Bryant’s death sends shockwaves.
From his 81-point game, the second-best scoring performance in NBA history, to five NBA titles in 20 years of dazzling performances with the Los Angeles Lakers, Bryant delivered a relentless attitude that attracted a global following before his death Sunday at age 41 in a helicopter crash.
Bryant joined giant center Shaquille O’Neal to spark the Lakers to NBA titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002, becoming at the age of 23 the youngest player to capture three titles.
A bitter feud with Bryant saw “Shaq” depart, Bryant portrayed as never having had childish ways while O’Neal never outgrew them.
That left Bryant without the inside force needed to capture the crown until Spain’s Pau Gasol arrived and the Lakers won titles in 2009 and 2010 with Bryant in command and later patching things up with O’Neal.
Bryant sparked the US Olympic team to gold medals at the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Olympics and became a global celebrity as much for his personality as his playmaking.
Bryant’s fierceness was legendary and led him to nickname himself the “Black Mamba” for his ability to strike quickly with deadly scoring accuracy.
There were spectacular nights but nothing topped his 81-point effort against the Toronto Raptors on January 22, 2006, a mark surpassed only by Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game in 1962.
Bryant scored 65 points in a 2007 win over Portland, then followed with 50 points against Minnesota, 60 at Memphis and 50 more against New Orleans — the third-longest run of 50-point games in NBA history behind two from Chamberlain.
Some say Bryant saved the best for last, scoring a league season-high 60 points against Utah in his final NBA game in 2016, becoming the oldest player in league history to crack that milestone at age 37.
“I love everything about this game,” Bryant famously said. “For me, it’s not a part of life, it is life, and it’s a part of me.”
In all, Bryant finished with 33,643 points, 7,047 rebounds and 6,306 assists over 1,346 career NBA games. He was an 18-time NBA All-Star, the 2008 NBA Most Valuable Player, the NBA Finals 2009 and 2010 NBA MVP and matched a record as a four-time NBA All-Star Game MVP.
Sports icons, fellow NBA greats honored him.
“We laughed and joked about the Mamba mentality. We’re all going to need it right now,” an emotional Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers said before his team played the Magic in Orlando in one of eight NBA games on the night.
Madison Square Garden, home of the New York Knicks, was washed in the Lakers colors of purple and gold, and so were the pylons that mark the entrance to Los Angeles International Airport.
In San Antonio, the Spurs and Toronto Raptors both committed 24-second shot-clock violations on their opening possessions in honor of Bryant — who wore No. 24 in the later stages of his career.
“The NBA family is devastated,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said. “For 20 seasons, Kobe showed us what is possible when remarkable talent blends with an absolute devotion to winning.
“He was one of the most extraordinary players in the history of our game.”
Six-time NBA champion Michael Jordan said Bryant would be remembered as one of the game’s greatest.
“Words can’t describe the pain I’m feeling,” Jordan said. “I loved Kobe – he was like a little brother to me.”
That sentiment was echoed by Shaquille O’Neal — who won three NBA titles and also famously feuded with Bryant in Los Angeles.
The grief was felt beyond the basketball court.
“The world lost a legend today, but the impact and legacy he leaves behind will last forever,” Filipino boxing icon Manny Pacquiao — an avid basketball fan — tweeted.
Brazilian footballer Neymar dedicated his second goal in Paris Saint-German’s 2-0 victory at Lille to Bryant, calling his death “deeply saddening for the world of sport and for all of us — not just for basketball fans but for everything he did for sport.”
Golf superstar Tiger Woods, whose professional career started the same year as Bryant’s, recalled competitive qualities that echo those of Woods himself.
“The fire,” Woods said of what he most remembered of Bryant. “He burned so competitively hot. He had such a desire to win. He brought it every night.”
“Any time he was in the game he would take on their best player and shut him down for 40 minutes. I think that’s one of the best things about him his whole career.”
Woods, no stranger to injury, recalled the time Bryant ruptured an achilles tendon — then stayed in the game to make his free throws.
It was just one of myriad signature moments Bryant produced in his career. But for many Sunday’s grief for what he might still have achieved in his post-NBA life.
“Kobe was a legend on the court and just getting started in what would have been just as meaningful a second act,” former US President Barack Obama, another keen basketball fan, tweeted.
“His star was continuing to rise every day and he knew no limits because of his many intellectual and creative talents and desire to give back to others – his passion for the game, for his family and for others was apparent in everything he accomplished,” former Boston Celtics star Larry Bird said.
In Los Angeles, fans gathered to leave tributes near the sight of the crash and outside the Lakers’ practice facility miles south in El Segundo.
And they gathered outside the Lakers’ Staples Center arena, where Bryant’s death cast a shadow over the glitzy Grammy Awards.
“Here we are,” Grammys host Alicia Keys said. “Together. On music’s biggest night celebrating the artists that do it best. But to be honest with you, we’re all feeling crazy sadness right now. Because earlier today Los Angeles, America and the whole wide world lost a hero.
“And we’re literally standing here heartbroken in the house that Kobe Bryant built.”