It’s been nearly four years since Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others died in a helicopter accident in Calabasas, California. The NTSB concluded the helicopter pilot became disoriented in thick fog and crashed into a hillside. The victims were killed instantly. Since then, it’s become a rite of passage for Lakers fans to make a pilgrimage to the site. I made mine in August, 2023.
It was a hot and humid day and the bugs were out in droves. I stopped at Trader Joe’s for flowers and then exited the 101 Freeway at Las Virgenes Road. I parked at a dog park just south of the freeway and took the Bark Park Trail into the mountains. The hike is nearly two miles long and ascends to 350 feet. The crash site is located near the junction with the New Millennium Trail.
The hills were dry and barren with sharp brush on either side of the trail. Knowing this was prime tick and rattlesnake territory, I kept my eyes glued to the path. About halfway up I reached an Oak Tree appearing like a sentry. To the north, there was a scenic view of the high-end homes of Calabasas.
Ten minutes into the hike, I passed a young Latino couple coming down the trail. The man wore a #24 Kobe jersey while his girlfriend, dressed in black, looked like she’d been crying. We greeted each other with fist-bumps, no words necessary. A mountain biker passed me pedaling uphill despite the heat. Lizards scurried into the underbrush. I came upon a small Manzanita bush with tiny purple flowers. I smelled wild sage.
Rounding a corner, I stopped beneath a large Oak Tree for shade. I sipped bottled water and wiped the sweat off my face with my t-shirt. A hawk soared overhead. I feared this pilgrimage would be gothic. Instead, the land felt sacred. I was in nature among the mountains and sparse scrub.
The path curved southwards into the Santa Susana Mountains. I encountered another hiker, a man with a dog. “You’re almost there,” he said without prompting.
I rounded a corner and there it was, a pile of rocks topped with flowers, photos, Lakers hats and an empty tequila bottle. Several notes lay among the rocks. One read “Legends never die.” Another said, “Kobe & Gigi Forever.” There was an egg-shaped indentation in the hill. This was where the helicopter slammed into the earth at 180 mph. I propelled the thought from my head.
I remembered the morning of the crash. I’d been driving in nearby Granada Hills. The fog was so dense I avoided the freeway and stuck to the streets. I still can’t fathom how Kobe’s pilot was allowed to fly that morning. All other aircraft were grounded, including police helicopters. This was just like Kobe, always doing things others couldn’t do.
I contemplated the myriad versions of Kobe: teen prodigy, five-time champion, feuding with Shaq, 2008 MVP, proud dad. I’d once stood behind him in line at a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in Beverly Hills. He magnetized the entire room, all eyes upon him. He gave an autographed photo to the manager who tacked it to the wall beside a picture of Brad Pitt. It made sense Kobe traveled with his own headshot. He had the aura of a movie star.
When Kobe was accused of raping a 19-year-old hotel employee in 2003, I was his biggest defender. “She’s probably a gold-digger,” I said to the Kobe haters. “They probably had sex, but rape? Give me a break.” After Kobe settled with the woman and the case was dismissed, my views became more nuanced. Kobe was complicated. He was intense and capable of fits of rage. He once punched teammate Samaki Walker for reneging on a $100 bet.
Over the years, Kobe softened. At his retirement ceremony, Magic Johnson called him “the greatest Laker ever.” Fans agreed. They watched him mature from a young pup to the most respected (and hated) player in the league. He was an inspiration for future stars like Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard. After his death, NBA legends like Shaquille O’Neal, Jerry West and Michael Jordan were reduced to tears.
I placed my flowers atop the pile of rocks. They were purple and yellow, the Laker colors. I noticed a patch of wildflowers about 30 feet away. They were also purple and yellow. If Kobe was meant to die at such a young age (41), this was a peaceful place for his spirit to soar. The land was beatific and quiet, the Oak Trees regal. Less than a mile away, the city of Los Angeles was building the world’s largest wildlife bridge so animals could cross over the freeway safely. This means Kobe’s spirit resides with mountain lions, coyotes and deer. This feels appropriate.