Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash in January 2020 naturally shocked the entire world. To make things even worse, his young daughter Gianna had been with him, and she also perished – along with some of her friends. Tragically, nine people died in total. Once news of the tragedy broke, Kobe’s friends made saddening tributes to him on social media. One of these was Justin Timberlake, and he shared details of their last conversation.
Kobe was considered one of the best basketball players in the world. The man nicknamed “Black Mamba” was massively popular and truly beloved. He held multiple records in the sport and received several awards over the course of his career – including two Olympic gold medals. Furthermore, even his 2016 retirement didn’t stop him being a star.
Kobe was also a family man. He was married to a woman named Vanessa Bryant, who he had met back in 1999. Together they had four children – Natalia, Gianna, Bianka and Capri. The latter was less than one year old when her father and sister were killed – adding to an already terrible tragedy.
Kobe’s friends also felt the shock and horror of the family’s loss. And among those was singing star Justin Timberlake. He and Kobe had been friends since the pair were both teenagers. For years they had been doing projects together and supporting each other at awards shows.
For his part, Justin was also a big fan of basketball. In 2008 he hosted the 16th Annual ESPY Awards, and said, “I am starstruck. I mean, I grew up such a sports nut, and I’m still such a sports nut. If we would have had a conversation when I was 14 years old, I mean you could not convince me that I was not going to play in the NBA.”
And the year after that Justin actually narrated a documentary focusing on two of basketball’s most famous stars: LeBron James and of course Kobe. The show was called Dream Season: 23 & 24, and it looked at the careers of the two sportsmen as they journeyed to the Olympics and beyond.
In May 2012 Justin was then photographed at one of Kobe’s basketball games. He was seen giving him a high-five and even a smack on the bottom during the Western Conference Quarterfinals in the 2012 NBA Playoffs. That same year, the two of them then both attended the Stand Up to Cancer fundraiser in Los Angeles.
And in July 2016, after Kobe’s retirement, his buddy Justin presented him and two other athletes with an ESPY Icon Award. The others were gold medallist soccer player Abby Wambach and Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos. Furthermore, Justin bowed down to the three of them when they came out on stage.
Justin also gave a little speech in honor of all three sports stars. He declared to the audience, “Kobe, Peyton, Abby: before they all decided to say goodbye this past year, they had a lot in common. They were touted as stars from the start. Good would’ve been a disappointment, even great would’ve underwhelmed.”
Justin went on, “Their primes were as great, as legendary as any in history. Super Bowl titles, Olympic gold medals, NBA championships [and] obliterated records. These are the achievements that are supposed to make you immortal.” Kobe also gave a speech, and his is saddening in retrospect.
To cheers of his name, Kobe said, “We’re not on this stage just because of talent and ability, but because of 4:00 a.m., two-a-days and not letting anything stand in our way. We were never satisfied, finished – we’ll never be retired. I believe there’s time for resting at the end, but for me, that time is not now.”
A few months after that event, the roles switched and Kobe presented Justin with an accolade at the 2016 Teen Choice Awards. Introducing his friend, the former basketball star had some warm words. He said, “Tonight, I’m here to present the first ever Teen Choice Decade Award to the artist who has dominated the world of entertainment in the last ten years: Justin Timberlake.”
Singing the praises of his friend, Kobe went on, “Music, movies, television, music videos, fashion, whatever JT takes on, he dominates. Nobody else on the planet can touch his nine Grammy awards, four MTV Video Music Awards, four Emmy awards and three People’s Choice Awards. Time magazine named him one of the most influential people in the world.”
Kobe announced to the audience, “Tonight, it’s one more milestone for this king of all media. The Teen Choice Decade Award and his 21st surfboard, the most of any guy in history. I’m not just a fan, I consider myself a friend. And I’m honored to present this first ever Teen Choice Decade Award to Justin Timberlake.”
In his acceptance speech, Justin referenced Kobe as one of his influences. He said, “I learned from so many music greats – Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Garth Brooks [and] Stevie Wonder. I even learned a lot from the guy standing next to me on stage on how to arrive early and stay late because that’s how you become a champion.”
At the end of his speech Justin also discussed the fact that he’d become a new parent. He said, “So, as a relatively new dad and a former teen, I’m here to say you will make mistakes along the way. You will fall down. I have. Many times… Be nice to your parents. They aren’t perfect, either, but they have been through this movie before, and they love you, more than you can imagine.”
The fact that Kobe too was a parent – and that one of his daughters died alongside him – made his sudden death all the more heartbreaking. Kobe and Gianna had been heading to a game of hers at the former’s Mamba Sports Academy when the helicopter crashed. And some of her young teammates had been on board, too.
Fourteen-year-old Payton Chester and Alyssa Altobelli, 13, were also killed in the accident – alongside the former’s mother Sarah Chester and both of the latter’s parents. Also in the helicopter at the time were basketball coach Christina Mauser and pilot Ara Zobayan. And the impact of the crash was so severe there were no survivors.
Gradually the news spread, and it horrified fans of the basketball player. Not only had Kobe passed, but so too had his daughter and seven other people. Memorials sprung up within hours of the helicopter crash, and people gathered with jerseys and basketballs at the bottom of the hill near where the accident took place.
The Grammy Awards were scheduled to take place that night, and naturally they were a much more sobering affair than they would have been otherwise. A memorial was hastily added to the event. Touchingly, Alicia Keys and Boyz II Men performed the song “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” as a tribute to Kobe.
