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.
Sometimes, he felt sad. Other times, he felt inspired. Sometimes all at once, he smiled and cried.
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.
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 passing 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.”
Faulkner had just finished a relaxing fathers-son weekend in his hometown of Wichita, Kan. 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 determined 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.”
Nine days before his passing, Bryant told USA TODAY Sports that he considered himself “very lucky” to partner with the Sports Academy in 2018 roughly two years after it first opened.
Jon Spotts, the co-founder of Sports Academy, had coached with Bryant on the AAU youth basketball circuit. So, Spotts introduced Faulkner to Bryant to show some of the training technology the company produced. Faulkner said he did so in case Bryant found it useful for his “Detail” series on ESPN, which analyzed NBA and WNBA players’ on-court tendencies. Eventually, Bryant became interested in visiting the Sports Academy, which also took over management of the facility in Frisco, Texas on Jan. 1, 2020.
“I was blown away by their attention to detail with everything and how much care they put into the smallest of things,” Bryant told USA TODAY Sports last year. “We felt like it was important for us to have a facility in which we can physically help players develop.”
So with Bryant’s partnership, the “Mamba Sports Academy” designed what Bryant called “a 360-degree training facility.” The venue features basketball courts, volleyball courts and a track for professional athletes and youth sports programs. Beyond group classes and personal training sessions, the facility also has a trainer’s room, a doctor’s office and a cognition lab. That lab offers simulations for basketball, football and soccer, which analyzes an athlete’s reaction time, decision making and ability to read coverages.
The venue also became the home for two groups of people Bryant spent significant time with following his 20-year NBA career. Bryant’s 17-year-old daughter, Natalia, played volleyball there. Bryant coached Gianna’s AAU girls’ basketball program. And Bryant hosted invitationals for select NBA, WNBA and NFL players and draft prospects.
“It’s our physical space to actually help young athletes get better,” Bryant said last year. “So we have the information, we have the inspiration, and now we actually have the facility where the rubber kind of meets the road, where athletes can come and train and actually do the work to get better mentally and physically.”
Despite Faulkner and Bryant remaining conservative with expansion, they had ambitious plans to grow their operations. They wanted to make the invitational NBA and WNBA workouts an annual event. They hoped to host youth camps and coaching clinics. And they prepared to launch digital training videos featuring Bryant.
Those plans changed, obviously, following Bryant’s passing. The company also had to pivot because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Sports Academy closed its facilities in Thousand Oaks and Redondo Beach on March 17 because of California’s stay-at-home orders.
Since then, the Sports Academy partnered with Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy. He has an app titled “94 Feet of the Game” for phone devices that includes various training tutorials focused on shooting, ball handling, footwork, balance, scoring, passing and defense. Handy, who was the Lakers’ player development coach when Bryant played during the 2011-12 season, oversaw the practice sessions for the invite-only NBA workouts.
“My involvement is to help the basketball community from a trainers’ standpoint and coaches’ standpoint and the players,” Handy told USA TODAY Sports. “I want to be able to help not only teach players but help teach coaches and trainers on how to become better trainers and better teachers of the game. We’re really trying to approach this from a holistic standpoint and a very organic standpoint to just further infuse the basketball community with some good basketball instruction.”
Although the two facilities remained closed for the regular operations, the Sports Academy opened its Thousand Oaks facility in the spring and early summer so that NBA and WNBA players could complete private workouts in a safe setting. The company required players to work in small clusters only with teammates they had stayed in isolation with during the season shutdown.
The participants included the WNBA’s Kalya McBride, NBA’s Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Caris LeVert, John Wall, and Aaron and Jrue Holiday. The facility also hosted Klutch Sports’ Pro Day for NBA Draft prospects Anthony Edwards and Tyrese Maxey. As Faulkner noted, “in 2020, we had more professional athletes through the Sports Academy than we ever had in our history.” Not only did they go to have a safe workout during the pandemic. They also went there to grieve.
“We all lost somebody we loved. That’s just terrible. We’re all kind of dealing with it the best way we could deal with it,” Faulkner said. “We found a common ground where we could at least go and be in any environment that we all loved and do the things we love to get better at. We found a right meeting place for some good healing to happen.”
That healing also took place in Faulkner’s office. Whenever Faulkner stares outside his office window, he will always remember the memorial that lifted his spirits.
“It was absolutely beautiful,” Faulkner said. “It was so real. It was so authentic. It moves me to this day and it will move me every time I think about it.”