At the risk of understating the matter, the news of Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash on Sunday in Southern California devastated every corner of the basketball world.
Coaches, players and fans alike still struggle to grasp the reality of a basketball legend gone too soon.
Bryant, 41, died alongside his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, a promising basketball talent herself, who had aspirations of playing at UConn and in the WNBA.
Also included in the crash were baseball coach John Altobelli, 56; his wife, Keri, 46; and their basketball-playing daughter, Alyssa, 13; basketball coach Christina Mauser, 38; Sarah Chester, 45; and her daughter Payton, 13; and Ara Zobayan, 50, Bryant’s personal pilot.
Bryant is survived by his wife, Vanessa, and three other daughters.
Bryant played for the Los Angeles Lakers for 20 years before retiring following the 2016 season. He was a five-time NBA champion (2000-02, 2009-10), an 18-time all-star, a two-time Olympic gold medalist (2008, 2012) and he finished his career third on the NBA’s scoring list.
As captivating a basketball player as there has ever been, Bryant’s career coincided with the early developments of the internet and social media, making him one of the first NBA stars to be accessible to fans around the world.
Virginia was no exception. What follows is a collection of memories from basketball players and coaches in the Martinsville and Danville communities about what Bryant meant to them.
Responses were gathered through interviews, text messages and emails and have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Kyana Smith, Magna Vista head girls basketball coach: They portrayed an unbreakable bond between a father and daughter, and basketball was a major part of that bond. He was fearless on the court, but (Sunday), I can only imagine that moment when he might have realized that he was faced with his greatest fear as a parent—that agony that likely played out in his mind that there was nothing he could do to save his daughter, to preserve her future. It’s unimaginable, honestly. This tragedy is still not comprehensible, probably won't ever be, but it's a little more bearable knowing that he was a present father from beginning to end.
Patrick Mills, Magna Vista head boys basketball coach: It’s a sad day for basketball and sports and fathers and mothers everywhere. Losing a kid and a husband is devastating. And the other families involved—not to make it just about Kobe—there are many other lives that are going to be affected by that.
Based on Bryant’s nickname of the Black Mamba, an entire generation of basketball players grew up with a sense of what it takes to have the Mamba Mentality. Bryant, who wore numbers 8 and 24 during his career, was sometimes also known by his middle name: Bean. Gianna, or Gigi, had such a bright future as a player that she was sometimes referred to as Mambacita.
Ryan Parker, junior, Magna Vista: Kobe has no doubt been my favorite player. I’ve always been a Laker fan strictly because of Kobe. I began playing basketball because of him. I haven’t always been a good basketball player, but Kobe’s Mamba Mentality has played a huge part in my life, whether it be sports, academics, life, etc. Ever since making the basketball team in middle school, I’ve repped number 24 because of him. I will continue to wear his number and use the Mamba Mentality forever.
Zenise Chambers, senior, Averett University: For me, Kobe was who I admired and looked up too. You made this little girl fall in love with basketball. I’ve had the pleasure to watch him play in person, and he’s my one and only favorite player. He’s one of the greatest to ever touch the ball. He’s my role model. I’ve been blessed to be able to wear 24 in high school, and it meant so much to me. Thank you, Kobe. Thank you for making me love the game a lot more. I love you. May you and Mambacita #RestInPeace.
Cameron Hairston, Tunstall assistant boys basketball coach: Kobe meant a lot to me. Growing up, he was my Michael Jordan. He adopted a saying called the Mamba Mentality, which meant to constantly work your butt off and let no obstacles stop you from achieving greatness. He will never be forgotten but surely will be missed. #mambaout
Shaq Pannell, George Washington assistant girls basketball coach: We lost two of the greatest players to ever play the game. RIP Bean and Gigi.
Upon hearing the news of the crash, memories of other storied athletes and their tragic deaths came flooding back.
Eddy Lloyd, Tunstall head boys basketball coach: This is a very sad day. I have thought of Roberto Clemente and Dale Earnhardt and the magnitude of the person, and Kobe had that same persona for so many. As a coach, you hoped that players appreciated his tremendous work ethic and how hard he worked at his craft.
Mills: I look at Len Bias’ death. I was 10 years old, but I remember what I was doing at the time. I think there’s gonna be a lot of young kids that remember (Sunday) the same way with Kobe Bryant.
Though many of today’s high school and college players were too young to see Bryant play in the early part of his career, that hasn’t stopped them from watching his highlights online and working to imitate his moves. Many have chosen 24 as their own jersey number to honor him.
Jeremiah Law, senior, Martinsville: He was one of my favorite players. Growing up, I’d always watch him play and he inspired me to be better every day. Little things he has in his game I try to resemble, and I liked how he just got after everything.
Damiehja Darden, sophomore, George Washington: Best NBA player of all time. Kobe Bryant, you inspire me to be great.
Courdae Gravely, junior, Magna Vista: He was a big role model in my life on and off the court—the way he just handled himself and the decisions he made. Another thing is he was very inspirational, so whenever I was down, I would just watch a video on him and it inspired me to go 10 times harder. I never got to meet him, but his death still influenced me a lot.
Nyasia Lanier, senior, George Washington: Kobe was an inspiration to everyone in the basketball world—his mentality, the way he turns into a monster on the court. You can see the passion he has for the game, as well as off the court. He inspired me just by being such a positive person and just remaining humble. It’s tragic for everyone, losing a legendary man like that, especially in the sports community. A big inspiration to keep going and pushing in life and basketball. I wear my 24 proudly and will continue to.
Troy Brandon, senior, Martinsville: He was my favorite player. I was young when I used to watch him. I used to love going in my mom’s room, and my dad, they used to always have Kobe Bryant on the TV. I grew up watching him just because my whole family is Lakers fans, and we love Kobe, so it was devastating hearing the news. I tried to pull off some of the stuff he does. It’s hard, but yeah, I tried to be like him every now and then.
