By Richard Winton, Dan Woike, Sonali Kohli and Tania Ganguli Los Angeles Times
Kobe Bryant, 41, the legendary basketball star who spent 20 years with the Los Angeles Lakers, was killed when the helicopter he was traveling in crashed and burst into flames Sunday morning amid foggy conditions in the hills above Calabasas, sources told the Los Angeles Times.
His daughter Gianna, 13, was also on board and died along with seven others, authorities said. NBA officials confirmed that Bryant and his daughter were on the aircraft, and Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said there were nine people on the aircraft, a pilot and eight passengers. He would not confirm who had died until all the next-of-kin are notified, he said.
Bryant's death stunned Los Angeles and the sports world, which mourned one of basketball's greatest players. Sources said the helicopter took off from Orange County, where Bryant lived.
The crash occurred shortly before 10 a.m. near Las Virgenes Road, south of Agoura Road, according to a watch commander for the Sheriff's Department.
Jerry Kocharian was standing outside the Church in the Canyon drinking coffee when he heard a helicopter that was flying unusually low and struggling.
"It (didn't) sound right and it was real low. I saw it falling and spluttering. But it was hard to make out as it was so foggy," Kocharian said. The helicopter vanished into a cloud of fog and then there was a boom.
"There was a big fireball," he said. "No one could survive that."
The helicopter, a Sikorsky S-76B built in 1991, departed John Wayne Airport at 9:06 a.m. Sunday, according to publicly available flight records. The chopper passed over Boyle Heights, near Dodger Stadium, and circled over Glendale during the flight.
The National Transportation Safety Board database does not show any prior incidents or accidents for this aircraft. The helicopter is registered to the Fillmore-based Island Express Holding Corp., according to the California Secretary of State business database.
"We extend our sincerest condolences to all those affected by today's Sikorsky S-76B accident in Calabasas, California," the helicopter's manufacturer, Sikorsky, said in a tweet. "We have been in contact with the NTSB and stand ready to provide assistance and support to the investigative authorities and our customer."
"Kobe Bryant was a giant who inspired, amazed, and thrilled people everywhere with his incomparable skill on the court, and awed us with his intellect and humility as a father, husband, creative genius, and ambassador for the game he loved," L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a news statement Sunday afternoon. "He will live forever in the heart of Los Angeles, and will be remembered through the ages as one of our greatest heroes."
Across the country Sunday, public figures, former teammates and fans alike mourned the basketball star.
"Particularly when he was young, to be a part of his life and to watch his career grow, watch him grow, this is one of the most tragic days of my life," said fellow Lakers legend Jerry West, 81.
West was the general manager for the Lakers in 1996 and maneuvered Bryant's immediate trade to the Lakers when he was drafted.
"I know somewhere along the way I guess I'll come to grips with it. But now I have all these different emotions regarding him. The things I watched him do on the basketball court, but more importantly ... he was making a difference off the court. It's so unexplainable. This is going to take a long time for me."
"Kobe was a legend on the court and just getting started in what would have been just as meaningful a second act," former U.S. President Barack Obama tweeted. "To lose Gianna is even more heartbreaking to us as parents. Michelle and I send love and prayers to Vanessa and the entire Bryant family on an unthinkable day."
It was a sad and surreal scene inside Staples Center around noon Sunday, where a dress rehearsal for the Grammy Awards was taking place, as word of Bryant's death swept through the arena. Crews worked quickly to move Bryant's rafter jerseys side by side, and masked the other retired jerseys with curtains. By 1 p.m., the switch had been made. No. 8 and No. 24 were side by side, illuminated by floodlights.
News of the crash dominated the rehearsal. Ariana Grande had just finished a lavish performance, and Billie Eilish was about to perform an acoustic song with her brother. But all eyes were on the jerseys at the other end of the floor, as staff and observers watched in disbelief.
Within half an hour of the news breaking, a Barnes & Noble in Orange had sold out of all photo books featuring the former NBA star.
"It's kind of morose but people just came in 10 or 15 minutes after we found out about it, " said Armando Romero, a bookseller at the cash register. He said his general manager announced Bryant's death to the booksellers over their wireless headsets. "We knew right away people would be coming." Minutes later, Romero said he received phone calls from customers, asking to put Bryant-related books on hold.
At the Fullerton Mexican restaurant El Camino Real, the staff was "really sad," said manager Rodolfo Garcia. Bryant patronized the restaurant for 20 years with his wife, a Fullerton native. If he couldn't come in person, Bryant would have friends get big orders to take back to his Newport Coast home. "He liked the carnitas and flan," Garcia said, over the thud of a butcher breaking down carne asada for tacos. "He loved this place because people treated him like a normal person. Kobe would just stand in line, like anyone else. He'd tell us, 'Don't treat me like a star; I'm just a customer here.' "
Bryant was born in Philadelphia. His father, Joe, played eight seasons in the 1970s and '80s for the Philadelphia 76ers, San Diego Clippers and, in his last stop, the Houston Rockets under then-coach Del Harris. A lighthearted, 6-foot-10 stringbean who went by his Philadelphia playground nickname, Jellybean, Joe Bryant played college ball at La Salle and married Pam Cox, the sister of a starting guard at Villanova. They named their first son Kobe, after the city in Japan.
Kobe Bryant excelled at Lower Merion High in Ardmore, Pa., near Philadelphia, winning numerous national awards as a senior before announcing his intention to skip college and enter the NBA draft.
He was selected 13th overall by Charlotte in 1996, but the Lakers had already worked out a deal with the Hornets to acquire Bryant before his selection.
Bryant impressed Lakers general manager Jerry West during a pre-draft workout session in Los Angeles. Less than three weeks later, the Lakers traded starting center Vlade Divac to the Hornets in exchange for Bryant's rights. Bryant, whose favorite team growing up was the Lakers, had to have his parents co-sign his NBA contract because he was 17 years old.
The 6-foot-6 guard made his pro debut in the 1996-97 season opener against Minnesota; at the time he was the youngest player to appear in an NBA game. He started in only a handful of games during his rookie season, coming off the bench in support of Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones.
However, Harris played him more as the season progressed, allowing Bryant to showcase the skills that made him a top candidate for rookie of the year. Those skills were also on display when Bryant won the 1997 NBA slam dunk competition.
Bryant continued to improve during his sophomore season in the league, averaging 15.4 points per game. However, his breakout came in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season when he started in all 50 games after the Lakers traded away Van Exel and Jones.