Go inside the untimely death of Kobe Bryant, the former NBA basketball star who perished in a helicopter crash on the outskirts of Los Angeles in 2020.
On January 26, 2020, a helicopter carrying legendary basketball player Kobe Bryant and eight other people — including his 13-year-old daughter Gianna — crashed into a California hillside, killing everyone on board. News of Kobe Bryant’s death spread quickly around the world, and one question seemed to be on everyone’s mind: How could this happen?
Bryant had frequently traveled by helicopter throughout his National Basketball Association (NBA) career, and in fact, the helicopter he was on that day was the very same one that had transported him to his final basketball game with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2016. As far as anyone was aware, the helicopter was in perfectly fine condition before the crash.
While Kobe Bryant’s family, friends, and fans mourned the death of one of history’s greatest athletes, the National Transportation Safety Board began an investigation into the crash. After about a year, they released nearly 2,000 pages of evidence, including transcripts, emails, texts, photos, video footage, and meteorological reports illustrating how this tragedy occurred.
This is the full story of Kobe Bryant’s death — and the legacy he left behind.
Kobe Bryant: Born To Be A Basketball Star
Kobe Bryant was born on August 23, 1978, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His father, Joe “Jelly Bean” Bryant, had been a professional basketball player with the NBA for eight seasons before moving to Italy and playing there. So, Kobe Bryant lived in Italy from age six to 13, and his father eventually retired.
In the U.S., Bryant attended Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, where he began making a name for himself in basketball and received national Player of the Year awards.
During this time, Bryant also broke Wilt Chamberlain’s southeastern Pennsylvania scoring record with 2,883 points. With all of this early success, it was clear that Bryant was destined to play at the national level. In fact, he was so confident in this that he chose to not attend college, declaring himself eligible for the NBA draft after he graduated from high school.
Bryant was initially chosen by the Charlotte Hornets before he was quickly traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. When the 1996-1997 season opened, Bryant debuted as the second youngest player in NBA history — and during his second season, he was selected for an NBA All-Star Game.
From the start, nobody could deny Bryant’s incredible talent. He was a standout athlete, even at a time when he played alongside other remarkable talents such as Shaquille O’Neal, Nick Van Exel, and Eddie Jones.
Bryant’s Career With The Lakers
Although Kobe Bryant remained a reserve for his first two seasons, his early selection for the All-Star Game proved that he could lead a team to victory. Then, according to Lakers Nation, Bryant became a full-time starter in his third season after the Lakers traded away Jones and Van Exel.
That same year, Bryant signed a six-year extension with the Lakers.
As the Lakers were gearing up for the 1999-2000 season, they found a new head coach in Phil Jackson. Jackson recognized the incredible fortune he’d been allotted with both Bryant and O’Neal on his roster, and soon structured his renowned triangle defense around his two star players.
That season, the Lakers would win 67 games, with O’Neal being named an NBA MVP. But Bryant proved how much he had grown as well. Among selections for All-Star and All-NBA teams, he secured his first 40-point game in a win against the Sacramento Kings in 2000 — and led the Lakers in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers.
The game ended with Bryant’s famed alley-oop to O’Neal.
After such a strong start to his NBA career, there was seemingly nowhere to go but up for Bryant. However, he did find himself at the center of a serious scandal in 2003: He was accused of raping a 19-year-old. According to The New York Times, prosecutors eventually dropped the criminal case, as the young woman ultimately refused to testify in court. She did, however, file a lawsuit against Bryant, which ended in an undisclosed settlement.
After the criminal case was dropped, Bryant issued a public statement apologizing to the woman. In the statement, he also said, “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.”
Though the accusation changed the way that some people saw Bryant — and led to him being dropped by some of his biggest sponsors like McDonald’s — it didn’t have a major impact on his ongoing career.
He continued to lead the Lakers on the court — being selected for All-Star teams for 17 straight selections and eventually surpassing fellow basketball legend Michael Jordan on the NBA’s all-time scoring list — but he made just as big a name for himself off the court with various charitable efforts.
Kobe Bryant’s Life Outside Of Basketball
As NBC Los Angeles reported following Kobe Bryant’s death, his competitiveness and talent on the court were matched in equal parts by his philanthropy and his creativity when he was off the court.
