HARTFORD, Conn. – There was the wildest variation of emotions imaginable Sunday in California.
Golf fans marveled at 2012 Travelers Championship winner Marc Leishman shooting a 7-under-par 65 for a 72-hole total of 15-under 273 and a come-from-behind one-stroke victory over third-ranked Jon Rahm in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines Golf Club in La Jolla, Calif. As fate would have it, Leishman’s win was the second of the day for an Aussie on Australia Day. Earlier, Lucas Herbert won a playoff in Dubai on the European Tour.
While Leishman could celebrate his fifth PGA Tour victory, feelings sat at the opposite end of spectrum not far away after it was learned Kobe Bryant, one of the greatest players in NBA history, and 13-year-old daughter Gianna were among nine people killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif. Gianna had often said she wanted to play for coach Geno Auriemma and the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team and had attended several Huskies games with her famous father, including at the Final Four.
Bryant’s death in a helicopter built by Connecticut-based Sikorsky was shrouded in irony. Saturday night, Los Angeles Lakers star Lebron James spoke glowingly about Bryant after scoring 29 points to pass Bryant for third on the NBA’s all-time scoring list in a 108-91 loss at the Philadelphia 76ers. And Monday night, the UConn women’s team will host the U.S. national team in an exhibition at the XL Center in Hartford that almost assuredly will be preceded by a moment of silence.
When the crash occurred, Bryant, 41, and Gianna were on their way to a travel basketball game at the Mamba Sports Academy, Kobe’s basketball training camp in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Bryant, who had four daughters with his wife, Vanessa, dedicated himself to boosting women’s sports in his retirement. Those aboard the helicopter also included another parent and player.
After shooting a closing 70 to tie for ninth in the Farmers Insurance Open, Tiger Woods, a longtime friend of Bryant, held a press conference after failing to capture his 83rd PGA Tour title and break a tie for most wins with Sam Snead.
“I didn’t hear about the crash until (caddie) Joey (LaCava, a Newtown native) told me about it after the round,” said Woods, who began his pro career in the same year as Bryant, 1996. “I didn’t understand why people (in the crowd) were yelling, ‘Do it for Mamba’ on the back nine. Now I know why. … It’s an unbelievably sad day, one of the most shocking, tragic days I’ve ever been part of. He burned competitively hot at both ends of the court. When you rupture your Achilles and still go to the foul line, that’s really something.”
While Kobe’s oldest daughter, Natalia, plays volleyball, Gianna was an emerging basketball player and had an amazing highlight video. Bryant, whose celebrity transcended basketball, was known for taking a helicopter as his method of transportation going from his home in Orange County to Staples Center in Los Angeles when he played. He was a five-time NBA champion, 18-time All-Star, two-time NBA Finals MVP and NBA MVP. He also was a two-time Olympic gold medal winner and regarded as one of the most influential people in and out of basketball.
On Dec. 18, 2017, the Lakers retired No. 8 and No. 24, the numbers that Kobe wore in his 1,566 NBA games. The son of former NBA player Joe Bryant, Kobe entered the NBA right out of Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Pa., and was selected 13th by the Charlotte Hornets and then traded to the Lakers for Vlade Divac in one of general manager Jerry West’s many significant deals.
Kobe’s numerous memorable feats included scoring 81 points in a game against the Toronto Raptors in 2006, the second-highest total to Wilt Chamberlain’s 100. He also scored an NBA season-high 60 points in his finale, a 101-96 victory over the Utah Jazz on April 13, 2016. He outscored the entire Jazz team 23-21 in the fourth quarter as he became the oldest player to score points 60 or more points in a game at 37 years and 234 days. The Lakers finished a season in which Bryant missed several games due to injuries with a 17-65 record, their worst in franchise history.
Bryant’s 20 seasons with the Lakers were a league record for most seasons with the same team. He finished his career with 33,643 points (25.0 average), 7,047 rebounds (5.2) and 6,306 assists (4.7). On Aug. 24, 2016, the Los Angeles City Council honored the Lakers guard with “Kobe Bryant Day” for his work with the Kobe and Vanessa Bryant Family Foundation.
On the court, “The Black Mamba” provided fans from around the world with some of the most memorable moments in sports. From his incredible athleticism to his other worldly work ethic and insatiable drive to win, Kobe struck fear into his opponents and gained the favor of many fans during his exceptional career.
Thousands of people gathered to mourn Bryant outside the Staples Center, where the Lakers and Clippers play and will meet Tuesday night and a statue of the retired legend is located. Mourners in No. 24 jerseys mixed with those in fancy dress arriving at the downtown arena for the Grammy Awards on Sunday night. People carried flowers and chanted “Kobe!” and “MVP!” under giant video screens showing Bryant’s smiling face.
NBA players were in tears during pregame warmups as crowds chanted “Kobe! Kobe!” People were glued to their phones and TV screens around the world as news of the crash spread and networks broke into programming with live coverage. A visibly shaken James wiped his eyes with tissues and walked away alone from the Lakers plane that had just landed in Southern California.
