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.
The 41-year-old basketball great, his 13-year-old daughter and seven other people died in Sunday's wreck of Bryant's luxury passenger chopper, which slammed into a hillside near Los Angeles in foggy weather.
The death of Bryant, an 18-time NBA all-star and one of the most admired athletes around the globe, sent shockwaves through the sports and entertainment worlds.
"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 a teenage 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 taught us about how not to take shortcuts," Downer said.
Bryant went straight from Lower Merion to the National Basketball Association, skipping college basketball and playing his first NBA game soon after his 18th birthday. He played 20 years of his professional career for the Los Angeles Lakers, winning five NBA championships.
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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 favorite Italian soccer club, AC Milan, said its players would wear a black arm-band 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 canceled 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.
The Lakers will return to the court on Friday in a home game against the Portland Trail Blazers, a Lakers spokeswoman told Reuters on Tuesday. Separately, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said the Feb. 9 Oscars telecast would include a tribute to Bryant.
Amid the accolades, some commentators recalled the sexual assault allegation against Bryant in 2003, when he was 24. The case was dismissed after his 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."
As the helicopter crash probe entered its second full day in the foothills just outside Calabasas, about 40 miles (64 km)northwest of downtown Los Angeles, the National Transportation Safety Board released video of its investigators wearing surgical masks picking through the wreckage. Others on the NTSB team examined aerial images of the crash scene captured by drone aircraft hovering overhead.
Low clouds, fog and limited visibility over the region at the time of the crash has emerged as a prominent focus of the investigation.
Bryant, known since his playing days to travel frequently by helicopter to avoid traffic, was on his way to a girls basketball tournament at a sports academy where he was to have coached his daughter's team that day.
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 the debris field.
In addition to Bryant and his daughter Gianna, the dead included two other 13-year-old girls involved in the tournament, three parents, another coach and the pilot.
After curiosity seekers were found trying to hike onto the crash site, sheriff's deputies began patrolling the surrounding hills on horseback and all-terrain vehicles to secure the perimeter against intruders, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said on Monday.
The pilot of the doomed Sikorsky S-76B chopper was an experienced commercial helicopter pilot and certified flight instructor with at least 8,200 hours of flight time, the NTSB said.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman and Peter Szekely; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Tom Brown)
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