‘It hurts:’ Lower Merion community mourns Kobe Bryant where NBA star got his start

Fans pay tribute in memory of Kobe Bryant at Lower Merion High School, in Ardmore, Pa. The Los Angeles Lakers superstar died on Sunday in a helicopter crash. (Jennifer Lynn/WHYY News)

Fans pay tribute in memory of Kobe Bryant at Lower Merion High School, in Ardmore, Pa. The Los Angeles Lakers superstar died on Sunday in a helicopter crash. (Jennifer Lynn/WHYY News)

Updated 6:40 p.m.

NBA legend Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter and seven others were killed in a helicopter crash on a remote, steep hillside in Southern California on Sunday, his sudden death at age 41 touching off an outpouring of grief for a star whose celebrity transcended basketball.

The chopper went down in Calabasas, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) northwest of downtown Los Angeles. Authorities said that nine people died, with no survivors, after earlier putting the death toll at five.

Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers superstar with daughter Gianna Maria-Onore Bryant during an NCAA women’s basketball game. Both of them died Sunday morning, in a helicopter crash. (Kirby Lee via AP Photo)

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva would not confirm the identities of the victims Sunday afternoon pending official word from the coroner.

“God bless their souls,” Villanueva said at a news conference.

Word of Bryant’s sudden death rocketed around the sports and entertainment worlds, with many taking to Twitter to register their shock, disbelief and dismay.

“Man I don’t even know where to start,” tweeted Philadelphia 76ers superstar Joel Embiid. “I started playing ball because of KOBE after watching the 2010 finals. I had never watched ball before that and that finals was the turning point of my life. I WANTED TO BE LIKE KOBE. I’m so FREAKING SAD right now!!!!”

Lower Merion community gathers to mourn

Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, PA. (Jennifer Lynn/WHYY News)

Bryant was born in Philadelphia in 1978, where his father Joe “Jellybean” Bryant played four seasons for the 76ers. Joe Bryant eventually moved the family to Italy, and then back to the U.S. when he retired in 1991.

Kobe Bryant first earned national recognition as a star player for the Lower Merion High School Aces, where he made the varsity team as a freshman in 1992. In 1996, Bryant led the team to the state championships.

Los Angles Lakers basketball player Kobe Bryant during a dedication ceremony for a new gymnasium at Lower Merion High School, Thursday, Dec. 16, 2010, in Ardmore, Pa. The gym was dedicated to Bryant, a Lower Merion alumnus. (Matt Slocum/AP Photo)

About 50 people gathered at the school in Ardmore Sunday afternoon to pay their respects.

“It hurts, it hurts,” said Romeire Brown, of Wynnewood, who brought purple and gold flowers “in honor of the Lakers.”

“As a Sixers fan, Kobe was always like that thorn in our side ‘cause he would come and just turn any game plan we had upside down,” Brown said. “But just as a fan of the game of basketball, he meant so much to anyone that played basketball, including myself when I was younger. I always wanted to be either Kobe or A.I. [Allen Iverson]. It’s just such a reality of how short life can be and it’s really tough to just comprehend the news.”

Romeire Brown, of Wynnewood, brought a bouquet of flowers to Lower Merion High School where he gathered to pay his respects to alumnus Kobe Bryant. (Jennifer Lynn/WHYY News)

Fred Klevan, 58, of Merion Station, also brought flowers to add to the growing pile at the high school’s Kobe Bryant gym. Klevan graduated from Lower Merion High School in 1979, and his son and daughter also went to the school.

“Kobe was an inspiration to so many,” Klevan said, choking back tears. “He was a big inspiration to my son. My son was a little boy and Kobe was his hero and all he wanted to do when he grew up was to wear a Lower Merion jersey and play on the basketball team like his hero, and he was able to fulfill that dream.”

Fans gathering in front of Lower Merion High School to pay respect to alumnus Kobe Bryant. (Jennifer Lynn/WHYY News)

Amy Buckman, director of school and community relations in Lower Merion, said she had spoken to Kobe’s coach, Gregg Downer, who still oversees the school’s basketball program.

“Mr. Downer said that he is completely shocked and devastated today upon hearing the news, adding that Aces nation has lost its heartbeat,” Buckman said.

Buckman said in a statement on behalf of the school district that the community was “deeply saddened” by Bryant’s passing, and “grateful for his ongoing generosity to his alma mater, including his dedication of our Kobe Bryant gymnasium and his support of our girls and boys basketball teams.”

