In the wake of Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gigi’s tragic deaths in a helicopter crash on January 26th, millions of sports fans were left in a state of mournful shock. Public figures from Shaquille O’Neal to former president Barack Obama (as well as current president Donald Trump) offered their condolences on television and social media, sharing their most memorable encounters with the late basketball all-star.
On the evening of Bryant’s death, the lights of Madison Square Garden in New York City lit up with the Los Angeles Lakers’ team colors of purple and gold, as well as a memorial photo of Bryant in uniform. In Los Angeles, just outside the Staple Center—Bryant’s home for the entirety of his 20-year career with the Lakers—thousands of fans gathered and offered candles, flowers, photos and other memorabilia in remembrance. Inside the Staple Center, the Grammy Awards played out with a somber overtone, at one point paying tribute to Bryant just hours after his death.
As the son of former NBA player Joe Bryant, Kobe’s life in basketball seemed pre-ordained. He began playing the sport at age three, and garnered national recognition as early as high school, where he played on the varsity team as a freshman and beyond. In his senior year, he would lead the Aces to their first championship in over 50 years. By his senior year, he had already received numerous accolades, from Gatorade’s Men’s Basketball Player of the Year to USA Today’s All-USA First Team Player.
In 1996, Bryant was drafted to the Los Angeles Lakers, becoming the youngest player ever to participate in an NBA game at the time (his record was later surpassed). He set another record the next year, when he became the youngest player to ever win the Slam Dunk Contest at the All-Star Weekend event. Over the next few years, Bryant’s abilities on the court saw him gaining more play time and higher scoring averages; his average of 7.6 points doubled to 15.4 in his second season alone.
The 1999-2000 season saw the emergence of the Lakers as one of the best teams in the NBA. With the legendary Shaquille O’Neal playing center and Bryant playing guard, the two made an unstoppable duo that led the Lakers to win three championships consecutively from 2000 to 2002. In the 2001-2002 season, he received his first All-Star MVP trophy, and for the first time in his career was named to the All-NBA First Team.
In the 2003-2004 season, following resignation of coach Rudy Tomjanovich, the Lakers were unable to make the playoffs for the first time in over 10 years, despite Bryant being the second-best scorer in the league. Despite a less-than-optimal performance by the team over the next few seasons, Bryant would continue to shatter league records, scoring a career-high of 81 points in a 2006 game against the Toronto Raptors. He scored 45 points or more in four consecutive games, making him the first to do so since 1964. In addition, he became the record-holder for the Lakers for most points scored and most 40-point games.
In 2007, Bryant would set the record for youngest player ever to score 20,000 total points (this would later be beaten by LeBron James). He was named league MVP in May of 2008 and, in that same month, was named to the All-NBA team for the sixth time. Although the Lakers made it to the finals that year, they lost to the Boston Celtics. In the following season, Bryant would lead the Lakers to finish with a best-in-the-west record of 65-17.
During the next several years, as his play-time increased, the physical strain of the game began to take a toll on Bryant. In April of 2013, he ended the season early due to a torn Achilles tendon. In December of that year, he suffered a knee fracture which further hindered his ability to compete. In January 2015, he tore his rotator cuff, for which he underwent surgery at the end of the season.
In November 2015, after years of injuries and declining performance, Kobe Bryant announced that he would be retiring at the end of the season. His shooting average was at an all-time low of 31.5 percent, and his free-throw average had suffered as well. The Lakers would close out the season 17-65, the worst in the team’s history.
Kobe Bryant remains one of the greatest basketball players of all time, often being compared to the likes of Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, and his Lakers team-mate Shaquille O’Neal. His many awards and accolades support this notion, from his two Olympic gold medals and 18-time All-Star placement, to becoming the first player in the history of the NBA to score 30,000 career points.
Bryant’s unfortunate passing at the early age of 41 will continue to be a low point of the new decade for years to come, but for millions around the world, comfort can be sought in his incredible career in basketball, and in the joy and excitement he ignited in his team mates and his fans.