Vanessa Bryant had experienced the unthinkable. On January 26, 2020, her husband, former Los Angeles Lakers player Kobe Bryant, and their 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, died in a tragic helicopter crash. And the world mourned for days while the wife and mother grieved in private. Then, on January 30, she finally broke her silence in a heartbreaking Instagram post.
Now, Kobe and Gianna had boarded a helicopter along with seven others. And they planned to travel from Newport Beach to Thousand Oaks, north west of Los Angeles. There stood Kobe’s Mamba Sports Academy, where he coached young athletes. Among his students was his 13-year-old daughter, a basketball player who he saw as his legacy in the game.
But Kobe, Gianna, and the rest of the passengers wouldn’t make it to their destination. Instead, their pilot encountered a thick layer of fog. And while he tried to ascend to avoid it, he lost contact with air-traffic control. Minutes later, 911 calls started pouring in, as witnesses reported a tragic crash – one that would change Vanessa’s life forever.
For former Lakers basketball player Kobe Bryant, traveling by helicopter served a very practical purpose. You see, he and his wife, Vanessa, had four daughters together: Natalia, Gianna, Bianka and Capri. And sitting in Los Angeles traffic meant that the proud father often missed out on his children’s milestones.
According to People, Bryant said in 2018, “I was sitting in traffic and I wound up missing like a school play. I had to figure out a way where I could still train and focus (as a professional player) on the craft but still not compromise family time. So that’s when I looked into helicopters, to be able to get down and back in 15 minutes and that’s when it started.”
So Bryant relied on helicopters to shuttle himself around Los Angeles, often to and from his Mamba Sports Academy. There, his staff led adult and youth athletes through rigorous training to enhance their athletic potential. Among the Mamba trainees was his daughter, Gianna, who played basketball on the Lady Mamba squad – coached by the former Laker himself.
Now, on January 25, 2020 Bryant had traveled the exact same 30-minute journey by helicopter from California’s John Wayne Airport to Camarillo Airport. From there, he would have driven 20 minutes to get to Mamba Sports Academy. In total, the 50-minute journey was much shorter than the two-hour drive from the basketball star’s Newport Beach home.
And the next day, Bryant would once again board his helicopter for Mamba Sports Academy. But this time, the journey would end in unimaginable tragedy. Yes, on the morning of January 26, eight people boarded the Sikorsky S-76B helicopter alongside the former Laker. His 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, flew with her dad, as they had a 12 p.m. game with the Lady Mambas.
Furthermore, Bryant welcomed some of Gianna’s teammates and their parents onto the aircraft for the short journey. That’s right, Lady Mamba players Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester, both 13, boarded the aircraft along with their respective parents, Keri Altobelli, John Altobelli and Sarah Chester. What’s more, the Mambas’ assistant coach Christina Mauser came along for the ride. Meanwhile, pilot Ara Zobayan would take them all to their destination.
So at 9:06 a.m., the helicopter took off from Orange County and headed for its northern Los Angeles destination. Within 15 minutes, the aircraft entered a holding pattern over Glendale, California. You see, Zobayan flew in circles as he awaited a response to his request for special visual flight rules (SVFR) clearance.
With SVFR clearance, Zobayan could continue chartering Bryant and the rest of his passengers in spite of decreased visibility outside. And if air traffic control agrees to SVFR, they keep in closer contact with the aircraft as it flies. On this day, fog loomed over Los Angeles to the point that the LA Police Department grounded their helicopters.
Eventually, Burbank controllers granted Zobayan’s request for SVFR clearance, requiring the pilot to stay at or below an altitude of 2,500 feet. So he followed along the Ronald Reagan freeway below, which eventually brought him into airspace controlled by Van Nuys air-traffic controllers. But they approved Zobayan’s next move, in which he turned the helicopter southwest so that he could follow along the Ventura Freeway.
Next, Zobayan contacted Van Nuys controllers to ask for flight following assistance, radar that helps pilots to avoid air traffic. However, according to CNN, they denied his request because he was flying too low to use such a resource. After that, he advised the control tower that he’d be ascending in order to bypass a cloud layer.