Kobe Bryant memorabilia inside lower Merion High School. (Jennifer Lynn/WHYY News)

Bryant retired in 2016 as the third-leading scorer in NBA history, finishing two decades with the Lakers as a prolific scorer with a sublime all-around game and a relentless competitive ethic. He held that spot in the league scoring ranks until Saturday night, when the Lakers’ LeBron James passed him for third place during a game in Philadelphia.

“Continuing to move the game forward (at)KingJames,” Bryant wrote in his last tweet. “Much respect my brother.”

 

Kobe Bryant memorabilia inside lower Merion High School. (Jennifer Lynn/WHYY News)

Bryant had one of the greatest careers in recent NBA history and became one of the game’s most popular players as the face of the 16-time NBA champion Lakers franchise. He was the league MVP in 2008 and a two-time NBA scoring champion, and he earned 12 selections to the NBA’s All-Defensive teams.

He teamed with Shaquille O’Neal in a combustible partnership to lead the Lakers to NBA titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002. He later teamed with Pau Gasol to win two more titles in 2009 and 2010.

Bryant retired in 2016 after scoring 60 points in his final NBA game.

Along with his work boosting women’s sports, Bryant opened a production company and entered the entertainment field in retirement. He won an Academy Award in 2018 for his contributions to “Dear Basketball,” an animated short about his relationship to the game. He also produced content for ESPN.

In 2003, Bryant was charged with attacking a 19-year-old employee at a Colorado resort. He had said the two had consensual sex. Prosecutors later dropped the felony sexual assault charge against Bryant at the request of the accuser.

Feds investigating the crash

A Southern California community college baseball coach, his wife and daughter were among those killed in the crash of the helicopter carrying Bryant and his daughter.

The younger brother of Orange Coast College coach John Altobelli confirmed the deaths as relatives, friends and players gathered at the school’s baseball field Sunday afternoon. Flowers and baseball caps were placed on home plate.

John Altobelli’s brother, Tony, is the sports information director at the school. He said his 56-year-old brother died along with his wife, Keri, and daughter, Alyssa, who was about 13 and played on the same basketball team as Bryant’s daughter, Gianna.

Colin Storm was in his living room in Calabasas when he heard “what sounded like a low-flying airplane or helicopter.”

“It was very foggy so we couldn’t see anything,” he said. “But then we heard some sputtering, and then a boom.”

The fog then cleared a bit and Storm could see smoke rising from the hillside in front of his home.

Juan Bonilla of Calabasas said he was working on his roof Sunday morning when he heard a helicopter flying low nearby. He said he thought it was a sheriff’s helicopter on a training mission. He heard nothing amiss with the engine or rotors and said he did not see any mechanical issue with the chopper. It was foggy Sunday morning, but he said visibility didn’t seem to be low at the time of the crash.

Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said firefighters hiked in with medical equipment and hoses, and medical personnel rappelled to the site from a helicopter, but found no survivors.

Firefighters worked to douse flames that spread through about a quarter acre (.10 hectares) of dry brush, Osby said.

Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Allen Kenitzer said the downed chopper was a Sikorsky S-76.

The National Transportation Safety Board sent a “go team” of investigators to the site. The NTSB typically issues a preliminary report within about 10 days that will give a rough summary of what investigators have learned. A ruling on the cause can take a year or more.

“They will look at man, machine and environment,” said Gary C. Robb, an aviation attorney in Kansas City who wrote a textbook on helicopter-crash litigation.

“They will look at the pilot — was there any indication of fatigue, any indication of a training issue?They’ll scour his or her record,” Robb said. “They will look at this helicopter from stem to stern. They will take the engine to the NTSB metallurgical laboratory outside Washington, D.C., and examine it to see if there was something that malfunctioned in flight.”

Investigators will also consider what role might have been played by weather, terrain, radio towers or bird strikes, he said.

Robb said he has handled many cases involving Sikorsky S-76 crashes and regards the machine as having a good reputation.

“It is generally regarded as a good helicopter with a good safety record,” he said, “but parts fail, parts break. Anything can happen.”

Along with his work boosting women’s sports, Bryant opened a production company and entered the entertainment field in retirement. He won an Academy Award in 2018 for his contributions to “Dear Basketball,” an animated short about his relationship to the game. He also produced content for ESPN.

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