god basically," a Lakers fan named Brooklyn Butler told Insider's Lauren Frias.

In perhaps the most appropriate tribute, some fans left a garbage can outside of the arena, with the message, "You know what to do." Fans shot paper into the garbage can, yelling, "Kobe!"

How to report on death and grieve a public icon

Nothing about Bryant's death, the crash, or the aftermath was neat.
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The unfolding of the details showed the dangers of real-time reporting, in front of an audience of millions.TMZ's breaking of the story drew scrutiny from LA Police. TMZ had reportedly broken the story before Bryant's family, or other families had been informed of the crash.

During a press conference, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said it was "wholly inappropriate" for the families to learn the news before being contacted by police.

"It would be extremely disrespectful to understand that your loved ones perished, and you learned about it from TMZ," Villanueva said. "That is just wholly inappropriate."
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ABC suspended reporter Matt Gutman for erroneously report that all four of Bryant's children were on the helicopter.

"Reporting the facts accurately is the cornerstone of our journalism," a representative for ABC News told Insider. "As he acknowledged on Sunday, Matt Gutman's initial reporting was not accurate and failed to meet our editorial standards."
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Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Showtime/AP Images

An erroneous report said Rick Fox was in the helicopter crash with Kobe Bryant.

Another incorrect report said that Rick Fox, a former NBA player and teammate of Bryant's, was also on the helicopter. Fox later said that he was unaware of the report and was ignoring calls and texts from loved ones, sending them into a panic. He eventually answered, revealing he wasn't in the crash, but the event was traumatic nonetheless.

The Washington Post suspended journalist Felicia Sonmez after she tweeted a Daily Beast article about Bryant's rape allegations from 2003, drawing ire from people on Twitter. The Post called her tweets "ill-timed."

The biggest uproar, however, may have centered on Gayle King of CBS. A week after the crash, King interviewed WNBA legend Lisa Leslie about Bryant's death and his legacy. King asked Leslie if it was "complicated" to be friends with Bryant because of the rape allegations that were settled out of court, and whether they should be part of Bryant's legacy.

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gayle king

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Gayle King.

King became the target of extreme ire, with notable celebrities like rappers 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg taking to social media to criticize her. Some thought Snoop Dogg insinuated violence against King by saying, "Respect the family and back off, b---h, before we come get you."

King received hateful messages and death threats and traveled with security. Numerous powerful figures came to her defense, including CBS News President Susan Zirinsky, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, and former United Nations Ambassador and national security adviser Susan Rice. Snoop Dogg later apologized for his comments in an Instagram post.

Bryant's "complicated" legacy

Bryant's death also left fans to reckon with his past. In 2003, a Colorado woman alleged that Bryant raped her while he stayed at a spa before knee surgery. According to court documents, examiners found bruising on the woman's neck and tears in her vaginal wall.

The court case became a national story and played out in a messy fashion. The woman's name was leaked during the trial, despite attempts by police to preserve her anonymity. She was subject to death threats and eventually dropped the case when she no longer wanted to testify in court. The case was settled out of court in 2005 and Bryant later issued a statement on the matter.
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"Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did," Bryant said at the time. "After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter."

Bryant lost all of his sponsors except Nike, and his popularity waned. However, he continued playing basketball.

After the settling of the case, Bryant created his "Black Mamba" persona, inspired by the film "Kill Bill," as a means to shed his skin.
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Kobe Bryant created the "Black Mamba" alter ego after the 2003 rape allegations.

"The whole process for me was trying to figure out how to cope with this," Bryant told The Washington Post's Kent Babb in 2018. "I wasn't going to be passive and let this thing just swallow me up."During his life, there was largely a lack of public reckoning with the allegations against Bryant. In death, nearly every write-up of Bryant's legacy included the word "complicated."The actress Evan Rachel Wood tweeted the day after Bryant's death: "He was a sports hero. He was also a rapist. And all of these truths can exist simultaneously." She came under fire on Twitter and eventually deleted the tweet.
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While Bryant became an advocate for the WNBA and women's sports, cynics believed it was all part of an attempt to scrub his past - the story-teller re-writing his own story.

