When Los Angeles Lakers general manager, Rob Pelinka, takes the mic at the Staples Center, he has a sad duty to perform. Indeed, he must say farewell to much-loved hoops legend Kobe Bryant, who devastatingly passed away some weeks earlier. But as he does so, he shares the final text Bryant ever sent. And what it reveals stuns the grieving listeners.
As you may already be aware, Bryant was a passenger on a Sikorsky S-76B helicopter that crashed in the hills of Calabasas, California. The late basketball player wasn’t alone, either. With him, you see, was his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna. The pair were taking a short trip across Los Angeles to a basketball tournament in Thousand Oaks, CA. Seven other people also lost their lives on that trip.
Among those to die were hoops coach Christina Mauser and three members of the Altobelli family. Dad John coached baseball at Orange County College and was traveling with his wife, Keri, and daughter Alyssa. Like Gianna, Alyssa was a player at Mamba Academy – a sporting organization for youngsters that was set up by Bryant.
Bryant’s demise naturally left the world of basketball shaken. For he had undoubtedly been one of its all-time greatest stars. Since joining the NBA straight from high school, where he had been a standout prospect, he starred as a shooting guard for the Lakers. And this is where he’s stayed throughout his whole 20-season career as a professional.
You see, the early promise that Bryant showed blossomed into incredible talent. And there was no height that he didn’t reach: winning not only five NBA rings but enjoying selection as an All-Star 18 times and making the All-NBA Team 15 times. He was also named Most Valuable Player (MVP) for the 2008 season and was the Finals MVP twice.
Renowned for his partnership with Shaquille O’Neal – with whom Bryant had a beef – the legend took the Lakers to a three peat at the start of the 2000s. But when an accusation of sexual assault hit the headlines, his reputation took a knock. This failed to materialize in court, however, and so sporting success continued for Bryant. Then, after O’Neal left, Bryant hit scoring highs twice and ended the decade with two more championship wins.
While still only 34, Bryant hit 30,000 points for his career – the youngest player to achieve that mark. And he went on to become the Lakers’ top scorer of all time. That’s not all, though. To cap his career off, he won an Oscar for a documentary about his life. So it’s probably no wonder that when he dubbed himself the “Black Mamba,” his fans followed suit.
Furthermore, when Bryant retired from playing basketball in 2016, he was able to find extra time for his all-female family. He and wife Vanessa had four daughters. So when he died, he left behind Natalia, 17, toddler Bianka and baby Capri – who was only seven months old.
But before that tragedy, Bryant had switched his focus to acting as a role model for his young girls. In 2018 he told People magazine why he’d made coaching them at basketball a priority in his life. He said, “A valuable lesson that I can teach them is what it means to pursue excellence and the commitment level that comes with that.”
Bryant, it seems, wasn’t too bothered about whether his girls followed in his footsteps. He continued, “At the same time, [I’m] making things fun and challenging, and [they’re] learning new things. But they’re having a blast. They’ve gotten extremely, extremely good over the course of the last year and are continuing to work and get better, man. It’s been fun.”
Coaching wasn’t everything that Bryant had to offer, though. You see, he also ran a podcast, called “The Punies,” to provide inspiration to kids who struggle with anxiety and self-doubt. In the series of scripted shows, Bryant laid out lessons in life such as how to take failure positively and how to get value out of teamwork.
As Bryant explained, “You have these outside forces pulling you in different directions that distract from the fact that you just simply need to put the right foot in front of the left, the left in front of the right, and just keep on moving. The lead-up for all of these episodes is, despite the noise, the confusion, the inner monologue and outer distractions, it ultimately comes down to just placing one foot in front of the other.”
And if that wasn’t enough, Bryant made it his focus to help kids learn how to excel at athletics. For instance, he also used books to get his message across, and he put his words into practice by forming a sports academy. One of the beneficiaries of the sports star’s work was his daughter Gianna, who was a promising basketballer.
Bryant coached Gianna for a lengthy period, as he aimed to give her the best attributes for her age group. But he was always clear about the fact that she shouldn’t just pursue the steps that he had set out for her. Yes, he was adamant that she should also aim to have some fun with it.
And Bryant would often show off the results on social media, where he posted Gianna’s moves. She particularly showed talent in driving into the paint – in other words, getting into the opposition’s goalmouth area. But he didn’t just aim to make her a power player on her own. No, he also taught her the importance of passing the ball in order to let someone else to try their luck with a shot.
So successful was Bryant’s coaching that Gianna was able to set her sights on the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA). In fact, when Bryant shared that goal on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in 2018, he let the chat show host in on a secret. Bryant said that people would come up to him and insist, “you gotta have a boy, you gotta have someone to carry on the tradition, the legacy.” But Bryant pointed out that Gianna wouldn’t have that. He said, “She’s like, ‘Oy, I got this.’”
Bryant’s commitment to women’s sport went pretty deep, too. You see, he was outspoken in his support of it after he retired from the NBA. And not only did he coach Gianna, but he also mentored other hoops players across the globe. Basketball wasn’t the only sport that he promoted, either – with women’s soccer being another.
His commitment to these sports will undoubtedly be missed. When Bryant boarded the helicopter on January 26, 2020, he was on his way to a competition that was part of The Mamba Cup Tournament Series. And this was a league for the better young players from second up to eighth grade. In fact, Bryant explained on the series’ website his idea to “capture the benefits of league play while still honoring the tournament culture established by those who have built youth basketball to where it is today.”
There were set to be 11 tournaments from September through to March, ending with a championship competition. And Bryant’s own eighth-grade Mamba Club Team was taking its place in the round of competitions. So Bryant, Gianna and the other passengers aboard the flight were on their way to Thousand Oaks, the Mamba Sports Academy’s Ventura County home.
