Doha, Qatar – NBA hall of famer Dikembe Mutombo was in Milan, Italy when he heard the news.
“My phone rang. It was the league (NBA) office. They said something has happened with Kobe … there was a helicopter crash, but we don’t know if there are survivors. [Later] the NBA security told me.”
Speaking to Al Jazeera, the eight-time NBA All-Star said he was heartbroken when it was confirmed that former Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant was killed along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven others in a helicopter crash in California on Sunday.
“It’s still very difficult for me to accept (his death) … It’s a very sad month, sad week for the NBA to lose one of the greatest basketball players that ever played our game; to lose a father, to lose a man that was a great husband, a great coach, great team-mate, mentor for young people.”
“I’m crying more also for his daughter, Gigi. She didn’t have to die. And also all those (other) loved ones who perished.”
Mutombo was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and moved to the United Statesin 1987 to study at Georgetown University, where he took up the sport at the urging of the university’s basketball coach. He was selected in the 1991 NBA draft, playing in the league until 2009 and he now represents the NBA as a global ambassador.
Mutombo remembered Bryant as a fierce competitor on the hardwood, having faced him several times, including at the NBA finals.
“There were many times that I went to the battlefield against him … He was the ‘Mamba’. Someone who played the game with determination, (no) fear, and wanted to dominate every one of the opponents that were in front of him. He didn’t fear nobody.”
Bryant and his Lakers defeated Mutombo’s Philadelphia 76ers four games to one to capture the NBA championship in 2001. It was Bryant’s second NBA title. He would go on to win three more championships, all with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Mutombo, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest defensive players of all time, also reminisced about how gracious Bryant was off the court, despite his competitive nature.
“I broke my NBA record on shot-blocking (while playing) against the Lakers. After the game, he came and gave me a hug and congratulated me for passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.”
Mutombo says Bryant’s legacy goes well beyond basketball.
“He was one of the greatest that ever played this game. But it’s more about the footprint he left behind, the impact. His impact on the game and the world; he will be judged on that.”
In the interview with Al Jazeera, Mutombo directly addressed Bryant’s family.
“I just want to send my condolences and my sympathy to the Bryant family, especially to Vanessa, his lovely wife and his three beautiful girls. I feel your pain. Our prayer goes to you guys, for what you’re going through. To Kobe’s family, to his father, mother and sisters, I know you lost someone very special, you lost your child,” he said.
“We are praying for you, may God be with you guys, keep you guys strong for these big losses you just suffered.”