Anytime I ask to hear the story, my grandmother can explain to me in vivid detail where she was, what she was doing, the face of the unknown woman who informed her, and the time in which she learned that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, Texas on Friday, November 22nd, 1963.
My father can explain in vivid detail his confusing phone call with my mother from the North end of Manhattan Island shortly after the first plane hit the North World Trade Center tower on Tuesday, September 11th, 2001. My mother remembers the call while watching the second plane hit the South World Trade Center tower – my sister, just 16 months old, remembers seeing two buildings ignited on the TV.
Every generation has a defining moment or two that they remember in incredible detail like it happened yesterday; The one still fresh in my mind is Sunday, January 26th, 2020. The day the world stood still. The day Kobe and Gigi Bryant along with seven others were killed when their helicopter crashed into the hills of Calabasas, California.
The night before – Saturday, January 25th, 2020 – was a big night for the Los Angeles Lakers and their fans. In the third quarter of the team’s matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers, LeBron James passed Bryant’s 33,643 career points, moving into third place on the all-time NBA scoring list.
Bryant took to Instagram to congratulate James that Saturday night after the game. “On to #2 @kingjames! Keep growing the game and charting the path for the next.”
Bryant also shared words on Twitter, “Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother #33644”
Kobe and Gigi Bryant went to sleep planning to wake up Sunday morning and take a helicopter to Gigi’s basketball game at the Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, California.
I spent the night with my friend Blake, as we planned to go to sleep to wake up and take a train into New York City to attend the Jets House Sunday morning. We had caught part of the Lakers game and saw Bryant’s congratulatory Instagram post. Blake has always been a huge fan of Kobe. I didn’t watch much basketball growing up, but I was very familiar with him; for obvious reasons. After a long night of rehearsing the correct way to greet Sam Darnold, we woke up and hit the tracks. A round trip ticket to Penn Station followed by a cab across town that dropped us outside the original Shake Shack shack. Across the street – a block-long line to enter the Jets House held at SPIN New York 23. We stopped to buy water bottles at a next-door McDonalds before joining the crowd.
We awaited more lines inside to meet players and receive autographs, which we waited on while watching Jamal Adams on the Pro Bowl pregame show. We finally got to the front. Sam Darnold and Bless Austin greet Blake and me while signing our Jets gear that we brought. I reached for my phone to get a picture of everyone before we moved on from the meet and greet table. I glanced at the time – 12:45 pm EST on the dot.
We hung out and played ping pong with Jets fans for a bit longer before catching a train back home. We arrive back at the train station and find my car in the parking lot. It’s about 2:00 PM EST and we haven’t eaten, so we decide to drop off our autographed gear at my house and get lunch at a local sports bar.
We get to my house and drop everything off. After a brief greeting by my family, we’re back out the door. As I open the door, I take one step outside as I glance at my phone and see a message from a group chat that spelled out a simple: “Kobe Bryant died.”
I froze in the doorway and turned my phone for Blake to see. His face went pale. I was able to spit out a confused “What the hell?” My immediate reaction was “This needs to be fake. No other media outlets have confirmed this.” I didn’t know what to think. Blake didn’t know what to think, either. Still one foot in and one outside the door, I frantically googled a picture of Kobe in a Joe Namath jersey and posted it to Instagram. “Not Kobe man,” I wrote.
I threw my phone back in my pocket. I couldn’t accept what I had just read. We hopped in my car and headed for the sports bar. There was radio silence while I drove as Blake desperately refreshed twitter looking for any clarification. The short car ride consisted of the words “There’s no way it’s true man,” and silence.
We found a booth and immediately took to social media to find anything we could to clear up this horrifying misunderstanding. As we sat there, we watched as rumors swirled. Nobody was able to confirm if a crash had in fact occurred, if it had been Kobe Bryant in the helicopter, or if his family and anyone else was on board… nothing. Unconfirmed rumors that shook the foundation of the sports world and beyond.
Then, the tweet that confirmed it all. I spun my phone around across the table for Blake to read silently to himself: “BREAKING: Kobe Bryant Has Died In A Helicopter Crash” via TMZ on Twitter. Not a word was exchanged between the two of us.
The confirmed reports continued to roll in as we sat at that table. Football, basketball, hockey, any and every sport being played on the many TVs slowly redirected coverage in the direction of a more important story. The unknown questions began to be answered. At 12:45 PM EST, Kobe Bryant (41), Gianna Bryant (13), John Altobelli (56), Keri Altobelli, Alyssa Altobelli, Sarah Chester (45), Payton Chester (13), Christina Mauser, and Ara Zobayan were killed on impact in a helicopter crash in Southern California. I sat in shock as I watched my best friend and adults at the tables around us get emotional as they learned more information. I felt numb. I sat in that booth, frozen. It was an unfamiliar out of body experience.
Every detail of Monday, January 26th, 2020 is still vivid in my mind today. I remember that horrific day clearer today, a year later, than I did on that day. I reflect on that day and remember the anxiety in the air. Not one pair of eyes strayed away from a phone or a TV. Everyone dropped everything and watched, hopelessly. It took me days to realize I hadn’t watched a single snap of the Pro Bowl that I’d been talking up all that morning.
As we reflect on the fatal accident a year later, many, including myself, have a better understanding and appreciation for the events leading up to, during, and after the world learned the horrible news. For weeks, vigils were held, murals were painted, and tributes were held in memory of Bryant. The world came together to mourn and remember one of the greatest sports figures ever. Today, we will do the same as we remember the legacy of the late great Kobe Bryant.