Former player was in his private helicopter with eight others, including one of his four daughters, when it crashed.
A five-time NBA champion, a double Olympic gold medallist, a speaker of multiple languages, an Oscar winner – and one of a handful of athletes known internationally simply by their first names.
Kobe Bryant, one of basketball’s all-time greats whose sporting appeal transcended the United States, was among nine people killed on Sunday in a helicopter crash near Los Angeles, home to the only team he ever played for: The Los Angeles Lakers.
The news of the 41-year-old’s death sent shockwaves through the sport world and beyond, with tributes pouring in from sports figures, politicians and fans around the world.
“He is a giant in the sports world,” Robert Littal, editor of Black Sports Online, told Al Jazeera. “It goes far beyond the NBA, far beyond basketball,” he said.
“It is hard to find anyone that doesn’t know Kobe. He was bigger than life.”
The cause of the crash – which also killed Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna – was not immediately clear.
The former NBA star was born in Philadelphia, in the US state of Pennsylvania, but spent much of his childhood in Italy, where his father Joe Bryant – also a professional basketball player – played for eight years.
“Forever one of us,” Pallacanestro Reggiana – the basketball team from the Italian city of Reggio Emilia – wrote on Twitter with images of a young Bryant in uniform.
Per sempre uno di noi ❤️ 🙏 pic.twitter.com/MaPrV7Jjpf
— Pall. Reggiana (@PallacReggiana) January 26, 2020
Upon returning to the US, Bryant jumped directly from high school to an illustrious 20-year career with the Lakers.
His on-the-court feats included winning the NBA championship on five occasions, as well as earning 18 All-Star selections, a regular-season Most Valuable Player Award in 2008 and two NBA finals MVP awards.
He also won two Olympic gold medals for the US (2008 and 2012) before retiring in 2016, in a legendary farewell match in which he scored 60 points against the Utah Jazz.
“He was one of the most extraordinary players in the history of our game with accomplishments that are legendary,” Commissioner Adam Silver said.
His Lakers tenure was marred by scandal when in 2003, Bryant was accused of raping a 19-year-old employee at a Colorado resort. Bryant said the two had consensual sex and prosecutors later dropped the felony sexual assault charge at the request of the accuser. The woman later filed a civil suit against Bryant that was settled out of court.
After retiring, Bryant remained hugely popular with basketball fans worldwide and delved into other projects, including opening a production company.
In 2018, he won an Oscar for his contributions to Dear Basketball, an animated short about his relationship to the game.
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 send love and prayers to Vanessa and the entire Bryant family on an unthinkable day.
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) January 26, 2020
“Kobe was a legend on the court and just getting started in what would have been just as meaningful a second act,” former US President Barack Obama said on Twitter.
US President Donald Trump said: “The loss of his beautiful daughter, Gianna, makes this even more devastating.”
Most people will remember Kobe as the magnificent athlete who inspired a whole generation of basketball players. But I will always remember him as a man who was much more than an athlete. pic.twitter.com/9EZuwk8wrV
— Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (@kaj33) January 26, 2020
Kobe, who also spoke Italian and Spanish, was also a hugely popular figure in Asia, especially in China.
His playing appearances, including at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics where the US won, were exceeded by his promotional appearances in the country, both on behalf of his own brand and basketball generally.
He remained popular in China even after his retirement, frequently engaging via social media with Chinese fans.
The hashtag “Kobe passed away” was viewed more than 1.2 billion times on popular Chinese social media platform Weibo, and sparked more than a million posts within hours of the news.
In Taiwan, where the NBA is also an enormous draw, President Tsai Ing-wen tweeted that her “thoughts go out to the Bryant family & the families of all those who lost loved ones today.”
“Kobe inspired a generation of young Taiwanese basketball players, & his legacy will live on through those who loved him,” Tsai wrote.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro also took to Twitter to express his condolences for Bryant’s death, describing him as a “sports giant” who “will be remembered forever”.
RIP Kobe Bryant 1978-2020.
Sports icon. pic.twitter.com/aOTWyPtyD3
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) January 26, 2020
Former international football stars – Thierry Henry from France and Argentia’s Diego Maradona as well as current Barcelona striker Luis Suarez – were among those who offered their condolences on Twitter, as they shared old images with the NBA star.
Literally devastated to hear the news about @kobebryant, his daughter Gianna and all those on board the helicopter crash. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and also of the other victims. #RIP #INSPIRATION #LEGEND pic.twitter.com/6ZW3VrDqzn
— Thierry Henry (@ThierryHenry) January 26, 2020
Conmovido por la mala noticia 😔 lo siento mucho por KOBE y las demás víctimas. Mucha fuerza a sus familiares y seres queridos 🙏 Descansa en paz !!! pic.twitter.com/5WlEaapRGL
— Luis Suarez (@LuisSuarez9) January 26, 2020