ESPN's Sarah Spain wrote on the effect of the allegations on Bryant's legacy and how Bryant will now never able to address the matter:

"Imagine the role he could have played in redefining how fans, the media, and the public, in general, handle sexual assault accusations if he had chosen to speak out about the case later in his life ... We're left to grapple with the complicated legacy he leaves behind. To argue with one another about the fairness of an honest retrospective. To decide for ourselves whether to remember the man he was or just the man we wanted him to be."
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At Vice, Albert Burneko wrote a story titled, "Kobe Bryant Was No More Complicated Than Anyone Else," arguing that the word "complicated" is a step-around of the assault case.

"What the fact of having committed, or having credibly been accused of committing, sexual assault complicates for an acclaimed celebrity is the feelings ... of those who'd like to go right on celebrating him," Burneko wrote.

He continued:
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"[Bryant] was also a great and spectacular basketball player, one of the biggest stars in the history of the sport, and a powerful man who, in 2003 and at the height of his celebrity, was credibly accused of raping a 19-year-old hotel employee and then avoided a trial by leaking his accuser's identity and shaming her into silence. I don't think these things complicate each other, unless you happen to believe there's a personal moral component to being good at making contested jump-shots."

Bryant never spoke about the case, only the aftermath. In an interview with ESPN's Ramona Shelburne in 2016, he may have hinted at how he viewed himself.

"You have to understand the fact that we're human," he said. "We all say s--- that we shouldn't say, we all do things we shouldn't do. We all are angels, we are all devils.
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"How are you going to understand that, other than to understand the fact that we're all of those things?"

An incomplete life

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Jae C. Hong/AP Images

Kobe Bryant after his final NBA game in April 2016.

Bryant, Gigi, John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, Alyssa Altobelli, Sarah Chester, Peyton Chester, Christina Mauser, and the pilot, Ara Zobayan, left Santa Ana-John Wayne Airport for Camarillo Airport in Bryant's helicopter shortly after 9 A.M. on January 26.
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The foggy conditions in the Los Angeles area were so bad that day that the Los Angeles Police Department had grounded its helicopters. Kurt Deetz, a helicopter pilot who had flown Bryant before, told The Wall Street Journal's Ben Cohen and Erin Ailworth that only an experienced pilot would have been allowed to fly in such conditions.

About 10 minutes into the flight, air-traffic controllers ordered the helicopter to hold because another one was landing nearby. The aircraft circled over Glendale for about 12 minutes before getting "special visual flight rules" clearance to continue in the foggy conditions.

Around 9:40 A.M., the helicopter changed its path for Thousand Oaks. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the helicopter climbed to about 2,300 feet to avoid a cloud layer. It then started a descending left turn.
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At around 9:45, the helicopter crashed into a hill at about 1,700 feet. It was flying about 170 miles per hour and would have weighed over 11,000 pounds. The NTSB said the helicopter missed clearing a hilltop by about 20-30 feet.

The helicopter didn't have a "black box," a device that records flight data and cockpit audio, though investigators did find an iPad used by Zobayan. The helicopter was also missing technology that would have alerted Zobayan to the hill.

The cause of the crash is still under investigation.
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Bryant's adoption of helicopters as a means of transportation, in some ways, encapsulated all that he was. It was flashy, it was convenient, it allowed him to maximize his time. According to Babb, Bryant's helicopter, nicknamed the "Mamba Chopper," had even been painted black, with scales to look like a snake.

"I had to figure out a way where I could still train and focus on the craft but still not compromise family time," Bryant told Barstool Sports in 2018.

According to a report from People magazine, Bryant and Vanessa had a pact not to ride in the helicopter together.
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In an Instagram post on January 29, Vanessa wrote, "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." 
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Bryant was 41. On the possibilities of life after retirement, Bryant told McGrath in 2014: "Giorgio Armani didn't start Armani until he was forty. Forty! There's such a life ahead."

An official memorial for Bryant is planned for February 24 at Staples Center.

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