Just before 10 a.m. on Sunday, January 26, a Sikorsky S-76B helicopter flying in dense fog crashed into a hillside in the Santa Monica Mountains in Calabasas, killing everyone on board. The victims were identified as pilot Ara Zobaya, legendary LA Laker Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna; baseball coach John Altobelli and his wife Keri and daughter Alyssa; basketball coach Christina Mauser, and Gianna’s friend and teammate Payton Chester and her mother Sarah Chester.
Following the sudden death of 41-year-old Kobe Bryant, local fans from all generations gathered to grieve. The scene of Bryant’s fatal helicopter crash in Calabasas on a hillside near the intersection of Las Virgenes and Lost Hills roads attracted many onlookers seeking closure and offering respect. Lost Hills Road, which rarely has cars parked on both sides, was filled in the days following Bryant’s death, as fans walked to Juan Bautista de Anza park where they carefully laid flowers, candles, and Jerseys at a shrine in front of the basketball courts.
“I’m 43 and I’ve lived and died with Kobe,” mourner and fan Barnaby Hitzig, said. “I’m just thankful that I got to grow up with him.” Hitzig, who just had a newborn of his own, came to offer respect to a man who, he said, made him who he is.
“I saw his first game and went through all the trials and tribulations, the air balls in Utah, his court case, and the losses,” Hitzig said. “And then to celebrate the championships…. I feel like I’ve been a part of his life his whole career. It hurt me in such a huge way.”
In 2006, Hitzig met Bryant after he appeared on Fox’s The Best Damn Sports Show. Fourteen years later, Hitzig still has the photo readily available on his iPhone.
A few feet from Hitzig, 27-year-old Taylor Messuri also suffered the loss of Bryant. Out of respect for his hero, he chose to wear Bryant’s Lakers Jersey. He was initially hesitant to speak to the press because he was worried it would bring him to tears, but relented, saying, “He was an inspiration. That Mamba mentality will stick with all of us.”
Messuri, a shooting guard and small forward, attributes much of his passion for the game to Bryant.
Raquel Garrett, a mother whose son began participating in Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy when he was nine, stood with her arms folded looking over the site. Her son is now 15 and the Junior Varsity starting point guard at Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks. He was devastated, Garrett said.
“He wailed for a while. He’s doing his basketball thing because of Kobe and watched him since he was a year old.”
Even though Garret’s son has attended Mamba Sports Academy for several years, he never met Bryant.
“All of the trips he’s ever been to out there, he’s never had one opportunity to say hey or shake his hand,” Garret said. “So that is kinda like a dream [that’s] a wash for him. But I told him to keep his spirits up because there are only more opportunities from here.”
As a mother, the families of the victims and all of their pain is her first concern, Garrett said. “My prayers and thoughts and everything else are always going to be with them because of this tragic moment.”
Many of the children that Bryant inspired are now grown adults, including Kung Ou, who also donned Bryant’s jersey to pay his respects.
“He really got me into playing basketball,” Ou said. “I started watching him as an 11-year-old. Any time I need inspiration, I’ll watch some of his highlight videos to get me fired up.”
Behind the fan-made shrine for Bryant, children play ball on the courts at Juan Bautista de Anza park.
By Judith Brister