Remembering Kobe Bryant: Inside the Life and Legacy of the Sports Icon and 'Intensely Proud' Dad
It’s probably only fitting that NBA legend Kobe Bryant — who died tragically in a helicopter crash alongside his daughter Gianna and seven others on Jan. 26 — was fascinated with the ancient Greek legend of Achilles.
Known as the greatest of all Greek warriors, whose exploits were chronicled in Homer’s Iliad, the fearsome, seemingly invulnerable fighter was eventually killed after being shot in the heel with an arrow during the final days of the Trojan War.
“He got obsessed with Achilles,” Bryant’s friend and longtime ESPN reporter Ramona Shelburne tells PEOPLE in this week’s cover story.
“Kobe tore his own Achilles [ tendon in April 2013] and it was the beginning of his basketball death. Then it was one thing after another — there was a knee injury, there was a shoulder injury and he knew his body would never be the same again.”
But Bryant’s fascination with the Greek warrior seemed prophetic in other ways. “Achilles had a choice of whether to have a short life and be remembered forever or to have a long life and not be remembered,” explains Shelburne.
“When I think of Kobe right now… [it’s as if] if he connected to the story for a reason.”
Bryant’s death at the age of 41 — after the Sikorsky S-76B he was traveling to a youth basketball game crashed into a fog-enshrouded hillside in Calabasas, Calif., — has sent shock waves through the sports world and beyond.
Drafted by the NBA at 17 in 1996, he spent his entire 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers where he led the team to five NBA championships and became the youngest player to score 30,000 points.
Since his retirement, Bryant, widely regarded as one of the greatest NBA players of all time, devoted himself to raising his four daughters with his wife Vanessa — and becoming an investor, author and filmmaker.
“As a dad, Kobe has always been very involved,” says a family friend in Newport Beach, Calif. “You could tell he was intensely proud of his daughters.”
In 2018, his animated short film, Dear Basketball, was awarded an Oscar, making Bryant the first pro athlete to ever win an Academy Award.
“Every time I got off the phone with him or left a meeting with him, I just felt better,” recalls author Wesley King, who wrote the 2019 young adult fantasy book The Wizenard Series: Training Camp with Bryant.
“You can’t say that about everybody in your life. That’s what I will miss the most. This was a guy who, every time you talked to him, he made you feel better. That’s a nice legacy for anybody.”
For more of Kobe Bryant’s story, pick up a copy of PEOPLE, on newsstands Wednesday.