What It Was Really Like The Day Kobe Bryant Died

There are few individuals whose death seems to stop the planet in its rotation. From politicians like John and Robert Kennedy to musicians like John Lennon and Michael Jackson, these figures who seem to be ever-present since the moment they stepped into the spotlight paralyzes the public when the spotlight finally dims. 

That moment was felt on January 26, 2020, when basketball superstar Kobe Bryant tragically died in a helicopter crash at 41-years-old. To compound the tragedy of the accident, Kobe was just one of nine victims in the crash. As told by ABC News, the eight other victims included Bryant's 13-year-old daughter, Gianna Bryant; two of her basketball teammates Payton Chester and Alyssa Altobelli; Alyssa's parents, John and Keri Altobelli;  Sarah Chester (Payton's mother); Christina Mauser; and pilot Ara Zobayan. The passengers were on their way to Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, California, for the children's basketball games.

The day began like any other for the retired basketball superstar. According to Yahoo, that Sunday started with Kobe attending church and being blessed with holy water before departing to take Gianna and the others to their game. The nine left behind a family they expected to see again, completely unaware they would be saying their final goodbyes when they left their homes. Here is what it was really like the day Kobe Bryant died.

Kobe Bryant's Retirement Life

According to Basketball-Reference, when Kobe Bryant entered the National Basketball Association, or NBA, at 18-years-old in 1996 — and by the time of his retirement two decades later in 2016 — 37-year-old Bryant had spent the majority of his life as an NBA player. While some athletes have trouble transitioning out of professional sports, Kobe found a new calling in his life after basketball in being a father, husband, and ambassador for women's sports.

In 2018, Kobe announced a partnership with a multi-sport training facility in Thousands Oaks, California, ABC News reports. The next year, the Mamba Sports Academy was born. Kobe said of the academy: "[it] is a natural expansion of my commitment to educating and empowering the next generation of kids through sports."

Outside of youth sports, Kobe also paid close attention to collegiate and professional women's basketball. He became close friends and a mentor to women's basketball star Sabrina Ionescu, and with daughter in tow, he would attend games Ionescu played. On the professional level, Kobe praised the growth of the WNBA and said days before his death he saw a day when WNBA players would be able to compete with men.

His daughter, Gianna Bryant, followed in her father's footsteps and fell in love with basketball. In an appearance on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" in 2018, Kobe said he was coaching her team, and she wanted to play in the WNBA and carry on the family's basketball legacy.

The weather was just 'okay'

According to Mercury News, shortly after 9 a.m. Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and six other passengers took off from John Wayne Airport in San Ana, California. Less than an hour before takeoff, the pilot, Ara Zobayan, texted a group of people who were overseeing the flight that he felt the weather looked "Okay," ESPN reports. Richard Webb, owner of OC Helicopters, had given him a thumbs up. However, when it came time to fly, the weather would be far from suitable to fly in.

The Washington Post reports that by 8:53 a.m., low cloud coverage led the Los Angeles Police Department to ground their helicopters at John Wayne and other L.A. airports. Still, Zobayan took to the air with his passengers into a sky with very low visibility. According to the AP News, investigators believed that Zobayan felt pressure to deliver his celebrity client to his intended destination. The heavy fog and clouds led the experienced pilot to become disoriented. Known as "spatial disorientation" amongst pilots, after flying above the clouds, Zobayan lost awareness of his flight pattern. This issue leads many pilots to believe they are flying straight when they are actually not.

When Zobayan radioed into air traffic controllers and said he was climbing, they observed the opposite: that the flight was descending towards the hillside in Calabasas, where it would eventually crash. Investigators said pilot error was the cause of the crash, as Zobayan had violated multiple rules of air travel.

Vanessa Bryant receives the news

According to CNN, TMZ was the first news organization to report on the crash. Six minutes after TMZ first reported the helicopter crash and Kobe Bryant's death, a family assistant told Vanessa Bryant, his wife and Gianna Bryant's mother of Gianna. The New York Times reports the matriarch was told by the assistant that five of the nine people on board had survived the crash. The hope that her family were two of the five was soon dashed when she began receiving notifications reading "R.I.P Kobe."

TMZ reported the accident just over an hour after the crash, leading to Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva to criticize the news outlet for releasing the victims' names before officers could notify their families. "It would be extremely disrespectful to understand that your loved one ... perished and you learn about it from TMZ," he said. "That is just wholly inappropriate."

In an October 2021 deposition, Vanessa Bryant said it took her hours to confirm her husband and daughter had died in the crash. In her desperation, the wife and mother attempted to secure a helicopter herself to fly to the crash site but was denied because of the unsafe weather conditions. Eventually, she and Kobe's former agent and Lakers' general manager Rob Pelinka drove to the sheriff station in Malibu, where Villanueva confirmed Kobe's and Gianna's deaths.

