LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka took the witness stand here Wednesday in federal court and suddenly broke down weeping after being asked a simple question:
“Can you describe your relationship with Mr. Bryant?”
The question came from the attorney for Vanessa Bryant, widow of Kobe Bryant, the Lakers legend.
Fighting through tears, Pelinka paused for at least 30 seconds before answering.
“He’s still my best friend,” Pelinka said. “And I feel so grateful. Being friends with Kobe was like having a true superhero as your best friend. He was incredibly loving and courageous. … And a day doesn’t go by where I don’t think about how grateful I am to be chosen as the person who walked side by side with him through 20 years of his NBA journey.”
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VANESSA BRYANT TRIAL DAY 1: Tears, testimony and details about deadly crash
Pelinka and Vanessa Bryant appeared in court Wednesday on the first day of Bryant’s civil trial against Los Angeles County – a case that dates to the day Kobe and their daughter, Gianna, died in a helicopter crash in January 2020.
Bryant sued the county later that year, accusing county sheriff’s and fire department employees of taking and sharing photos of her loved ones’ remains without having a legitimate government reason for doing so.
Pelinka, 52, is Gianna’s godfather, Kobe’s agent and the executor of Kobe’s estate. He also was the first witness called to testify for Bryant’s case.
He spoke of how he got to know Kobe more than 20 years ago, how he learned how he died and how he and Vanessa visited the crash site near Calabasas several months later, in about June 2020. He said it was part of her journey of grief and healing.
“She wanted to touch the soil where they were before they went to heaven,” Pelinka testified, again fighting tears. “She asked me to go there. So we drove up. They had to provide all-terrain vehicles and we went to the site. We just talked, prayed. ... There were flowers ... and we knew they were with us.”
Pelinka’s testimony served a few different purposes for Bryant’s case: to help the jury learn more about the Bryant family, to set the scene of the tragedy and to speak about the impact the photos issue has had on her.
Bryant is joined in this case by Chris Chester, a financial adviser who also is suing the county over the photos after losing his wife and daughter in the same crash that killed all nine aboard. Both are seeking damages to be determined at trial after claiming they suffered emotional distress from the county’s actions with the photos.
According to their attorneys, both fear the photos will re-emerge to terrorize them even though the county said they were deleted and never publicly disseminated.
“Does she ever talk to you about her fears about her kids ... one day seeing the photos?” asked Bryant’s attorney, Luis Li.
“I know how intentional she is to create beauty around her kids,” Pelinka said. “That involves the images and the portrayals and pictures and hope and the joy ... and everything she chooses to put up in her house and her Instagram … If somehow one of these other images come along, it wipes so much away, and the impact is forever.”
Pelinka said he met Kobe Bryant shortly after he moved from Illinois to California in 1998 and joined a sports firm that was representing Bryant. The two soon “hit it off” over their shared passions for basketball and business.
Vanessa later became like a sister to him, he said. And it was Pelinka who drove Vanessa to the Lost Hills sheriff’s station after hearing reports of the crash on Jan. 26, 2020.
Pelinka said he was in church that morning and even had received text messages from Kobe Bryant about trying to help the sister of one of the helicopter’s other passengers get a job in the sports business.
After leaving church, everything changed. He said he got a call from someone who worked with the Lakers.
Pelinka recounted hearing it like this:
“Where are you? I’ve got horrible news. We think the helicopter (with Kobe and Gianna) ... went down in a remote canyon.”
Pelinka said his first instinct was to go to Vanessa.
They then drove to the sheriff’s station near the crash, where they were ushered into a room.
“At some point, they shared the news they didn’t think there were any survivors,” he said.
But Pelinka also remembered that Vanessa’s “first instincts were to lock this area down” from invasions of privacy, such as from news media helicopters. He said they received assurances from sheriff’s officials that it would be.
Weeks later, after learning about county employees sharing photos of Kobe’s and Gianna’s remains, Pelinka said Bryant “was distressed and horrified and incredibly angry.”
“I remember her saying something to the effect of, "`The very people who protect us are the ones doing this. How could this be?’”
The county is fighting this case, saying it is not supported by evidence and that county workers were doing their job to document the crash scene.
Pelinka is expected to return to the witness stand Thursday and face questioning from an attorney for the county, who likely will elicit from him that he never saw any of the gruesome photos in question.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kobe Bryant crash photos: Lakers GM Rob Pelinka weeps on witness stand