Like many of you I woke up on Sunday morning, Jan. 26 and ate my breakfast with my family. It started off as a regular Sunday morning in the Cruz household. My wife, son and I had wrapped up breakfast and began getting ready for the day. We discussed our plans for what we would be doing with the remainder of the weekend. At 11:57 a.m. I received the text that Kobe Bryant had died in a helicopter crash. I instantly went into a frantic state and hoped it was not true. It did not take long before ESPN NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski confirmed that Kobe Bryant had indeed passed away in a helicopter crash.
I stared at the phone for a few seconds and my tears started to fall. I then made the phone call to my oldest brother. My brother, Walter, is like my best friend. He and I are very close even though he lives in Texas. We talk sports daily. Well, Walter is a Lakers fan and in 1996 he (like many) knew Kobe was going to be special. Anyways back to my point of the phone call – when Walter answered he said “Well good morning Dennis” as is his normal greeting with a positive vibe. At that point I realized he had not heard the shocking news. I simply replied; “It’s not a good morning bro.” He asked why not; and I told him, “Kobe Bryant has died in a helicopter crash.” I couldn’t hold back the tears and said it again, “Walter, Kobe… Kobe…” It had the same feel to me as when my mother passed away back in 2014 as I had to break the news to him over the phone.
I grew up a Sacramento Kings fan; I am still a loyal fan to them. However, for two decades I watched and sat through Kobe destroying my team day after day, night after night, and year after year. Every time they matched up I could only hope Kobe would not go for 40 points. By the end of each Kings/Lakers game (70 percent of the time) Kobe and the Lakers would dash my dreams. Even though I hated to see what he did to my team, I always respected and admired what I witnessed.
On the court he will leave behind so many memorable moments. From wowing everyone in the 1997 NBA All-Star Slam Dunk contest, winning five NBA championships, MVP awards, multiple time Team USA Gold Medalists, 18 time NBA All-Star and 12 time All-Defensive Team. Other memorable nights in his career came with his 81-point effort against the Raptors or even his final NBA game in 2016 at Staples Center against the Utah Jazz where he scored 60 points. The proper way to go out.
He will go down as one of the most intimidating basketball players of all time. His stare down, his evil smirk were something you did not want to fall victim to if you were an opponent. His work ethic will never be matched. On Sunday afternoon; ESPN’s Jay Williams went on the air to share his thoughts on Kobe. It was difficult for him to speak but his story that he shared I will never forget. He spoke about his matchup against Kobe his rookie season. To prepare for it, Williams entered the gym and began shoot around. Kobe was watching him and began shooting as well. The two shot for hours and Williams stopped shooting as the game drew near. Kobe came over to him and said “I see you working out here, but you will never prepare harder than me, and I wanted to show you that.” It’s why he had the nickname “Black Mamba” He truly had that Mamba mentality.
He will forever be immortalized in the NBA but it was his post NBA life where some folks got to see the real Kobe Bryant. He was active in youth sports, his Mamba Academy where his daughter, Gianna was active as a basketball player. We saw ‘Gigi’ through the years courtside with him, not just at NBA games but WNBA games as well. Gigi was also on the helicopter. She was only 13 years old. She had a bright future ahead of her. Kobe had four daughters and no sons. Many people would ask Kobe in interviews “Do you wish you had a son so he can carry out your legacy?” Kobe would reply “No, Gigi will do that.”
Later Sunday night, more names came to light to make the already tragic event, became simply catastrophic. It was not just the Bryant family who suffered the worst day of their life, it was the Altobelli family whose world changed forever. John Altobelli, his wife Keri and 13-year-old daughter Alyssa also perished in that crash. Altobelli was a baseball coach in Southern California. He too is a role model to so many. He shaped lives on a daily basis. Young Alyssa was a teammate of Gigi’s. Another member on board that fateful morning was Christina Mauser. She too helped craft minds and taught young athletes how to carry themselves on and off the court. Mauser was an assistant coach of Gigi’s team. Another teammate of Gigi and Alyssa was Payton Chester. She and her mother Sarah also passed away. The pilot was Ara Zobayan. It’s been told that Zobayan has been a pilot of Kobe’s for years and Kobe trusted no one more than Zobayan to fly.
The NBA continued to play games as scheduled on Sunday. I am not sure who came up with the idea, but in the Raptors and Spurs game, the players held the ball for an eight second backcourt violation and then held the ball for a 24 second shot clock violation as a tribute to the numbers (8 and 24) Kobe wore. It spoke volumes and brought tears to everyone who witnessed it. Many players wrote messages on their shoes or wore the numbers 8 and 24 in their game.
Kobe may be gone but will truly never be forgotten. It’s impossible because he lives in so many of today’s basketball players, of all ages and genders. His intensity can be seen on LeBron James’s face. His ball handling skills can be seen in the hands and feet of up and coming superstar Trae Young. His fierce jump shot is that of Steph Curry, Buddy Hield, James Harden and so on.
We may never get the full story on what happened that morning. Fans from around the globe have made their way outside Staples Center in Los Angeles to pay their respects to Kobe and Gigi. The world is sending out their thoughts and prayers, making donations to their charities. One thing is for sure, the world is mourning over the lives that were lost on Jan. 26, 2020.
People debate what makes a hero. To me a hero is someone who inspires, stands up for what is right, helps mold and shapes young people’s minds and skill sets, and helps aspire to change the world through love and perseverance. I believe there were nine people on that helicopter that met those qualities.
When coping with loss everyone handles it differently. For me, and I have had my share of loss, I’ve learned that the best thing we can do is to carry on their legacy. However you view the person, try and live out their traits that made them special in the first place. You never have to truly say “goodbye” to someone. As long as you keep their memory alive, a piece of that person will live forever.
Dennis Cruz is a staff reporter for The Oakdale Leader, The Riverbank News and The Escalon Times. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 847-3021.