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The Sports World Is Coming To Terms With Kobe Bryant's Death

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The sports world is coming to grips with the death of a basketball icon. Yesterday, in California, Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter were among nine people who died in a helicopter crash. Bryant was 41 years old, just a few years past his retirement from basketball. In 2003, he was charged with sexual assault, a case that was eventually dropped. But his fans are focused on his legacy as a five-time NBA champion and an 18-time All-Star.

Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Kobe Bryant, his teenage daughter Gianna - nicknamed Gigi - and seven others were on their way to a youth basketball game Sunday morning. A little before 10:00 a.m. local time, the helicopter they were in crashed in foggy conditions near Calabasas, Calif., northwest of Los Angeles. At a news conference, LA County sheriff Alex Villanueva announced all nine people died.

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ALEX VILLANUEVA: And our hope goes out to all of the members that were onboard, all the family of everyone who was onboard this aircraft, and God bless their souls.

GOLDMAN: The cause of the crash isn't known yet. The FAA and NTSB are investigating. The reaction to the crash was an indication of the power a single human being has to reach many, many people, whether he knew them or not. By early afternoon, several thousand of the latter gathered outside Staples Center, where Bryant created so many moments. In the crowd, USC student Jay Babario.

JAY BABARIO: This morning, I heard the news, and it was devastating. You know, like, I had chills for an hour in the morning - couldn't get rid of them. I had to come here and got my skateboard and just rode over here.

GOLDMAN: Within the sports world, normally steely competitors grieved openly. Former NBA superstar Dwyane Wade spent a career playing against Bryant and with him on the Olympic team.

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DWYANE WADE: It seems like a bad dream you just want to wake up from.

GOLDMAN: Bryant only lived 41 years, but it was a full 41. He had an insatiable curiosity and drive. It was most apparent on a basketball court, where his competitive fire and desire to win were nightly attractions.

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UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #1: I mean, he's not even really bending that foot as he walks.

GOLDMAN: No better example than a game in 2013. Moments after tearing his Achilles tendon, Bryant hobbled to the free throw line.

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UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #2: Bryant tonight with 32 points, nine rebounds, four assists. And he is hurting, but the Lakers down by 2 and they want him and need him at the free throw line. Got it.

(CHEERING)

GOLDMAN: After the game, Bryant posted this on Facebook - this is such BS. All the training and sacrifice just flew out the window with one step that I've done millions of times. The frustration is unbearable. Why the hell did this happen?

Mostly, through 20 seasons, he was the master of his fate on a basketball court. He chose the nickname Black Mamba from the Tarantino movie "Kill Bill." Black Mamba was an assassin, and that's how Kobe Bryant played the game - from when he began, jumping to the NBA from high school, to when he finished in 2016, scoring 60 in his final game. The basketball assassin wanted the ball in his hands, and he really didn't care much about making friends in the NBA. Former player Bruce Bowen had many a battle with Bryant. He spoke yesterday on ESPN.

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BRUCE BOWEN: Kobe was a guy that - early on in my career, I didn't care for Kobe because I thought of the arrogance. I thought that there's a guy that walks around, he's strutting like Michael and all these other things.

GOLDMAN: Bryant did pattern a lot of his style, on court and off, after Michael Jordan. Bowen, like most of Bryant's adversaries, ultimately came to respect him. And how could they not? There were so many moments that demanded respect.

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UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #3: Kobe Bryant - 28 for 46 from the field. This would be 18 for 20 from the line. And an 81-point game.

(CHEERING)

GOLDMAN: That explosion in 2006 was the second-highest point total in a game in history. Known for his offense, Bryant prided himself for his defense as well. He was relentless in his pursuit of the entire game of basketball. But his mind didn't stop there. Bryant was a worldly guy. He spent time growing up in Italy, where his dad played pro ball. Kobe was one of the few players who could speak in English, Italian and Spanish all in the course of one postgame press conference.

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KOBE BRYANT: (Speaking non-English languages).

GOLDMAN: His global reach was confirmed in 2008. At the Summer Olympics in China, the U.S. men's team was a star-studded latter-day dream team. But if you went into the main Nike store in Beijing, it was Bryant whose picture was plastered everywhere. The Bryant legacy had dark chapters as well. In 2003, he was arrested and accused of sexual assault. The criminal case ultimately was dropped after his accuser refused to testify. He later settled a civil case with the woman.

The relentless, compartmentalized mind of Kobe Bryant was never more evident than when he would attend court proceedings in Colorado and then fly to Lakers games on the same day. When a great sports career ends, many athletes struggle without the bright lights, the camaraderie, the adulation. Bryant again proved unique and, of course, relentless. He got involved in business ventures. He became enthralled with all kinds of media - the written word, podcasts and film. In 2018, he won an Oscar for an animated short called "Dear Basketball."

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BRYANT: From the moment I started rolling my dad's tube socks and shooting imaginary game-winning shots in the Great Western Forum...

UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #4: The Lakers win.

BRYANT: ...I knew one thing was real - I fell in love with you.

GOLDMAN: After retirement, Bryant launched into so many things, including the lives of his four daughters - the older ones he was proudly shepherding through sports and life. But basketball was always going to be part of things.

Seemingly content with what he'd given and taken from the NBA, he relished being a mentor to younger players or a fan of the greats that followed him. Late Saturday night, the night before he died, Bryant responded to the big NBA news that LeBron James had passed him to move into third place on the all-time scoring list. Bryant tweeted a message to James afterwards - continuing to move the game forward; much respect, my brother. The game moves forward today, although the path seems darker.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.