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Lakers legend Kobe Bryant’s death stuns the entire sports world

Bryant, 41, was killed in a helicopter crash Sunday, and his ties with the Bulls — past and present — were felt in the wake of the tragedy.

The United Center is lit up Sunday night in tribute to Kobe Bryant.
CBS Chicago/Alfredo Roman

Former Bulls big man Pau Gasol loved Kobe Bryant. Millions worldwide did.

Gasol also loved the ‘‘Black Mamba.’’ That’s where he was in the minority.

When celebrating the life and mourning the death of Bryant, it’s important to distinguish Bryant from the ‘‘Mamba’’ because the two were very different.

Bryant, 41, was killed in a helicopter crash Sunday, shaking the foundation of the NBA and the entire sports world. That was the force he commanded.

In his auto-documentary, ‘‘Muse,’’ Bryant talked about how he had to create the ‘‘Black Mamba’’ persona to deal with sexual-assault charges in 2003 and the pending court case that followed.

‘‘I went from a person who was at the top of his game, had everything coming, to a year later having absolutely no idea where life is going or if you are even going to be a part of life as we all know it,’’ Bryant said in the documentary. ‘‘I had to separate myself. It felt like there were so many things coming at once. It was just becoming very, very confusing. I had to organize things. So I created the ‘Black Mamba.’ ’’

Bryant handled the personal challenges; the ‘‘Mamba’’ handled everything on the court. And damn right he was difficult on teammates.

‘‘He’s got that alpha personality, character,’’ Gasol said in an interview with the Sun-Times in 2015. ‘‘You’ve just got to understand where he’s coming from and work with him the best you can. Don’t try and bump heads with him; it’s not going to work out really well. So I understood, and my personality fit in perfectly with his and the team at the time.

‘‘He’s just a hard-working guy that wants to be the best. He doesn’t settle for anything less, and he’s always going to try to be — and will be — exceptional.’’

That’s why the news about Bryant was so devastating. What he did on the court in picking up the mantle from Bulls legend Michael Jordan — five NBA titles with the Lakers — was legendary.

What he was doing after his basketball career was just as exceptional, winning the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film for ‘‘Dear Basketball.’’

Hollywood was just the next court on which the ‘‘Mamba’’ could excel. Meanwhile, Bryant had reworked his image into being a stellar father.

That’s what former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau wanted to focus on. Thibodeau coached against the Lakers in the 2010 NBA Finals as an assistant with the Celtics and had maintained a relationship with Bryant since.

‘‘It’s just heartbreaking,’’ Thibodeau told the Sun-Times after hearing the news. ‘‘It’s stunning, it’s devastating, it’s all of those things. And it’s not just what he was as a basketball player; that’s obvious to anyone that watched him play. . . . To continue on after his playing career, just a remarkable human being, a remarkable father. It’s devastating on all levels in terms of his family, his Laker family. Just so sad.’’

But when talking about Bryant’s life, especially in Chicago, he forever will be in Jordan’s shadow.

Jordan’s legacy was the ghost he chased — and not only from a title standpoint. For a time, he even started to sound like Jordan in interviews, mimicking his mannerisms.

And while Bryant never fully reached Jordan’s legend, he and LeBron James are as close as it gets.

‘‘I am in shock over the tragic news of Kobe’s and [daughter] Gianna’s passing,’’ Jordan said in a statement. ‘‘Words can’t describe the pain I’m feeling. I loved Kobe; he was like a little brother to me. We used to talk often, and I will miss those conversations very much. He was a fierce competitor, one of the greats of the game and a creative force.

‘‘Kobe was also an amazing dad who loved his family deeply — and took great pride in his daughter’s love for the game of basketball. [My wife] Yvette joins me in sending my deepest condolences to [Bryant’s wife] Vanessa, the Lakers organization and basketball fans around the world.’’

Bulls vice president of basketball operations John Paxson also released a statement about Bryant’s death.

‘‘The Chicago Bulls organization is terribly saddened about the sudden passing of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and the other passengers in today’s horrific helicopter crash in California,’’ Paxson said. ‘‘While he leaves us far too soon, his legacy and persona will forever be remembered. One of the best to have ever played the game of basketball, we extend our deepest sympathies to the Bryant family and the other families affected.’’

Former President Barack Obama issued a heartfelt tweet that read: ‘‘Kobe was a legend on the court and just getting started in what would have been just as meaningful a second act. To lose Gianna is even more heartbreaking to us as parents. [Wife] Michelle and I send love and prayers to Vanessa and the entire Bryant family on an unthinkable day.’’

Here is a sample of some of the other thoughts in the wake of Bryant’s death:

• ‘‘I’m shook. . . . idk what to think right now,’’ Bulls guard Zach LaVine tweeted.

• ‘‘I’m stunned. Words can’t even come close to describing it. Just an incredibly sad and tragic day,’’ former Bulls great Scottie Pippen tweeted.

• ‘‘Beyond devastated . . . my big brother . . . I can’t, I just can’t believe it,’’ Gasol tweeted.