Then at 9:42 a.m., an air traffic controller reached out to Zobayan, according to CNN. They said, “So, you’re requesting flight following? Say intentions. You’re still too low level for flight following at this time.” Alarmingly, the pilot didn’t reply. And the National Transportation Security Board (NTSB) said that the aircraft disappeared from the radar a mere three minutes later.
Two minutes later, 911 calls started to roll in as witnesses reported a helicopter crash to police. And multiple callers didn’t even see the aircraft fall from the sky – but they heard the collision. According to Entertainment Tonight, one person said, “I just heard a helicopter go over me… it went over my head. It’s thick in clouds, and then I just heard a pop and it immediately stopped.”
However, experts have been able to determine that Bryant’s helicopter plummeted somewhat from the sky, falling 800 feet in 15 seconds. Shockingly, the aircraft erupted into flames when it hit the ground, igniting a quarter-acre brush fire. And debris from the helicopter had scattered up to 600 feet away from the crash site.
By Wednesday, January 29, a press release from the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner said that they had “identified all nine of the victims who died.” They did so “through the use of DNA and fingerprints.” On top of that, they were able to cite blunt trauma as the cause of death for everyone on board.
Soon enough, tributes poured in for the crash victims. Yes, Kurt Deetz worked with Zobayan and remembered him as “a friend and a trustworthy pilot,” according to CNN. While neighbor Robert Sapia said that Zobayan took great pride in his work and loved to share photos with his celebrity clientele.
Like the Bryants, other families were ripped apart by the tragedy. For instance, the Altobellis lost three family members – parents John and Keri Altobelli, as well as daughter Alyssa. And furthermore like the Bryants, the Altobellis – who leave behind a son and daughter – often flew to Lady Mamba matches. Patriarch John was actually a baseball coach at Orange Coast College (OCC), where people remembered him fondly. And his son who survives him, J.J, is a scout for the Boston Red Sox.
In a statement, OCC athletics director Jason Kehler said, “John was a tremendous coach and an even better friend. Beyond that, he was an amazing mentor to all of the students and athletes that he taught and coached. He treated them all like family and his impact will live on forever.”
Meanwhile, the husband of Lady Mambas’ assistant coach, Christina Mauser, struggled to find the words in the light of her death. Indeed, Matt Mauser expressed his anguish in a January interview on the Today show. He said, “I got three small kids and am trying to figure out how to navigate life with three kids and no mom.”
In fact, Matt shared with Today how Bryant had hand-picked Christina for the Lady Mambas’ assistant position, which she held alongside her coaching job at a Corona del Mar school. The widower added, “He didn’t choose Christina for just any ordinary reason. She was extraordinary. She was incredibly witty, funny, funny like nobody you’ve ever met.”
And a former elementary school principal of teenager Payton Chester, who died alongside her mother Sarah, paid tribute to them both. Yes, Todd Schmidt wrote in a Facebook post, “While the world mourns the loss of a dynamic athlete and humanitarian, I mourn the loss of two people just as important… their impact was just as meaningful, their loss will be just as keenly felt, and our hearts are just as broken.”
When it emerged that Bryant and Gianna were aboard the helicopter, fans and celebrities alike could barely process the news. In a Twitter statement, the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) said, “We are stunned and devastated by the news of the sudden passing of Kobe Bryant. Words cannot express his impact on our players, the NBA and the game of basketball.”
Its statement concluded, “This is a monumental loss for the entire basketball community and our hearts and quite simply broken.” Meanwhile, the private school where Gianna studied said its “community [was] devastated” in losing the 13-year-old. In a statement, Harbor Day School said, “She was always smiling. She looked out for the underdog and never left anyone out.”
Touchingly, the loss of both Bryant and Gianna highlighted the bond that they shared. For both father and daughter had a real passion for basketball. And Gianna dreamed of playing in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) to continue her family’s legacy. In fact, Bryant revealed in a 2018 interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live! that he felt the same way.
Yes, Bryant, the father of four girls, said on the show, “The best thing that happens is when we go out and fans would come up to me and she’ll be standing next to me. And they’ll be like, ‘You’ve gotta have a boy, you and V (Vanessa) gotta have a boy. You gotta have somebody to carry on your tradition, the legacy.’”
