A bronze statue of Kobe and Gigi Bryant appears at site of chopper crash as fans mourn

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CALABASAS, CA-JANUARY 26, 2022: David Cataldo, 30, of Agoura Hills, visits the crash site in the hills above Las Virgenes Rd in Calabasas that took the lives of Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and 7 others exactly 2 years ago, on January 26, 2020. In foreground is a bronze statue of Bryant and his daughter Gianna. The statue, weighing about 160 pounds including the steel pedestal, was made by sculptor Dan Medina of West Hills, who had to carry the statue in sections, for the just over 1 mile hike to the crash site. He started out, using a cart and then the cart broke, forcing him to carry it to the crash site. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
David Cataldo, 30, of Agoura Hills, visits a statue of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna erected at the crash site above Las Virgenes Road in Calabasas where the Bryants and seven others died two years ago. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Before dawn's light crested over the Calabasas peak, Dan Medina dragged his 150-pound bronze statue of Kobe and Gianna "Gigi" Bryant up the steep, narrow trail.

Medina, negotiating the eroding trail, could not see the rising hills. He finally made it to the crest, where he placed his formal yet temporary memorial at the site where the basketball star, his daughter and seven others were killed two years ago when the helicopter they were in crashed. The site had long been hallowed ground for many Kobe Bryant fans. Now, it had a center.

"You come up here and it is kind of emotional," said Medina, a West Hills sculptor, who says the bronze is a smaller version of a large life-size sculpture he is creating. "The flowers, the jerseys, the hats blow away, and I think we need something more permanent."

Medina's statue depicts Bryant in a Lakers uniform with his arm around Gigi, who is also in her basketball uniform holding a ball. At the base, Medina included the names of all those who died in the helicopter crash, which in addition to the Bryants killed Christina Mauser; Payton and Sarah Chester; John, Keri and Alyssa Altobelli; and pilot Ara Zobayan.

"Heroes come and go but legends are forever,"reads the inscription.

The statue greeted fans, locals and even those who worked with the athlete who made the journey Wednesday about 1,000 feet up above Las Virgenes Road to remember those lost Jan. 26, 2020. They sat mostly in silence at the serenity of the spot. Some shed tears, and others recalled memories of greatness.

"That's awesome. That is something special to behold. How do they get that all the way up here?" said Walter Garcia, 33, as he turned the corner and saw the statue with flowers, hats and jerseys beneath it with the backdrop of the Bryants' jersey numbers on the hillside marked out in rocks.

An artist with a statue depicting Kobe and Gianna Bryant
Sculptor Dan Medina of West Hills with his bronze statue of Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, which he placed at the site of the helicopter crash in the hills above Calabasas that killed the Bryants and seven others two years ago. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Medina in fact nearly didn't make it. The bronze was so heavy that the handle on his cart broke, and as he explained it, he had to tape up a makeshift repair to make the last few corners of the trail from the dog park parking lot to the top of the canyon.

The statue was planned to be up from sunrise to sunset. He knows placing it there permanently would require permits and more.

"I kind of want to follow the law, respect the locals, respect the Santa Monica Mountains," he said, adding that he hopes the life-size version will find a home in downtown L.A., where several more of his large bronzes already adorn areas.

The helicopter carrying Bryant and Gianna, along with several of her teammates, a few parents and coaches, took off shortly after 9 a.m. from John Wayne Airport in Orange County, heading to Camarillo Airport for the second day of a weekend tournament at the Mamba Academy in nearby Thousand Oaks.

A National Transportation Safety Board investigation determined that Zobayan's decision to fly under visual flight rules in cloudy conditions resulted in his spatial disorientation and loss of control of the aircraft. Zobayan’s “likely” self-induced pressure to get Bryant to his destination and inadequate review of safety management procedures by the helicopter operator were found to have contributed to the crash.

Brandon Zamora, 23, standing before the statue, said the 20-minute climb up the trail on the second anniversary was the least he could do for Bryant, who did so much for L.A. "He was more than a basketball player. He gave 100% at everything he did. He won an Oscar, was a business leader and above all else an example to fathers everywhere," Zamora said.

His role as a father came up time and time again as small groups of fans made their way to the turn in the trail where it all came to an end.

"My son and I met Kobe, and I told my son it would be something he would remember for the rest of his life," said Jesus Avila, 45, of North Hollywood. Avila, who was decked out in his Lakers Bryant jersey with the number 24 on the back, placed a photo of the trio from that day on the makeshift memorial. "I came here to celebrate his life, not to mourn."

A bronze statue depicting Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna
Medina had to haul the roughly 150-pound bronze sculpture, including the steel pedestal, over a mile to the crash site. He started off using a cart, but then the cart handle broke. Medina said he arrived at dawn and was staying until dusk before heading back down with the sculpture. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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