(Reuters) – Kobe Bryant’s high school basketball coach said he lost a hero when the former NBA superstar was killed in a helicopter crash, one of the tributes that continued to pour in on Tuesday while investigators sifted through the wreckage looking for clues.
Bryant, 41, his 13-year-old daughter and seven other people died in a helicopter crash in hilly terrain during foggy weather near Los Angeles on Sunday. His death sent shockwaves through the sports and entertainment world.
“A lot of little kids lost their hero, and a grown man, Coach Downer, lost his also,” an emotional Gregg Downer told reporters, speaking from Lower Merion High School near Philadelphia where he coached Bryant from 1992 to 1996.
Downer, who remained close to Bryant and his family until the star’s death, remembered meeting Bryant as a skinny 14-year-old. Even then, he recalled, Bryant was an intense player whose competitive nature inspired teammates and coaches.
“He taught us how to win, he taught us how to work hard, he about us how to not to take shortcuts,” Downer said.
Bryant went straight from Lower Merion to the National Basketball Association, skipping college basketball. He played 20 years for the Los Angeles Lakers, winning five NBA championships.
He retired after the 2015-16 season as the third leading scorer in NBA history. He was passed on the scoring list the night before his death by LeBron James, another prodigy who was drafted straight out of high school and went on to succeed Bryant as the game’s dominant star.
“I’m heartbroken and devastated my brother!!” James wrote on Instagram on Monday night, saying he tried several times to express his feelings but was halted by crying. “I promise you I’ll continue your legacy man!”
Bryant’s favourite Italian soccer club, AC Milan, said its players would wear a black armband in his memory during Tuesday’s Italian Cup quarterfinal match against Torino, and that a tribute would be held in San Siro stadium before kickoff.
Bryant spent several years of his youth in Italy, where the charismatic athlete who spoke Italian was widely revered.
The NBA cancelled a game scheduled for Staples Center on Tuesday between the Lakers and the Los Angles Clippers, citing the need to give the Lakers franchise time to grieve.
Amid the accolades, some commentators recalled the sexual assault allegation against Bryant in 2003, when he was 24 years old. The case was dismissed after the 19-year-old accuser refused to testify a week before trial. Bryant, who said they had consensual sex, later issued a written apology saying, “I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.”
Bryant was known since his playing days to travel frequently by helicopter to avoid the Los Angeles area’s glacial traffic.
The National Transportation Safety Board released a video of its investigators wearing surgical masks picking through the wreckage, while others examined images from drone aircraft hovering overhead.
Los Angeles County coroner’s investigators, working alongside aviation NTSB inspectors, said on Monday they had recovered the first three bodies collected from the crash site and were searching for more remains.
In addition to Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, three other families linked to the Mamba Sports Academy perished on their way to a girls’ basketball tournament: a husband and wife with their 13-year-old daughter; a mother and her 13-year-old daughter; and a basketball coach who was also a mother.
The ninth victim was the pilot, Ara Zobayan, an experienced former flight instructor who was instrument-rated, or qualified to fly in fog, according multiple media accounts.
The company that owns the chopper, Island Express Helicopters, said the pilot had more than 10 years experience and has logged more than 8,000 flight hours.
Reporting by Steve Gorman and Peter Szekely; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by David Gregorio