In that situation, Gianna would always have a response. Bryant said, “She’s like, ‘Oy, I got this.’” And her father would only agree with her, too. He recalled, “I’m like, ‘that’s right. Yes, you do, you do got this.’” Although the 13-year-old never had the chance to see that dream through, she and her father have left an indelible mark on the world.
Although the world reacted immediately after Bryant and Gianna’s deaths, it took a bit longer for their family to find the words. But on January 30, wife and mom Vanessa Bryant took to Instagram to express her and her daughters’ grief in losing a husband and father, as well as a sister.
Vanessa began, “My girls and I want to thank the millions of people who’ve shown support and love during this horrific time. Thank you for all the prayers. We definitely need them. We are completely devastated by the sudden loss of my adoring husband, Kobe – the amazing father of our children; and my beautiful, sweet Gianna – a loving, thoughtful, and wonderful daughter, and amazing sister to Natalia, Bianka, and Capri.”
From there, Vanessa acknowledged the seven other passengers who perished in the tragic crash. That’s right, she wrote, “We are also devastated for the families who lost their loved ones on Sunday, and we share in their grief intimately.” Then the mother-of-four went on to describe the anguish that she and her daughters Natalia, Bianka and Capri felt.
The mom went on to explain, “There aren’t enough words to describe our pain right now. I take comfort in knowing that Kobe and Gigi both knew that they were so deeply loved. We were so incredibly blessed to have them in our lives. I wish they were here with us forever. They were our beautiful blessings taken from us too soon.”
From there, Vanessa looked to the future – one that she had a hard time seeing in the wake of her loss. She wrote, “I’m not sure what our lives hold beyond today, and it’s impossible to imagine life without them. But we wake up each day, trying to keep pushing because Kobe, and our baby girl, Gigi, are shining on us to light the way.” Then the matriarch gave an insight into her deepest wishes.
Yes, she said, “Our love for them is endless – and that’s to say, immeasurable. I just wish I could hug them, kiss them and bless them. Have them here with us, forever.” And she concluded by asking for her family’s privacy as they mourned. But touchingly, she pointed fans to the Mamba Sports Foundation’s website, where they could “further Kobe and Gianna’s legacy in youth sports.”
Since then, Vanessa has remained relatively quiet as she and her daughters process their loss. However, she has taken to Instagram a few more times to pay tribute to her husband and daughter. Then, on February 1, she shared a photo of Bryant and Gianna’s jerseys side-by-side. And she captioned the image, “There is no #24 without #2.”
The next day, Vanessa shared an illustration of a smiling Gianna made by Instagram user _vivalareina. Along with the artwork, Vanessa wrote, “Seeing my baby girl smile and happy again with a basketball under her arm, wrapped in [purple and yellow] love just warmed my heart. Thank you for this.”
Then, on February 5, Vanessa posted to Instagram a portrait of Bryant smiling into the camera. With it, she wrote, “#mybestfriend #theBestdaddy Miss you so much. #handsome #sweet #funny #silly #lovinghusband.” Her heart-wrenching message concluded, “Miss you saying, ‘Buongiorno, principessa/reina,’” Italian for “Good morning, princess/queen.” You see, Kobe had strong links to Italy, having grown up there while his father played for several basketball teams all over the country.
On the same day, Vanessa reportedly attended a ceremony for Gianna, in which Harbor Day School retired the 13-year-old’s basketball jersey. And she shared several photos and videos from the event, as well as sentiments of her own. On one photo, she wrote, “My Gianna. God I miss you. I’ve been so lucky to have woken up to see your gorgeous face and amazing smile for 13 years. Wish it would’ve been until my last breath.”
On another photo – which featured Gianna’s retired #2 jersey – Vanessa shared another emotional memory of her daughter. She wrote, “My Gigi. I love you! I miss you. You’ve taught us all that no act of kindness is ever too small. Mommy is still and will ALWAYS be so proud of you mamacita.”
So while a terrible tragedy has brought pain to families and the wider world, it seems collective grief can help heal wounds. And Kobe’s wife Vanessa has helped lead the conversation by reaching out to fellow mourners unconnected to the accident. As she went on to explain via Instagram on February 11, “I know what I’m feeling is normal. It’s part of the grieving process. I just wanted to share in case there’s anyone out there that’s experienced a loss like this… Please continue to pray for all.”