Fans erect tributes and find comfort with others

Throughout the entire world, fans gathered in their grief to honor Kobe Bryant. And no city was more somber nor illuminated by candles than Los Angeles. According to Rolling Stone, the Staples Center, home of the Los Angeles Lakers and where Bryant played his home games during his career, became flooded with memorials and tributes to the former basketball star.

Artist Jules Muck reacted to the news through his art, painting a mural of Kobe and Gianna Bryant at Pickford Market in L.A. "I feel that what he did with his fame as far as his camps and training and work with his daughter and other young people was pretty awesome especially that he died in that service," Muck said to CNN the day after the tragedy.

In the Philippines, a basketball hall was named for Kobe hours before his death and was decorated with memorials to the fallen NBA star. His old high school, Lower Merion High School in Pennsylvania, lined the gym entrance with Lakers jerseys, basketballs, and flowers. However, there might not have been a more somber place than the Mamba Sports Academy, the destination of the helicopter trip. According to VC Star, five games were underway when the gym fell silent upon learning about the crash and the deaths of not only Kobe but the young players and coaches. Witnesses said after people screamed and cried, they held a prayer circle, ended the games, and canceled the tournament.

NFL's Pro Bowl Became a tribute game for Kobe Bryant

Only moments after Kobe Bryant's death was reported, the NFL Pro Bowl kicked off in Orlando, Florida. In the locker room of the NFC Pro Bowl team, some of the greatest football players in the world had trouble coming to grips with his death. According to ESPN, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson led a prayer in the locker room, while Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson said the entire locker room was "hurting."

As ESPN details, throughout the game, players celebrated plays by imitating basketball moves Bryant had used during his NBA career. During the two minute warning, Calais Campbell of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Matthew Judon of the Baltimore Ravens took a knee, and the stadium held a moment of silence. After the silence, fans erupted into a chant of "Ko-be!" Campbell, who would be named the game's defensive MVP, reflected on Bryant's impact on his life in a postgame interview: "Kobe's one of my heroes. He's a big inspiration to me. In the few times I got to meet him, I was super encouraged when I left."

Jackson, who was named the game's offensive MVP, looked to his faith to find some understanding, saying, "it was crazy. But God always calls his angels home for a reason. God knows best."

Shaquille O'Neal Learns about the crash

One of Kobe Bryant's last acts before entering his fatal helicopter ride was texting good wishes to Shareef O'Neal, son of his former teammate and rival, Shaquille O'Neal. According to Huffington Post, Shareef, a basketball player in his own right, had undergone open-heart surgery in December 2018 and missed the following collegiate basketball season recovering. The text would seem impossible 15 years earlier when Bryant and Shareef's famous father both dominated the NBA and the tabloids in a love/hate relationship.

Between 1996 and 2004, Shaq and Bryant played together on the Los Angeles Lakers, Insider reports. Despite winning three straight championships between 2000-2002 and becoming one of basketball's greatest duos, the two clashed on and off the court. They traded insults to each other in the media, and in one episode, had a fight during a pick-up game. Shaq eventually left Los Angeles and joined the Miami Heat. Both players saw success without the other and continued to trade verbal shots. By the 2010s, the pair appeared on programs discussing their relationship and seemed to finally be on friendly terms.

Speaking on TNT days after the tragedy, Shaq said he initially did not believe the reports, thinking it was a hoax. However after seeing the news confirmed, the NBA big man said, "I haven't felt a pain that sharp in a while," and "I lost a little brother." Shaq would break down in tears as he continued discussing his former teammate's death.

Rick Fox is falsely reported to be in the helicopter

During his NBA career, Rick Fox was a defensive specialist for the Los Angeles Lakers and was an important part of the three championship team, playing a supporting role for the star duo of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, as told by Sportscasting. Fox and Bryant became close friends after Fox's retirement. Soon after the crash was reported, a false story spread saying that Fox had been in the helicopter as well.

According to Today, Fox's phone erupted with phone calls from friends and family after an early report said he was on the helicopter. Fox told TNT he was with his daughter at the time when his colleague, Jared Greenberg, told him the news of the crash and his friend's death. While Fox and his daughter comforted each other, Fox said his phone began ringing excessively. Initially, Fox thought it was people attempting to console him about Bryant's death.

Fox recalled his best friend, Iona men's basketball coach King Rice, calling him in tears: "I answered and said, 'Hey, man, this is crazy about Kobe,' and he was just bawling. And I started crying. He was like, 'You're alive,' and I'm thinking, 'Well, yeah. Like, what do you mean?' And it was in that moment that my phone just started going and my mom and my sister and my brother and so, look, this has been a lot to process for all of us."

The NBA world learns of Kobe Bryant's death

It was not just Gianna Bryant's basketball team that was playing games at the time of the crash. Throughout the country, NBA teams were either already in the midst of games or warming up when the news broke of Kobe Bryant's passing. Kobe's retirement from the NBA was only four years prior, so not only were former opponents in the midst of games but also former teammates and colleagues of Kobe, such as Houston Rockets' center Tyson Chandler, USA Today reports.

