The tragic deaths of Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and the other seven people aboard the helicopter that crashed into the hills in Calabasas on Sunday, has stunned the world.

Kobe Bryant, right, and Vlade Divac, left, hug each other after Bryant played his last game against the Sacramento Kings on Jan. 7, 2016, at Sleep Train Arena. (OBSERVER photo by Antonio R. Harvey)

While the sports community has been rocked, members of the Sacramento Kings organization had a special connection to the former Los Angeles Lakers star and his death has felt especially personal.

Vlade Divac, the Kings general manager and vice president of basketball operations, will forever be linked to Bryant, 41. During the 1996 NBA Draft, the Charlotte Hornets selected Bryant with the 13th pick, and immediately traded him to the Lakers for Divac. Bryant was 17 years old, emerging out of Lower Merion High School outside of Philadelphia.

Divac would eventually sign with the Sacramento Kings and became a cornerstone member of the team as they battled Bryant and the Lakers for Western Conference supremacy in the early 2000s.

Divac — elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2019 — and Bryant eventually became friends and would become teammates on the Lakers after Divac left the Kings and signed as a free agent with Los Angeles for the 2004-2005 NBA season.

The loss of Divac’s friend leaves him with sorrow and condolences for his family.

“Kobe deeply loved the game and his family. As I think back on his incredible legacy I’m reminded of his competitive spirit and millions around the world he inspired,” Divac said through his Instagram account. “As a father, the loss of Gianna is devastating. My heart goes out to Vanessa, their daughters and all impacted.”

Kings head coach Luke Walton played with Bryant on the Lakers from 2003 to 2012 and won two NBA championships in 2009 and 2010. The season after Bryant retired, Walton became the Lakers’ head coach.

“It’s been one of the harder times in my life this last 24 hours,” Walton said. “Kobe was a friend, teammate, (and) most important a father. I know that’s what was most important to him, the love he had for his family and his daughters. It’s heartbreaking and tough to deal with.”

“The basketball world … we lost one of our greats,” Walton added. “And I just don’t mean that of what he had done on the court. But just the way he lived his life. Every day, he got the most out of it.”

Sacramento Kings Chairman, Chief Executive Officer and Governor Vivek Ranadivé also issued his thoughts through a written statement on Bryant’s passing.

“We will forever remember the mutual respect shared between Kobe and Sacramento,” Ranadivé shared. “On behalf of the entire Kings organization, we extend our deepest condolences to his wife Vanessa, their family and all those impacted as we hold them in our hearts and prayers at this most difficult time.”

Bryant played his last game against the Kings as a Laker in a memorable contest on Jan. 7 2016 in front of a sellout crowd. The Kings prevailed 118-115. Bryant had 28 points, three assists, two rebounds, and one block in almost 31 minutes of action after missing the previous three contests.

Above all, he played in front of adoring Sacramento fans who loaded up Sleep Train Arena in its final year as the Kings home site. After the game, Bryant told a sea of members of the media that he had the date of the match circled on his calendar. It was his last season in the NBA.

“I wanted to be back out there playing in front of these fans. It was great,” Bryant told The OBSERVER following the game. “I looked at the schedule and I know my shoulder was bothering me. But I wanted to make sure I rested it enough to be able to play one last time here.”

After retirement, Bryant settled into spending more time with his family, mentoring other professional athletes, building a sports development facility and launching an award-winning media company. He was also heavily involved in advocating for women sports and grooming his Gianna, also known as GiGi, to play the sport of basketball.

“Today, the world mourns the loss of a legend,” Ranadivé shared. “We are all extremely devastated and saddened to learn of the tragic passing of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna.”

Ranadivé also added, “Kobe is one of the greatest competitors the NBA has ever known. His storied career and commitment to the game is revered by fans around the globe. He inspired a generation on and off the court to strive for greatness and his countless contributions to basketball will live on.”

John Altobelli, 56, his wife Keri Altobelli and daughter Alyssa Altobelli were aboard the helicopter when it went down. Reports say the aircraft was headed to Thousands Oaks, where Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy was located.

Ara Zobayan, Sarah Chester, Payton Chester and Christina Mauser, a top assistant coach of the Mamba girls’ basketball team, were also killed in the crash.

The last game Bryant played for the Lakers in Sacramento was a testament of how the fans appreciated his professionalism. It was war on the court between the King and the Lakers, and not to forget the 2002 Western Conference Finals, but Bryant adored that respect from the River City.

Before the Kings played the Minnesota Timberwolves on the road at the Target Center, the day after the tragedy, former Kings guard Doug Christie recalled times when he had to defend Bryant in those Kings vs. Lakers games.

Christie said Bryant and the Lakers “pushed” the “levels” that made him and the Kings a better team. Now a color analyst for the Kings, Christie also acknowledged Bryant’s love for the game.

“I think the greatest thing he gave to the game of basketball was his willingness to pay attention to details and a willingness to sacrifice himself,” Christie said. “I don’t know if you’ve really seen it before. He uncovered every single rock and I don’t think he left anything out there. That’s the way I’ll always remember and love him for.”

By Antonio R. Harvey |OBSERVER Staff Writer