Today marks the 2nd anniversary of the tragic accident that led to the untimely passing of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and 7 other people in a helicopter crash. An incident that shocked the entire world, Bryant's death led to raw expressions of grief from not just NBA fans, but legends of the game, players that had known and competed with Kobe. Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal were among the many to pay heartfelt tributes to the Mamba.
Los Angeles Lakers legend Jerry West was a central character in Kobe's arrival to the NBA, trading Vlade Divac to get Bryant's draft rights and ensuring that he became a Laker. He would then go on to bring Shaquille O'Neal and Phil Jackson to Los Angeles, providing Kobe the team he would win a three-peat with. Speaking to The New York Times on the anniversary of the tragedy, West opened up on how he felt in the aftermath of Bryant's passing.
Interviewer: "When you think about Kobe, what comes to mind?
Jerry West: "It’s really interesting because he didn’t have a full life. I saw him become a great father. Used to see him, in particular after he retired — he and his daughter [Gianna], who were both killed in that tragic helicopter crash. I just saw this enormous love and respect for this little girl. She was kind of the apple of his eye.
"He was just one of those unique players that comes along. He had a big personality. He was very bright. He was going to be a bigger success off the court than on the court. He was taken away too young.
"Around my house, my kids, when they were young, were huge Kobe Bryant fans. They don’t live here, but in their bedrooms, which are still intact, you go in there and there’s stuff that reflects Kobe Bryant’s life as a player
"His influence in this house has always been here because he was in my house a lot. Watching him grow up, watching this insatiable desire to be the best. When he gets to the top of the mountain, all of a sudden, he’s climbing another mountain. And then it’s all gone."
Interviewer: "Do you think about the day he died?
West: "It’s hard not to be reminded of the day he passed away. I don’t think anyone will forget that for a long time. I’ve often wondered if he had lived to, say, Elgin Baylor’s age, or even my age, would people look at him the same way? I’m not sure they would. Just the shock and sadness of seeing this very young man’s life taken seemed impossible."
Interviewer: "Is it hard for you to talk about this?
West: "I probably talk a lot more about him than Elgin (Baylor) because of the timing and the tragedy of it. A life taken so young. Elgin is the one I probably think about more because I see myself. You get up every day and you can’t deny, thank God I’m still alive and, more importantly, I don’t have any real aches and ailments. Which is all, knock on wood, because I had a bunch of injuries."
Jerry West at 83 is still widely regarded as one of the NBA's greatest ever, as a player and as an executive. His role in the various dynasties that have graced the league cannot be overstated, and in some ways provides some insight into the sort of success Kobe Bryant himself could have enjoyed in the second half of his career.
After his retirement, Bryant was working on several projects related to film and television, writing, and business. With his elite mentality, Kobe was undoubtedly on his way to excelling in those fields as well. While there will always be sadness and regret when thinking about the tragic loss of Kobe, his daughter Gianna and all that perished with them, it is important to remember the legacy that the great Kobe Bryant left behind.