Kyana Smith: He was a young girl’s crush and basketball idol. I remember being in the front yard practicing fadeaway jumpers in middle school and high school. It's like everybody wanted to be like Kobe if you were a ‘90s kid, just like the ‘80s babies wanted to be like (Michael Jordan).
Isaiah Jones, sophomore, Averett University: As long as I can remember, I’ve loved everything Kobe has done. I have tried to do every move Kobe has ever done. I always tried to match his work ethic to everything I’ve ever done to the best of my ability. Every time it was time to go in for dinner or it was getting dark, I would end my last shot the same way: '3-2-1, Kobe for the winnnnnn!!!!'
Aside from the highlight tapes, another aspect of Bryant that is sure to endure is the work ethic he showed to become one of the best players in NBA history. In retirement, he became one of the more vocal supporters of women’s basketball, in addition to authoring children’s books and running a digital production studio.
Tim Smith, Tunstall head girls basketball coach: Kobe was a leader of the game and showed the work ethic players must absorb to become great. His competitive spirit and mentality were unmatched. There wasn’t a shot he felt he couldn’t make. I’ll remember Kobe for all he has done for the game and how much his legacy means, but I’ll also remember everything he did and was doing off the court. He loved the game so much, he was starting to give back and teach his knowledge to the youth and anyone who wanted to learn about his work ethic.
Tim Henry, senior, Averett University: Growing up, Kobe was the only reason for me not only becoming a Lakers fan, but a basketball fan. He showed me that nothing is impossible in life as long as you work for it. He was the true definition of mental toughness. He was so successful in many different ways on and off the court. He impacted millions of people all over the world with his competitive mentality. He showed me that out-working your opponent puts you at an advantage in life. Lastly, he showed me to never fear the moment, because when the time comes, I’ll be ready for whatever life wants to hit me with.
Charles Warren, Chatham head boys basketball coach: Just reading about him and his work ethic and all the extra time he put in at the gym, always coming in extremely early and leaving late, that was how I went through with my college basketball career. I was always one of the ones going to the gym and getting extra work in and staying after practice. Just that work ethic he instilled in basketball players and transitioning that over into life skills was just one of the things I was able to take from him.
Montre’ Cash, junior, Averett University: Kobe has never been my favorite player on the court, but off the court, he became who I wanted to be in the future. Seeing the dad he was to his kids was inspirational to me—seeing the father he was to Gianna and how he coached her and her friends. He was such a big impact in so many people's lives.
Brandon Johnson, Bassett head football coach: He was my role model, somebody I looked up to, somebody I modeled my work ethic after once I got into coaching—the attention to detail, doing the small things, getting the little things right, getting your athletes to work hard.
Mills: I’m 43 years old, and I look back and he’s 41 and how much he accomplished. Playing in the league 20 years, man. But I think what he was beginning right now was gonna be an even bigger part of his legacy.
Bryant’s influence on the basketball world can still be seen through the number of parents that named children after him—and in one case, after Bryant and longtime Lakers teammate Shaquille O’Neal.
Sha’Kobe Hairston, junior, George Washington: In the summertime (in 2010), I was being funny with my dad, and he was, like, ‘I don’t know what I would have named you if they didn’t win that three-peat.’ I was, like, ‘What?’ He said, ‘When I named you Sha’Kobe, I saw strength and finesse, because Shaq had strength and Kobe had finesse.’ And he wanted me to carry that on.”
Jakobe Dixon, sophomore, George Washington: He meant a lot to me, for real. It didn’t hurt (Sunday) because I didn’t believe it was true. But it hurt me (Monday). I cried on the bus a little bit. He influenced me a lot. That’s been my favorite player all my life—I’m named after him. Shocked the world because he was a big influence on the world. He influenced more people to play basketball, so it really hurt.
Johnson: My Sunday school teacher had a dream that she was babysitting for us, and we had a son named Jacoby. Wife wasn’t even pregnant yet. Well, a month later, wife is pregnant, found out we’re having a boy, and I’m, like, ‘We’re naming him Jakobe.’ We’re not gonna spell it J-A-C-O-B-Y. We’re gonna spell it J-A-K-O-B-E and call him Kobe. When I did that, my brother got kind of mad. Huge Kobe fan, and he said, ‘Man, I was gonna name my son Kobe!’ But he put Bryant as his son’s middle name.
Bryant was born in Philadelphia and played his entire professional career in Los Angeles, but his appeal to fans stretched far beyond there. Sure, he frustrated fan bases in Sacramento and Portland and Phoenix and Minnesota and elsewhere by preventing their great teams of the early 2000s from ever winning a championship. But Bryant was undoubtedly respected in all basketball circles for what was clearly one of the top skill sets the league has ever seen.
Deauti Harris, George Washington head girls basketball coach: Heroes come and go, but legends are forever. Over the years, I have watched Kobe grow from a boy to a man. His influence was heavy. The impact that he left behind is impeccable. Thanks for inspiring the world through your God-given talents. You will be missed, Kobe. Many thoughts and prayers go out to your family, friends and the nation.
Tim Smith: His legacy will be with us forever, and he will be missed forever. My deepest sympathy goes out to all the victims, families and friends, as well as the basketball fans all over the world.
Johnson: I spoke at a funeral Saturday, I just lost a friend of mine, and I said, ‘We all have a start and a finish, but our life is measured based on that hyphen in between the dates. What did you do right there that affected people?’ Kobe did a lot. In 41 years, man, he lived a full life. He had so much more to offer.
Mills: We live here in rural Virginia, but his impact on people’s lives was worldwide.