Throughout the NBA, teams began games by taking either 24-second violations or eight-second backcourt violations, in honor of Kobe, who wore the number "8" and the number "24" during his NBA career. Players also wrote blessings to Kobe and Gianna on their shoes. On both the court and bench, players and coaches cried as they attempted to focus on the game at hand.

Coaches Gregg Popovich and Doc Rivers both reflected on the news of Kobe's death. After his game, Popovich said, "we all feel a deep sense of loss," KENS 5 reports. River, battling his emotions and trying to prepare for his game later in the day, said to ESPN, "Sometimes things don't make sense. ... You know you have to get through it. We will, we all will, we all have to be strong."

The Grammys Ceremony went on that evening

As the Staples Center was covered in tributes, photos, jerseys, letters and candles, inside, the biggest stars in music were preparing for their biggest night of the year. The Grammys was scheduled to go on that evening, but under the backdrop of sorrow with Kobe Bryant's death hanging over the arena, it was impossible for the artists not to address the tragedy of the day.

According to USA Today, by 3 p.m., around 1,000 fans were gathered with memorabilia and candles honoring the NBA star. Red rose petals spelled out "Kobe" and "Gia," and the flags at the arena were flown at half-staff.

Speaking to Uproxx, rapper Rick Ross said he was in his hotel room getting ready for the show when the news came down. Other artists such as Billie Eilish and P.J. Morton were asked on the red carpet not questions about their music, but instead their thoughts on the crash victims. Artists such as Lil Nas X, Aerosmith, John Legend, and Lizzo all paid tribute to Kobe Bryant and Gianna Bryant in their own ways. Behind the scenes, the show's host, Alicia Keys, was performing last minute preparations when she heard the news. She and Boyz II Men performed "It's So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday" as the camera panned to Kobe's retired numbers in the rafters of the Staples Center.

The Lakers players would receive the news in the air

Kobe Bryant's final tweet was complimenting Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James. That night before the crash, James passed Bryant on the all-time scoring list, NBC Sports reports. The tweet was sent less than 14 hours before his death. According to Sportscasting, the two men were Olympic teammates in 2008 and 2012, winning gold for the United States both years. According to their Olympic teammate, Deron Williams, the two were friends. While traveling back to Los Angeles that Sunday morning, the team heard the news that the greatest player in their franchise's history had just died.

According to ESPN, Dwight Howard and DeMarcus Cousins were the first two players who saw the news on social media. And, from there, word of the tragedy spread throughout the entire plane, including James. Within minutes, the entire player section of the plane was scrambling to confirm the news. Howard, who was teammates with Bryant in Los Angeles, went into the bathroom stall to weep. Earlier that morning, James spoke to Bryant, who again congratulated him on passing him on the all-time scoring list.

"I remember the first thing Bron said to me was, 'Man, y'all stop playin — like, stop playing with me,'" Davis said (via ESPN). "And I'm trying to get on the internet. And Dwight, like, you can see him start crying. He was like, 'It's true.'"

A witness described the remainder of the trip as "suffocating silence" aside from muffled tears. NBC News captured video of a visibly shaken Lakers team exiting the plane at LAX.

Kobe Bryant's parents and sisters learn about his passing

While Kobe Bryant's love/hate relationship with Shaquille O'Neal was the most publicized during his basketball career, it was far from the only strained relationship he had. As told by the Orlando Sentinel, Kobe's own parents, Joe and Pamela Bryant, did not have the best relationship with their son. Their relationship fractured over their disapproval of the 21-year-old NBA star marrying Vanessa Bryant because she was Latin American.

According to Deseret News, while their relationship improved after the birth of their eldest daughter, Natalia Bryant, it became strained again in 2013 when they attempted to sell their son's memorabilia against his wishes. They did not reconcile before his death. Lakers legend Jerry West said one of his sons spoke to Kobe's family and said they were "traumatized and devastated."

Kobe's sisters, Sharia Washington and Shaya Tibbs, had a better relationship with their brother. Following his death, the sisters shared family photos of their brother and encouraged fans to donate to their brother's foundations, Pop Culture reports.

The aftermath

The Los Angeles Lakers would honor Kobe Bryant the best way they could, by winning the 2020 NBA Finals. It was the team's first championship since Kobe led the Lakers to a title in 2010, ESPN reports. The team honored Kobe's and his daughter's memory throughout the season. In May 2021, Kobe was elected into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, CNN reports. Both Vanessa Bryant and Michael Jordan spoke in place of Kobe.

According to the Sporting News, Vanessa filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles County Police and fire department for causing emotional distress to her and her family when it was discovered employees took graphic pictures of the crash site and shared them. 

"I do not want my little girls or I to ever have to see their remains in that matter," she said. "Nor do I think it's right that the photographs were taken in the first place ... But now to live the rest of my life having to fear those photographs surfacing is something that I, I have to deal with every single day."