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Kobe Bryant (1978–2020), basketball legend

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Led the Lakers to five NBA titles

Kobe Bryant was one of the greatest players to put on an NBA uniform. Bryant played all 20 of his seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, leading them to five NBA titles. Wearing his familiar number 24, the shooting guard was an 18-time All-Star and a two-time NBA finals MVP. An unstoppable scorer from outside and inside, he averaged 25 points a game in his career. Bryant was the NBA's fourth highest scorer of all time and the league's first guard to play 20 seasons. When he started with the Lakers in 1996, Bryant was the youngest person ever to play in an NBA game — he skipped college in favor of going pro, and he was just 17 when he signed with the Lakers and a little over 18 when he played his first game. Bryant won two gold medals for Team USA in the Olympics, in 2008 and 2012.

Died: January 26, 2020 (Who else died on January 26?)

Details of death: Died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, at the age of 41. Bryant's 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others also died in the crash. 

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An unstoppable career

The Lakers knew they wanted Bryant even before he graduated high school. General manager Jerry West scouted him at a high school game, commenting, "He's better than anyone on our team right now." Then he engineered a scenario in which the Charlotte Hornets drafted Bryant with the promise to trade him to the Lakers immediately, in exchange for veteran center Vlade Divac. It was rare, then, for players to arrive in the NBA straight from high school, but Bryant made sure the Lakers didn't regret their choice. By the 2000s, he was a star, part of a dominating team alongside Shaquille O'Neal. And in 2006, he played one of the NBA's highest-scoring games of all time, with 81 points. It was second only to Wilt Chamberlain's record of 100, set in 1962, and both records still stand.

In 2003, Bryant was charged with sexual assault and false imprisonment in a case that rocked the basketball world. Bryant apologized, acknowledging that "I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter," as he said in a prepared statement. The criminal case against Bryant was dropped when his accuser refused to testify, and a later civil suit was settled out of court.

Bryant continued his legendary career until his 2016 retirement, though his later years with the team were plagued by injuries. In his final game on April 13, 2016, Bryant scored 60 points — a season high for the NBA and an age record, with Bryant becoming the oldest player ever to score 60 points or more in a game. Bryant wrote a poem in his final season, "Dear Basketball," a love letter to the game that was his life. The following year, Bryant turned the poem into a short film with the help of director and animator Glen Keane. The short won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, and Bryant became the first African American to win that award and the first former professional athlete to win an Oscar in any category. 

From "Dear Basketball":

Dear Basketball,

From the moment

I started rolling my dad's tube socks

And shooting imaginary

Game-winning shots

In the Great Western Forum

I knew one thing was true:

I fell in love with you.

What they said about him

"I am in shock over the tragic news of Kobe's and Gianna's passing. Words can't describe the pain I'm feeling. I loved Kobe — he was like a little brother to me. We used to talk often and I will miss those conversations very much. He was a fierce competitor, one of the greats of the game and a creative force. Kobe was also an amazing dad who loved his family deeply — and took great pride in his daughter's love for the game of basketball. Yvette joins me in sending my deepest condolences to Vanessa, the Lakers organization, and basketball fans around the world." —basketball hall-of-famer Michael Jordan, in an official statement Sunday

"We're literally standing here, heartbroken, in the house that Kobe Bryant built. Right now. Coby and his daughter Gianna and all of those that have been tragically lost today are in our spirit. They're in our hearts. They're in our prayers. They're in this building. And I would like to ask everybody to take a moment and just hold them inside of you. Hold them inside of you, and share our strength and our support with their families." —singer Alicia Keys, hosting the Grammy Awards Sunday night at the Staples Center in Los Angeles 

"Kobe created, took and sunk any shot he wanted. He thumbed his nose at the very idea of a usage-efficiency curve. He was one of the most truly versatile scoring threats the NBA had ever seen." —FiveThirtyEight, via Twitter

"Kobe was so much more than an athlete, he was a family man. That was what we had most in common. I would hug his children like they were my own and he would embrace my kids like they were his. His baby girl Gigi was born on the same day as my youngest daughter Me'Arah." —basketball hall-of-famer Shaquille O'Neal

"Kobe was a legend on the court and just getting started in what would have been just as meaningful a second act. To lose Gianna is even more heartbreaking to us as parents. Michelle and I sent love and prayers to Vanessa and the entire Bryant family on an unthinkable day." —former President Barack Obama

"We met as teenagers. We followed similar paths. We went from high school to the pros and our baby girls grew up together. People don't know this, but he was my secret coach. He pushed me and motivated me, especially toward the end of my career when I needed him most." —MLB star Alex Rodriguez

"Kobe Bryant was a giant who inspired, amazed, and thrilled people everywhere with his incomparable skill on the court — and awed us with his intellect and humility as a father, husband, creative genius, and ambassador for the game he loved." —Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti

"Today. the world lost a legend. Kobe Bryant's 20 year career with the Lakers raised the bar for every player. He willed his team to triumphs. Competed with unparalleled ferocity. Defied the odds. Simply put — he was an icon. Our hearts go out to his family and fans." —California Governor Gavin Newsom

"My friend, a legend, husband, father, son, brother, Oscar winner and greatest Laker of all time is gone. It's hard to accept. Kobe was a leader of our game, a mentor to both male and female players." —basketball hall-of-famer Magic Johnson

Our Photo and Video Gallery in memory of Kobe

Full obituary: Los Angeles Times