But tragically, the helicopter would never arrive, with mountain bikers first spotting smoke on a hillside at Calabasas. And it appeared that the aircraft had come down in the heavy fog, bursting into flames when it hit the ground. The chopper had seemingly plummeted fast, and no one aboard had survived the impact.
The helicopter had taken off from John Wayne Airport, south of L.A., around 9:06 a.m. And it was heading for Camarillo Airport. But at about 9:40 a.m. it appeared that the aircraft had been following the freeway, struggling to make its way in the fog. In his final transmission, the pilot said he would be climbing to get above a layer of cloud.
According to data, the helicopter climbed rapidly, swinging round to the left. But for some reason, having reached 2,300 feet, it started descending toward the ground. At 9:45 a.m. it was flying at 160 knots in a steep descent, and very soon it ran into the hillside at around 1,000 feet up.
As you can imagine, Bryant’s passing shocked Americans and basketball lovers all over the globe. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement, “The NBA family is devastated by the tragic passing of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna… He was generous with the wisdom he acquired and saw it as his mission to share it with future generations of players, taking special delight in passing down his love of the game to Gianna.”
When Bryant’s coach from high school, Gregg Downer, first heard what had happened, he found it so shattering that he couldn’t talk to the media. You see, he’d shared years with Bryant at the Lower Merion High School in Philadelphia. All he could say in the end was that he was “completely shocked and devastated.”
And hoops superstar Michael Jordan, who often got compared to Bryant, said, “Words can’t describe the pain I am 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.” But that’s not all.
Yes, former teammate and rival Shaquille O’Neal found that he “had no words to express the pain.” Further sentiments were shared by former star player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in a video tribute. And another legend, LeBron James, who had chatted with Bryant on the fatal morning, wrote on social media, “I’m heartbroken and devastated… I promise you I’ll continue your legacy.”
In fact, teams from the NBA found all sorts of weird and wonderful ways to pay tribute to Bryant during subsequent games. For instance, some violated the 24-second clock on shots, in tribute to Bryant’s jersey number. While others broke the rule allowing eight seconds to get the ball past midcourt. Meanwhile, Dallas Mavericks head honcho Mark Cuban retired the number 24, and some other players stopped wearing that number, too.
However, it wasn’t until a memorial service for Bryant at the Staples Center in L.A. that fans learned a stunning revelation. You see, Rob Pelinka, general manager of the L.A. Lakers, had received text messages from the former basketball star while Bryant was en route to Thousand Oaks. And the Lakers G.M. was willing to share them with those at the service.
Touchingly, Pelinka was left in no doubt what those messages said about Bryant. That’s because it turned out that as he traveled, his thoughts were all about getting a baseball internship for a young girl. And Pelinka concluded that Bryant’s “last human act was heroic.”
That’s right, the hoops superstar had asked Pelinka to help sort out an internship for the girl, who had apparently shown some promise. And her identity made the messages even more poignant. The girl in question, you see, was the surviving daughter of John Altobelli, who had perished with Bryant on the helicopter flight.
From the start, Pelinka explained what had happened. He said that there had been a buzz in his pocket as his phone had vibrated. Since he was at church at the time, he’d normally not have looked at the message. But he explained that he experienced “a gentle other-worldly nudge” to read and answer it.
And the Lakers G.M. was not surprised to see that the text was from Bryant, whom he communicated with every day. Pelinka said, “Kobe was asking me if I happen to know a certain baseball agent based in southern California. Since Kobe’s question didn’t have any urgency to it, I decided I’d wait until after church to respond.”
However, something made Pelinka think twice. He explained, “But then again there was a gentle nudge.” It seems that Bryant was keen on getting help for the girl. Pelinka continued, “Kobe vouched for the girl’s character, intellect and work ethic. He clearly wanted to champion a bright future for her.”
The basketball G.M. seemingly couldn’t ignore that kind of enthusiasm. He told the memorial service, “I texted Kobe right back.” But there would be no further answer. He added, “A handful of minutes later, Kobe and Gianna and seven other beautiful souls ascended into heaven. Kobe had been texting me from the helicopter.”
As Pelinka continued to explain, “The girl in that text chain was Lexi Altobelli, the surviving daughter of coach John Altobelli, who perished in the crash. Kobe’s last human act was heroic. He wanted to use his platform to bless and shape a young girl’s future. Hasn’t Kobe done that for all of us?”
Of course, Pelinka was not the only person to speak at the service. Vanessa Bryant, the wife of the deceased superstar, had some words to say about her daughter Gianna. She said, “She was daddy’s girl, but I know she loved her mama.” Heartbreakingly, Vanessa added, “She was one of my very best friends.”
Explaining her feelings about the tragedy that she had endured, Vanessa added, “God knew they couldn’t be on this Earth without each other. He had to bring them home to have them together.” And the grieving mom had some words for her husband, too. She said, “Babe, you take care of our Gigi.”
Vanessa also reassured Kobe that she would look after their surviving daughters. And after that, she wished him farewell on their behalf with words that moved those at the memorial service. She said, “We’re still the best team. We love and miss you, boo boo and Gigi.”
The devastated widow finished her heart-tugging tribute with wishes for her lost husband and child. She said, “May you both rest in peace and have fun in heaven, until we meet again one day.” Then she ended by saying, “We love you both and miss you, forever and always.”
Recalling Bryant’s character shortly after his death, ESPN’s SportsCenter host Elle Duncan remembered what he’d once said to her. Yes, he’d shared, “I would have five more girls if I could. I’m a girl dad.” Duncan’s tale went viral, and other dads shared their love for their daughters under the hashtag #GirlDad – a fitting epitaph for the basketball legend.