Everyone from television personalities to politicians posted tributes to Kobe and the other victims on social media. Jessica Simpson lived right near where the crash happened, and she posted a photo on Instagram that she described as “where Kobe, his daughter, and other beautiful souls were lifted up to be with God for eternity.”
Former U.S. President Barack Obama wrote, “Kobe was a legend on the court and just getting started in what would have been just as meaningful a second act. To lose Gianna is even more heartbreaking to us as parents.” And current one Donald Trump tweeted, “Kobe Bryant, despite being one of the truly great basketball players of all time, was just getting started in life. He loved his family so much, and had such strong passion for the future.”
Many people made reference in their tributes to Kobe being a parent. TV host Jimmy Kimmel wrote, “He was great, charismatic and among the hardest-working athletes ever, but what impressed me most was how deeply-involved Kobe was with his four daughters. Pray for them, Vanessa, his parents and his fellow passengers’ families on this sad and shocking day.”
And Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe’s former teammate, referred to the latter as family when he wrote his Instagram tribute. Clearly devastated, he posted, “There are no words to express the pain I’m going through now with this tragic and sad moment of losing my niece Gigi and my friend, my brother, my partner in winning championships, my dude and my homie.”
Justin Timberlake posted his own Instagram tribute to his friend on January 27 – one day after the crash. It was long and spoke of the musician’s tremendous grief. He did it in the form of a letter to Kobe, and it began, “We met when we were both teenagers and bonded over our drive and process.”
Justin went on, “I was in awe of what you could do with a basketball and knew your talent went beyond your physical gifts and stretched to your mentality. [It was] a mentality that I would take with me throughout my whole career and still use every day. As the years went by, I watched you do things that seemed humanly unimaginable.”
Over the years, Justin wrote to his old friend, “… Every time we would speak or text, something started to change… your patience and ease grew.. And it inspired me to continue to grow for myself. Years passed, and the ‘old man’ jokes would start to be traded back and forth. We both appreciated a good ‘ribbing.’ We joked about ‘The Vino Club.’ You nicknamed yourself ‘Vino’ to represent how one could age gracefully as a fine wine does.”
The musician and actor then talked about how he was inspired by Kobe. He said, “Your confidence in me was huge – it really affected me because I admired you so much. I don’t mean as one of the greatest athletes ever. I mean as a person. People sometimes can confuse a will to win with a lack of compassion. That wasn’t you.”
Justin shared that the last time he’d seen Kobe, they’d talked about parenthood. He said, “The last conversation that we shared was about being fathers and what that meant. That was, beyond all the things that we could do in this world, our true legacy. Who our children are and what beautiful people they will become.”
The singer went on, “And, I guess right now, without being able to find all the words, that father connection is what is most devastating for me. I am sending my love to Vanessa and your family and to the families of everyone connected in the mourning of this terrible tragedy. My heart is broken and my family lifts you up in our thoughts and prayers.”
At the end of the tribute for his friend, Justin wrote, “Kobe… You have connected so many of us. The Mamba Mentality will last for all of time. I know that will be a source for me every day as it has been for so many days before. Your legacy is with us. It’s our responsibility to pass it down now.”
And finally the grieving Justin concluded, “I hope I can continue to make you proud, Vino. [He was a] champ, MVP, legend, hero, inspiration, father [and a] friend. I’m gonna miss you, brother. Mamba forever.” Upon reading, many people added their own tributes and condolences onto Justin’s post, and they also spoke of what an inspiration Kobe had been.
One person wrote, “Couldn’t have been said any better, I believe that is what most people feel about the great Kobe Bryant. I can say that and [I] never met him, but the inspiration he gave to me as a person will last for the rest of my days.” Another said, “This is absolutely beautiful. It brought tears to my eyes. The love and friendship that you two [shared] is wonderful.”
Vanessa Bryant, who had lost her husband and daughter all in one day, didn’t speak about the tremendous loss publicly until January 30. She wrote on her Instagram, “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.”
Vanessa’s statement continued, “We are also devastated for the families who lost their loved ones on Sunday, and we share in their grief intimately. 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.”
The private funeral for Kobe and Gianna took place on February 7 at Pacific View Memorial Park in California. An anonymous source told Entertainment Tonight, “Vanessa and the family wanted a private service to mourn their loss. The ceremony was extremely hard for everyone as it’s still hard for them to grasp they lost two beautiful souls.”
A few days later, on February 10, Vanessa wrote about what had it been like as a parent to lose her daughter. She said on Instagram, “My brain refuses to accept that both Kobe and Gigi are gone. I can’t process both at the same time. It’s like I’m trying to process Kobe being gone but my body refuses to accept my Gigi will never come back to me. It feels wrong.”
Vanessa went on, “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. God, I wish they were here and this nightmare would be over. Praying for all of the victims of this horrible tragedy. Please continue to pray for all.”
The public memorial service for Kobe and Gianna took place on February 25 at the Staples Center. There, many of the mourners spoke of the same thing Justin Timberlake had done in his Instagram post – that Kobe had been a wonderful father to his daughters and looked forward to their future.
Making her speech in tribute to her husband and daughter, Vanessa said of Kobe, “[He] was the MVP of girl dads, or MVD. He never left the toilet seat up. He always told the girls how beautiful and smart they are. He taught them how to be brave and how to keep pushing forward when things get tough.”