In fitting and classy gestures of respect, the Boston Celtics and New Orleans Pelicans, Toronto Raptors and San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies and Phoenix Suns each took a 24-second violation at the start of their games as players and fans stood and cheered. Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young wore No. 8 instead of his usual No. 11 to honor Bryant, who is to be inducted in the NBA Hall of Fame on Aug. 30.
Some early thoughts on social media included:
Michael Jordan, winner of six NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls: “Words can’t describe the pain I am feeling. I loved Kobe — he was like a little brother to me. We used to talk often, and I will miss those conversations very much. He was a fierce competitor, one of the greats of the game and a creative force.”
James: “All I ever wanted to do it make Michael and Kobe proud.”
President Donald Trump: “Reports are that basketball great Kobe Bryant and (four) others have been killed in a helicopter crash in California. That is terrible news!”
ESPN announcer/commentator Holly Rowe, who should be working at the XL Center on Monday night: “This is unthinkable. Please don’t be true. #KobeBryant.”
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban: “We can never forget how precious life is. How those who are special to you and never let them forget how deeply you love them.”
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady: “We miss you already, Kobe.”
Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid: “Man, I don’t even know where to start. I started playing ball because of KOBE after watching the 2010 finals. I had never watched ball before that and that finals was the turning point of my life. I WANTED TO BE LIKE KOBE. I’m so FREAKING SAD right now!!!! RIP LEGEND”
New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley: “Not Kobe.”
Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love: “Please no. Please God no. It can’t be true.”
On a far more positive and uplifting vein, Leishman notched his fifth PGA Tour victory eight years after winning his first at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell. And the Aussie rallied to win on Australia Day as fires have been so destructive Down Under for months.
“I didn’t have my best stuff, but it means so much with all the family and fans struggling with the fires in Australia,” said Leishman, who moved to seventh on the FedExCup points race. “My wife Aubrey and I have been trying to do as much as we can to help back home, so this is really special. … It’s pretty amazing, I’m elated, because I wasn’t expecting that much. You’re not going to win on the PGA Tour if you’re not making putts, but I probably putted as good as I ever had this week.”
Leishman, who began the day four strokes behind Rahm, ran off five birdies on the front nine to seize control over Rahm and a faltering Rory McIlroy, with Woods also failing to make a charge in the final round as he struggled to find consistency. Leishman kept a cushion with three big par saves down the tough back nine and closed with a 6-foot birdie putt that turned out to be the winner. His 65 matched Rahm’s 65 in 2017 as the lowest closing round by a winner at Torrey Pines since the South Course was beefed up ahead of the 2008 U.S. Open.
Rahm was 4 over through five holes, the biggest mess coming at the par-3 third when he went left into a canyon and took three shots to reach the green for a double bogey. But he made eagle 3 on the 13th hole and a birdie on No. 14. After a bogey on the 15th to fall four shots behind, Rahm hit his next two shots for birdies. He needed an eagle on the par-5 18th to force a playoff, and his attempt from just outside 50 feet died off to the left, giving him a final-round 70.
McIlroy, needing a victory to return to No. 1 in the world, started three shots behind in the final group and opened with two bogeys. He missed a short birdie attempt on the third and then pulled his tee shot into the hazard and had to scramble for bogey. Much like Rahm, he stayed in the mix by playing his last five holes on the front nine in 5 under, but couldn’t make up enough ground, shot 69 and tied for third with Brandt Snedeker (68).
Richy Werenski, a native of Worcester, Mass., made a hole-in-one on the 171-yard eighth hole on the way to a closing 74 for 292 and a tie for 73rd.
Leishman, Cam Smith, Matt Jones, Cam Davis, Cam Percy and Rhein Gibson have pledged to done funds to the Australian bushfire relief cause following the Sony Open in Hawaii four weeks ago. Leishman and Smith donate $500 for every birdie and $1,000 for an eagle. Jones pledged $250 per birdie and $500 per eagle, with Davis, Percy and Gibson also vowing to contribute following the devastation caused across their home country. The Begin Again Foundation, founded by Marc and Aubrey, will also match donations up to $5,000.
The Leishmans had to deal a near family catastrophe five years ago when Audrey nearly died from toxic-syndrome, a rare, life-threatening complication of certain bacterial infections. She also suffered acute respiratory distress syndrome, which occurs when fluid builds up in the small, elastic air sacs in the lungs. The more fluid in the lungs, the less oxygen to reach the bloodstream and the rest of the body’s organs, which then begin to shut down.
Audrey was induced into a coma that lasted four days to pinpoint the illnesses. Her last words to her husband, who rushed to her bedside from Augusta National Golf Club, where he was practicing for the following week’s Masters, were to look after the cats and take their two kids to get their photos with the Easter bunny.
Doctors gave Audrey only a five percent chance to live, which she thankfully proved them to be oh so wrong and could celebrate yet another victory on Sunday over some of the top players in the world.