The tragic death of basketball legend Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash in foggy Calabasas, California, on Jan. 26 shocked the sports world — and the world at large. Many writers, celebrities and fellow athletes subsequently turned their attention to the man’s on-court accomplishments, which included five NBA Championships, two NBA Finals MVP trophies, 18 NBA All-Star appearances, two NBA scoring champion titles and a pair of Olympic gold medals.
But others noted the major impact he left on youth sports programs around the country. In fact, it’s no surprise that the 41-year-old father of four was en route to the Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, California, for a basketball game in which he was going to coach his 13-year-old daughter’s team. Gianna Bryant and seven other people, including other coaches and children, were onboard the helicopter and perished with Bryant.
“His whole ‘Black Mamba’ mentality that you work hard on and off the floor. His mindset and approach to the game, that’s the approach we want all our kids to take as they go in to play sports, basketball or anything else in their lives,” Marcus Zackery, director of the Jerry Gamble Boys & Girls Club in Minneapolis, told NBC-TV affiliate,KARE, citing Bryant’s continued support of the organization and his advocacy of girls’ basketball. “Him moving the needle forward for girls’ basketball has just been a tremendous inspiration for us to keep our girls’ sports programs here.”
Zackery’s peers at Boys and Girls Clubs across the country echoed his sentiments. “He came out to the club during a commercial shoot [for McDonald’s] and he just wanted to kind of hang out. He was just really great with the kids,”Jim Ventress, a former director of the Boys & Girls Club of Santa Clarita Valley in California, recalled for Santa Clarita radio station KHTS. “He was just down to earth. When he was talking to the teams, it wasn’t all basketball, it was just about life, putting in the effort in whatever you do, that in life you have to give 100-plus percent.”
“In terms of youth sports, Kobe treated it as something that we need to pay attention to,” Tom Farrey, founder of The Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program — which launched the high-profile Don’t Retire, Kid youth sports campaign last year with Bryant’s assistance — told the sports and culture website The Undefeated. “We launched the whole campaign through his Twitter account. With him having over 14 million followers, that really mattered.”
“I didn’t have to sell him on anything,” Farrey wrote in a blog post titled “Why Kobe’s Last Chapter Was His Best.”“ He was just in, eager to deploy his assets — his champion’s credibility, his social network, his advocacy, his international reach — to improve an institution that impacts the lives of youth. We chose Arnold Worldwide, the Boston-based agency that built Don’t Retire, Kid, based on his recommendation and that of his deft marketing chief, Molly Carter. Kobe moderated a panel with children at our Project Play Summit to help tease out what kids want from a sports experience. For our Healthy Sport Index, he supplied a list of companion sports that basketball players can use to build skills and health (he also suggested meditation, to focus the mind).”
Bryant — whose children were all daughters — was particularly supportive of female sports, and told late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel in 2018 that he envisioned Gianna (often called “Gigi”) playing in the WNBA someday.
“The best thing that happens is when we go out and fans would come up to me and she’ll be standing next to me,” Bryant told Kimmel, “and they’ll be like, ‘You’ve gotta have a boy, you and V gotta have a boy. You gotta have somebody to carry on your tradition, the legacy. She’s like, ‘Oy, I got this.’ I’m like that’s right. Yes, you do, you got this.”
Word of Kobe’sand Gigi’s death reachedthe Mamba Sports Academy — the helicopter’s destination on Jan. 26 — after the tournament had already begun. Players and coaches took a knee, as Alexan Balekian, a news anchor for NBC-TV affiliate KSEE, captured in a Twitter post that read: “This photo was taken this morning at #KobeBryant tournament in #calabasas as the kids received the news. A youth team from Tenaya was playing in the tournament when they received the news and cancelled games. #heartbreaking”
“He was not perfect,” Karissa Niehoff, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, pointed out. “However, he showed us the power and influence of sports in our country. He played the game the right way, giving 100 percent effort every night. He regularly praised and supported others, always smiling. And he was passing on his love of sports to his daughters.”
Forbes.com writer Bruce Y. Lee concluded: “Bryant will be remembered as a champion in many ways. An NBA champion. An Olympic champion. A champion for kids and kids’ health.”