Bryant was traveling in a private helicopter with eight others when it crashed in Calabasas around 10 a.m., resulting in the deaths of all on board. Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, was also killed in the crash.
As countless tributes poured in for the NBA great, O’Neal expressed his utter disbelief and sadness over the tragedy.
“There are no words to express the pain I’m going through now with this tragic and sad moment of loosing my neice Gigi & my friend, my brother, my partner in winning championships, my dude and my homie,” O’Neal wrote in an Instagram caption, alongside a photo of him carrying Bryant.
“I love you and you will be missed. My condolences goes out to the Bryant family and the families of the other passengers on board. IM SICK RIGHT NOW !”
“Kobe was so much more than an athlete, he was a family man. That was what we had most in common,” O’Neal wrote on Twitter Sunday evening. “I would hug his children like they were my own and he would embrace my kids like they were his. His baby girl Gigi was born on the same day as my youngest daughter Me’Arah.”
O’Neal’s son Shareef posted his last text message exchange with Bryant and said the two had spoken on Sunday morning, just before the crash.
“Literally this morning you reached out to me...” Shareef wrote on Twitter. “I love you forever unc. I love you.”
Bryant, known to his fans as “Black Mamba,” played for the Lakers for 20 years.
He won five NBA championships with the team ― including three with O’Neal ― before retiring in 2016. The two had a loving but contentious and competitive relationship with each other, trading barbs (before quickly making up) as recently as August 2019.
Countless friends, fans and former teammates also paid their respects to Bryant after news of his death spread.
“Beyond devastated... my big brother... I can’t, I just can’t believe it,” former teammate Pau Gasol tweeted.
Jim Boeheim, head coach of Syracuse’s men’s basketball team and former assistant coach for the United States men’s national basketball team, said that he was “so fortunate to have known [Bryant] and coached him with Team USA.”
“Kobe Bryant was not only one of the greatest basketball players ever, he was also the hardest working player I’ve ever been around,” Boeheim tweeted Sunday. “Our thoughts and our prayers are with his wife, Vanessa, and the Bryant family.”