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Catholic Basketball Superstar Kobe Bryant Dead at 41

Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers on a video set for members of the media during Media Day at Toyota Sports Center on October 1, 2012 in El Segundo, California. (Photo: Harry How/Getty Images)

Bryant said a Catholic priest changed his life during dark times

by Allyson Escobar and Melissa Enaje

The sports world lost a legend last weekend.

Kobe Bryant was a five-time NBA champion, 18-time All-Star, two-time Olympic medalist, father of four girls — and a Catholic.

After attending Sunday Mass Jan. 26 with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna (Gigi) at Our Lady Queen of Angels in Newport Beach, Calif., the retired NBA All-Star, along with Gigi and seven others, boarded a helicopter to his Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, Calif., for Gigi’s basketball practice. All nine were killed in a helicopter crash near Calabasas.

After the crash, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles wrote on Twitter, “I am praying for him and his family. May he rest in peace and may our Blessed Mother Mary bring comfort to his loved ones.”

In addition to Kobe and his daughter, other victims included local college baseball coach John Altobelli, his daughter Alyssa Altobelli and wife, Keri Altobelli; basketball coach Christina Mauser; mom Sarah Chester and her 13-year-old daughter, Payton Chester, and the pilot, Ara Zoboyan.

The cause of the crash is being investigated, but officials have said the foggy weather conditions were a major factor.

Zoboyan, the pilot, had reportedly received a “special visual flight rules” clearance to fly by sight in the airspace, despite the limited visibility.

(Photo: CNS/Getty Images)

Born in 1978 in Philadelphia, Bryant was raised in a devout Roman Catholic family. He has said his Catholic faith has helped him through hard times, especially when he was accused of raping a woman in 2003.

Though he admitted to an encounter, Bryant denied the assault. He lost sponsors and faced criminal charges, which were eventually dropped.

“The one thing that really helped me during that process — I’m Catholic, I grew up Catholic, my kids are Catholic — was talking to a priest,” Bryant said in a 2015 interview with GQ Magazine.

Multiple reports show Bryant’s dedication to his family and his faith. In 2001, when Bryant was 23, he married Vanessa Laine at St. Edward Catholic Church in Dana Point, Calif. Two years later, they welcomed their first daughter, Natalia.

In his retirement, Bryant dedicated his life to other avenues in basketball, including mentoring other NBA players and hosting basketball camps. Bryant was active in the life of his daughters, which included being the coach for Gigi’s basketball team.

Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna. (Photo: Getty Images)

Andrew Hopkins, the girls’ varsity basketball coach at Msgr. McClancy M.H.S., East Elmhurst, told The Tablet, “Beside being a basketball legend, this man truly admired his family, which mirrors his dedication as a player. What a tragic day for the Bryant family, after Kobe and Gigi attended Mass before heading out to do what him and his daughter loved so much, play some ball. God bless all involved in this horrific crash.”

Bryant, who retired from the NBA in 2016 after a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, inspired basketball fans, young athletes and coaches in the Brooklyn Diocese.

Rob Caldera, head of the diocese’s Catholic Youth Organization (CYO), remembered the basketball star as a role model for parents and coaches.

“All the kids wanted to wear his number on their CYO uniforms,” Caldera said. “Kids would write his number on their sneakers. They would wear his sneakers that he came out with. He impacted everyday moms and dads to give back and to provide for the youth.”

On the same day of Bryant’s passing, the varsity boys’ basketball team at Archbishop Molloy H.S. in Briarwood was getting ready for its game.

Athletic director and varsity basketball coach Mike McCleary said his players were “absolutely affected and instead of watching junior varsity play, most went into the locker room and talked about it before the game started.”

“Kobe was a great ambassador for the game of basketball, both young and professional players,” McCleary said.

In his Oscar-winning 2018 animated short film “Dear Basketball,” Bryant wrote, “You asked for my hustle. I gave you my heart. Because it came with so much more.”

Kobe Talked to His Pastor The Morning of His Death

“I saw that he had blessed himself because there was holy water on his forehead,” Father Steve Sallot, pastor of Our Lady Queen of Angels, Newport Beach, CA, said. “So I knew that he went in the chapel and prayed, came out and blessed himself. We spoke for a minute, shook hands and off he went.” (Photo: courtesy of KCBS, KCAL)