A Year Later, the Story of Kobe’s Life and Death Off the Court Is Still Being Written

Amid the mourning and considerable legal tussling, Bryant’s legend continues to soar

One year after his death, Kobe Bryant is still in Los Angeles. He’s on the corner of East 4th and Seaton downtown. At Crenshaw and MLK. On the back wall of Tweedy Medical Group in South Gate. Along Ocean Front Walk in Venice. According to a website tracking murals of the Laker great, most of which were painted after he and his daughter Gianna (“Gigi”) died in a January 2020 helicopter crash, there are 473 public artworks dedicated to Bryant.

The Lakers’ 2020 NBA Championship rings include tributes to the Black Mamba. A gold version of the snake encircles each player’s number. Hidden compartments inside the hulking gold, amethyst, and diamond rings contain images of the team’s retired jerseys—Bryant’s are the only ones in black. Bryant will never be forgotten, especially in Los Angeles, but the story of his death and life off the court is still being written.

As Bryant’s fans continue to mourn, his oldest daughter, Natalia, is preparing for college. Five months after her father died, his youngest daughter, Capri, turned one. His other surviving daughter, Bianka, is now four. Meanwhile, as she single-parents her way through the grief, Bryant’s wife, Vanessa, is embroiled in at least three major lawsuits, two related to the crash that killed her husband, daughter, and seven others, and one involving an ugly financial dispute with her mother.

Until the release of a recent People magazine feature, Vanessa hadn’t spoken to the press about her loss or legal battles. Instead, she released the occasional statement, deferred to her army of lawyers, and left those curious about the Bryant family’s well-being to search for clues on her Instagram account. As with many feeds on the platform, most images belie the truth—in this case, of a close-knit clan devastated by tragedy. Here is the family cracking up on a snow-tubing trip. Here they are celebrating Bianka’s birthday with an over-the-top Cinderella-themed party. Here is the family of four, down from six, dressed in black and draped across a white sofa at Christmastime. And always, amid the posts of family and celebrations, photos of Kobe and Gigi.

The crash of the luxury helicopter carrying Bryant and Gigi, which slammed into a Calabasas hillside at nearly 200 miles an hour, was determined to be the fault of pilot Ara Zobayan, who violated flight rules by navigating into clouds, according to a report released by the National Transportation Safety Board on February 9. Since confirmed preliminary findings ruled out mechanical failure and found that Zobayan was sober at the time of the crash. Bryant took many trips on the chopper, traveling between his home in Orange County and games at Staples Center. So associated was Bryant with the aircraft, that the night of his final home game as a Laker, fans sitting courtside received a Kobe action figure that transformed into a remote-controlled helicopter.

The Sikorsky S-76B that Bryant chartered was built in 1991 and lacked what’s known as a terrain awareness warning system. The technology alerts the pilot when the helicopter flies too close to the ground. Shortly before the crash, Zobayan, possibly disoriented in a cloud bank, radioed air traffic controllers that the helicopter was ascending, when, in fact, it was speeding into a hillside.

In February 2020, Vanessa filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Zobayan’s estate and Island Express, which operated the helicopter. The suit claims that Zobayan, who had flown Bryant for years, had been previously cited for flying in unsafe conditions, and that Island Express lacked a proper policy for canceling flights due to weather. Family members of the seven others killed in the crash have sued on similar grounds. In response, Island Express filed a complaint alleging that two air traffic controllers were liable.

“The hours after the crash were filled with confusion,” Vanessa’s lawyers wrote in a suit she has filed against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. As photographers and onlookers rushed to the crash site, Vanessa met with Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva. Authorities closed roads and imposed a no-fly zone at her request.

But some deputies couldn’t resist snapping cell-phone pictures of the wreckage and, reportedly, the remains of victims. According to TMZ, a sheriff’s trainee at a bar, wanting to impress a woman, flashed photos of the crash site he had on his cell phone. A disgusted bartender reported the unseemly behavior to authorities.

The sheriff’s department announced it had identified eight deputies who had taken photographs and launched an internal investigation. But in her lawsuit alleging invasion of privacy and infliction of emotional distress, Vanessa said a cover-up was underway. Indeed, a few months earlier, the union representing sheriff’s deputies filed a court order to prevent the internal investigation from becoming public. As the one-year anniversary of the crash approached, Governor Gavin Newsom’s “Kobe Bryant Law,” which prohibits first responders from taking personal photos at crime scenes, went into effect.

As those legal battles played out in court, Vanessa suddenly found herself engaged in a skirmish much closer to home. Last December, her 68-year-old mother, Sofia Laine, sued her for financial support. In court documents filed in California, Laine said that she had worked as an unpaid “longtime personal assistant and nanny” for the family, adding that before his death Kobe had promised to take care of her “for the rest of her life.” Instead, Laine charged, after her son-in-law’s death, that “Vanessa took each and every step she could to void and cancel all of Kobe Bryant’s promises.”

The suit compelled Vanessa to issue a rare public response. In a statement, she accused her estranged mother of extortion and said she had supported her for more than 20 years. “She now wants to backcharge me $96 per hour for supposedly working 12 hours a day for 18 years for watching her grandchildren,” she stated. “My husband never promised my mother anything. He would be so disappointed in her behavior and lack of empathy.”

kobe bryant
Kobe at an American Film Institute event in 2016

Mike Windle/Getty Images for Turner

Amid the legal tussling, Bryant’s legend continues to soar. By the timehe died at 41, the ballplayer was well into his second act. He left the court eager for challenges beyond professional sports. He invested in an energy drink company and cofounded a venture capital firm, but his passion was a media production company called Granity, which he launched in 2016. The studio produced a documentary about Bryant’s career and an Oscar-winning short film based on a letter Bryant wrote about basketball. But in addition to these vanity projects, Granity also created children’s content. The Punies is a podcast about a group of adventurous neighborhood kids. There is also a series of young adult fantasy novels, the last of which debuted in December.

In a television interview two months before his death, Bryant was asked how he wanted to be remembered 50 years into the future. “As a person that was able to create stories that inspired children and families to bond,” he replied. His then three-year-old daughter, Bianka, he pointed out, had never seen him play basketball. “In her mind, Dad is just a person that puts out stories,” he said. “If I’m doing everything right, that’s what will happen.”

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