"I used to play peekaboo with Gianna when she was five and six years old," Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recalls to PEOPLE
In just over three years, the 41-year-old Bryant released books, produced an Oscar-winning film, developed podcasts and established himself as a successful youth basketball coach. The Los Angeles Lakers legend also had more time to spend with family — wife Vanessa, and their four girls — Gianna, 13, Natalia, 17, Bianka, 3, and Capri, 7 months.
Then he and Gianna, along with seven others, were killed in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26.
“It’s just so senseless that he’s not here,” NBA legend Abdul-Jabbar, 72, tells PEOPLE of the tragedy.
“It really doesn’t make any sense to see someone leave before they really had a chance to really show what they’re all about,” he adds.
With the help of Magic Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar led the Lakers to five NBA titles during the 1980s (he won his first championship in 1971 with the Milwaukee Bucks).
After Abdul-Jabbar retired in 1989, followed by Johnson a few years later, the Lakers entered a rebuilding phase that saw them secure a spot in the playoffs only to make early exits. But their fortunes turned in 1996 with the signing of center Shaquille O’Neal, who was quickly paired with Bryant, then an 18-year-old shooting guard fresh out of high school.
Just like the chemistry Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson shared on the court, Bryant and O’Neal were a dominant force that won three straight championships from 2000 to 2002. Amazingly, this would only be the start of Bryant’s many accomplishments in the NBA.
“Like everyone, I appreciated Kobe’s incredible athletic skills,” Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, says.
Bryant would go on to receive league MVP honors in 2008, win two more championships in 2009 and 2010, and make the NBA All-Star team 18 times.
After scoring 60 points in his final game at age 37, Bryant ended his career in third place on the all-time scoring list, 4,744 points behind first-place Abdul-Jabaar at 38,387.
Two years later, Bryant established the Mamba Sports Academy to pass along his knowledge of basketball to the next generation. The academy is where his daughter, Gianna, quickly became a standout player.
“I used to play peekaboo with Gianna when she was five and six years old,” Abdul-Jabbar recalls.
He adds, “To see that she doesn’t get a chance to shine with all the promise she possessed? It’s a really pointless tragedy, and that’s what we have to deal with.”
According to the Los Angeles Times, the city will hold a memorial service at Staples Center on Monday, Feb. 24 for Bryant and Gianna. The event will also honor the other victims of the helicopter crash: John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, Alyssa Altobelli, Sarah Chester, Payton Chester, Christina Mauser, and pilot Ara Zobayan.
“It’s just incredibly saddening,” Abdul-Jabbar says of the void left after the accident. “Kobe was just beginning that story and it had to end so tragically and suddenly. I think this sense of loss is really what has affected people.”