USA TODAY Sports is marking the first anniversary of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others with a six-day series of stories, photos and videos looking back at the Lakers legend and the aftermath of his death.
LOS ANGELES — The emotions overwhelmed him anytime he looked outside his office window.
Chad Faulkner had spent nearly two years working with former Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant as the chief executive officer of the “Mamba Sports Academy,” a place where Bryant hosted workouts for NBA and WNBA players, coached his 13-year-old daughter’s AAU girls’ basketball team and monitored the growth of its training facilities. Sometimes, he felt sad. Other times, he felt inspired. Sometimes all at once, he smiled and cried.
But then on Jan. 26, 2020, Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter (Gianna), her AAU teammates (Alyssa Altobelli; Payton Chester), their parents (John and Keri Altobelli; Sarah Chester) and another one of their AAU basketball coaches (Christina Mauser) were among the nine people that died in a helicopter crash near the Santa Monica Mountains. They were on their way to an AAU basketball game at the facility Faulkner oversaw in Thousand Oaks, Calif.
“The worst tragedy that we could have ever imagined happened,” Faulkner told USA TODAY Sports. “That changed everything.”
Then, Faulkner spent time at his office juggling two difficult tasks. There, Faulkner mourned the death of Kobe and Gianna Bryant; Alyssa, John and Keri Altobelli; Payton and Sarah Chester; and Mauser. There, Faulkner deliberated how the company would adjust without Kobe Bryant’s presence.
In between grieving and brainstorming sessions, however, Faulkner often looked out his window and saw countless Bryant fans leaving memorabilia outside the entrance of the facility. They laid bushels of flowers. They lit candles. They displayed Bryant’s No. 8 and No. 24 Lakers jerseys. They showcased framed photos of Bryant, who gave himself the nickname “The Black Mamba,” from throughout his 20-year NBA career.
“It is something I will never forget the rest of my life with how powerful and impactful one person that Kobe Bryant could be,” Faulkner said. “From seeing all of humanity, there were no color barriers. There were no physical barriers. There were people in wheelchairs. There were people mentally challenged. There were superstar athletes. There were fathers and sons and mothers and daughters and whole families.”
Why Sports Academy changed its name following the tragedy
Faulkner had just finished a relaxing fathers-son weekend in his hometown of Wichita, Kansas. He boarded a flight to Dallas on the morning of Jan. 26 to attend the Sports Academy’s facility in nearby Frisco, Texas. He received a call about the tragedy, and he had little flexibility with changing his itinerary.
After arriving at his hotel, Faulkner cried in his pitch-black room for about 10 minutes. After crying for most of the day, he flew to Los Angeles so he could visit the two facilities he and Bryant oversaw in Thousand Oaks and Redondo Beach.
“It was confusing, painful and emotional. There was a whole bunch of stuff going on where I was caught between my own emotions and also caught with, ‘I need to remember to lead,’” Faulkner said. “I have a bunch of people counting on me to have my stuff together and have some answers. You don’t have those answers because you’ve never gone through anything of this magnitude.”
Faulkner had to determine how to navigate the tragedy: “the first objective was to take care of the family,” he said. Therefore, Faulkner wanted to give Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, the space and time to determine the next step.
So the facility closed through Jan. 31 so they could “work through the grieving process.” The Academy launched the “MambaOnThreeFund” to support the other families affected by the tragedy as well as the “Mamba and Mambacita Sports Foundation” to support underserved athletes and young women in sports. And then on May 16, the Mamba Sports Academy retired “Mamba” from its name at the Thousand Oaks and Redondo Beach facilities.
“We were going to work to satisfy the family and to get them at a peaceful place where they needed to be,” Faulkner said. “Having Kobe’s name on the ‘Sports Academy’ with the stature that we had and the publicity that we regularly receive, for that not to be the desire of the family was not offensive and didn’t bother us at all. We fully understood.”
Not everyone did.
Shortly after the Sports Academy removed the ‘Mamba’ nickname, former NBA player Dwyane Wade argued on an Instagram story that “if it’s about respect, then this should always be ‘Mamba Academy.” Since then, Faulkner said he has explained to numerous NBA players the thought process behind the name change.
“We will always honor Kobe and will always honor the family in a respectful way, and in a way that is non exploitive,” Faulkner said. “If Vanessa and the family think there’s interesting things to do with the Academy, we always stand ready to support and do work that way. But I really think that’s her choice. That’s the family’s choice to engage that way, and we’re open to engage that way. I do know and can speak very confidently on how much Kobe loved the academy. He loved the work that we were doing and loved the impact we were having on young people.”
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SOURCE: USA Today, Mark Medina