Speaking at Kobe Bryant’s memorial service in 2020, Michael Jordan said, “Kobe gave every last ounce of himself to whatever he was doing. After basketball, he showed his creative side. In retirement, he seemed so happy. He found new passions and continued to give back as a coach to his daughters. More importantly, he was an amazing dad and an amazing husband. He loved his daughters with all his heart.”
Following his retirement after the 2015–2016 season, Bryant once again made headlines for a new title he had acquired: Oscar winner. Released in 2017, just one year after his retirement, the animated short film Dear Basketball stood out as a moving ode to the sport Bryant had loved for more than 20 years — and a reminder that his age had caught up to him.
Still, he had plenty going on. Putting his fortune to good use, Bryant became known for various charitable deeds. He served as an honorary chair for the United Way of Los Angeles’ annual HomeWalk, which aimed to address the issue of homelessness in Los Angeles County. Seeing people on the streets of Skid Row clearly left an impression on Bryant. His own organization that he shared with his wife Vanessa Bryant, the Kobe and Vanessa Bryant Foundation, contributed to efforts to address homelessness as well.
Bryant and fellow NBA star LeBron James also served as celebrity ambassadors for the After School All-Stars, an organization that provides numerous after-school opportunities for children.
Of all his charitable work, however, Bryant was perhaps best known for his work with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which helps grant wishes to children facing life-threatening illnesses. In all, over the course of his 20 years with the Lakers, Bryant granted over 200 wishes via the organization.
His work off the court only made Kobe Bryant’s death on January 26, 2020 all the more tragic, as the world had not only lost a star athlete, but a man who used his influence to try and make the world a better place as well.
The Helicopter Crash That Killed Kobe Bryant
There was a fair amount of speculation when the world learned of Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash. Many people wondered if there had been any warning signs — was the pilot properly vetted? Were the weather conditions too poor to be flying? Was the helicopter itself safe enough to fly?
It would take about a year before the full details of Kobe Bryant’s fatal helicopter crash were released to the public, as USA Today reported.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation produced a whopping 1,852 pages of evidence, including various interview transcripts, emails, text messages, video footage, photos, and weather reports. In the end, it painted a picture of what had happened on that fateful day.
On January 26, 2020, around 8:39 a.m., helicopter pilot Ara Zobayan texted the group of people who had been coordinating Kobe Bryant’s trip that his helicopter was ready and standing by in Orange County. Half an hour later, it was in the air on its way to Camarillo, California, transporting Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven others to a landing zone where they would then be driven to a youth basketball game in Thousand Oaks.
While speaking to an air traffic controller, Zobayan said that he would remain at low altitude for the entirety of the flight to Camarillo, but within minutes, the helicopter was heading into mountainous terrain with clouds and fog. Air traffic control got in contact with Zobayan again, who then told them that he was attempting to climb above the clouds, to 4,000 feet.
The helicopter was only about 1,600 feet above ground when it suddenly banked left and began a rapid descent, crashing into the hills. All nine aboard died: Kobe Bryant, Gianna Bryant, Payton Chester, Sarah Chester, Christina Mauser, John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, Alyssa Altobelli, and Ara Zobayan.
What Caused Kobe Bryant’s Death
Experts ultimately attributed the crash to the combination of the low-lying stratus layer and the high-rising terrain.
Due to the low visibility, this combination can be incredibly dangerous. Experts also found that Zobayan became disoriented after flying into low clouds and made a “poor decision” to fly at “excessive airspeed” when he could not see properly. Because of this, some have placed the blame on those coordinating the flight, suggesting that Zobayan should not have been allowed to fly that day.
The weather conditions became the central focus of several lawsuits filed by Vanessa Bryant and relatives of the other victims, targeted at the helicopter company and Zobayan’s estate. After all, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and Los Angeles Police Department said that the poor weather conditions that morning had led them to ground their own helicopters.
Further lawsuits would follow when graphic photos of Kobe Bryant’s helicopter crash were discovered on the phones of eight officers in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. (These pictures were confirmed to have had no investigative purpose.) Vanessa Bryant was later awarded nearly $29 million as a result of the officers’ “grotesque conduct.”
Ultimately, Kobe Bryant’s helicopter crash marked a sudden and tragic ending to his life at age 41, made all the more heartbreaking with the loss of his young daughter and the seven other people on the helicopter that day.
Still, Bryant’s legacy lives on, with fans remembering him as one of the greatest NBA players of all time, family and friends remembering him as a loving and compassionate father and husband, and countless others remembering him for his various charitable endeavors and acts of kindness.
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