A Young Fan’s Selfie Captured Kobe Bryant a Day Before Fatal Crash

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A Young Fan’s Selfie Captured Kobe Bryant a Day Before Fatal Crash


LOS ANGELES — It was an impromptu selfie, a blurry but famous face towering over the truncated image of a teenager.

But Brady Smigiel, 13, was thrilled to capture any image of Kobe Bryant at the Mamba Sports Academy north of Los Angeles on Saturday. Earlier that afternoon, he had excitedly texted his family that “Kobe gave me knuckles,” a reverberating fist bump from a five-time N.B.A. champion. He could accept Mr. Bryant breezily begging off a request for another cellphone picture.

“I’ll get you tomorrow,” Mr. Bryant said before leaving the building and heading for the helicopter that would take him home, and the very next day take his life.

Nobody had any idea that Brady had captured perhaps the last picture of one of the greatest basketball players of all time. Mr. Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven other people, including two girls on her basketball team, were killed on Sunday when their helicopter crashed en route to the academy in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Mr. Bryant spent the day before his death like so many that preceded it: immersed in basketball. After a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, he was the coach of Gianna’s team, which was competing in the Mamba Cup.

Security guards had to keep the court roped off when the Mambas were playing, and fans of Mr. Bryant flocked to the bleachers to watch. Video shot by Blake Rosenthal, 15, which has since trended on TikTok with more than 400,000 views, shows Mr. Bryant joking and smiling on the sideline, swinging his arms.

Brady and Shane Rosenthal, 13, who play for Team Edge, showed up before their game to watch the Mambas warm up, particularly Gianna and Mackenly Randolph, a daughter of Zach Randolph, a two-time N.B.A. All-Star. “Kobe is my idol,” said Shane, Blake’s brother, who bought a Mamba Cup sweatshirt after Mr. Bryant’s death.

George Rodriguez, an assistant coach for Hoop Dreams Idaho, which arrived early to watch Mr. Bryant’s team play, said, “Our girls, coming from a small town and getting to be a part of that buzz, it’s amazing.”

In their first game, the Mambas lost, 46-29, to Cyfair Nikecoop 2024, an elite travel team based in Texas. Mr. Bryant had approached Todd Cooper, Cyfair’s coach, beforehand and jokingly asked him to take it easy on the Mambas.

“I said, ‘With all due respect, we’re going to go hard,’” Mr. Cooper recalled, adding that he was impressed to see Mr. Bryant chat and snap photographs with girls on all of the teams.

Two hours later, the Mambas earned a 35-29 win over Tree of Hope Lloyd from Seattle. Gianna scored 5 points, after scoring 8 in the loss, during the nail-biting game: Payton Chester, who would die in the crash, scored in the final moments to help clinch the victory.

Mr. Rodriguez sneaked to the coaches’ side of the court to congratulate Mr. Bryant on the win. Mr. Bryant asked about the girls Mr. Rodriguez coached and about their trip, and what he thought of the facility, Mr. Rodriguez said. Mr. Bryant eventually said he had to talk to his team but would be back at the gym on Sunday, when he would make time to chat with Mr. Rodriguez’s team.

After all, the Mambas were scheduled to play a game at noon.

When Mr. Bryant partnered with the academy in December 2018, the facility — which has five basketball courts, as well as volleyball courts and batting cages — was rebranded with his nickname. In a news release at the time, he described it as a “natural expansion of my commitment to educating and empowering the next generation of kids through sports.”

Several teenage athletes who met Mr. Bryant, the father of four girls, when they first began shooting hoops said he had a profound impact on them. “He believed girls and boys should have an equal chance,” said Kumi Tamura, 16, who at first thought the news of his death was a hoax. She met Mr. Bryant when she was 6 and attended a youth basketball camp that he used to hold near Santa Barbara.

Hailey Van Lith, 18, who will play basketball at the University of Louisville in the fall, was one of the players whose talent Mr. Bryant sought to nurture. He and Gianna traveled to Washington State to watch Hailey play about 10 days ago.

After his death, she wrote on Instagram, “Thank you for changing my life.”

When Southern Californians awakened to a dreary, cold morning on Sunday, thick fog hovered over the Santa Monica Mountains. Mr. Bryant, his daughter, teammates and friends — nine people in all — were preparing to take off in clearer skies. Because Mr. Bryant lived in Orange County, which can be a three-hour drive from the academy, he typically traveled to Ventura County by private helicopter.

But just after noon, when the Mambas were supposed to be playing, news alerts began to pop up on phones inside the Mamba Sports Academy. TMZ was reporting that Mr. Bryant had died in a helicopter crash.

After a staff member at the facility confirmed the news, Mr. Cooper began the somber task of breaking up games that were still in progress.

“We just walked on the courts and grabbed the refs and started telling the referees” that Mr. Bryant was dead and that they should stop the games, Mr. Cooper said. Players on the courts were some of the last people in the facility to hear the news.

“Nobody really knew what to do other than just to pray,” he said.

Mr. Cooper said he told his team that those who had taken pictures with Mr. Bryant should use them as motivation, and remember that those pictures might one day resurface because of their own accomplishments, extending Mr. Bryant’s legacy.

Mr. Rodriguez told the tearful girls on his team, including his daughter, that he loved them. The tragic news had stunned a facility that moments earlier was a hive of activity.

“Before, there were squeaking shoes, whistles blowing — it was a tournament situation,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “Then, it just went silent.”

Miriam Jordan reported from Los Angeles, and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs from New York.



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