Speaking after a team practice on Wednesday, Los Angeles Clippers superstar Kawhi Leonard confirmed that he commutes to Los Angeles from San Diego by helicopter and that he had flown with pilot Ara Zobayan on numerous occasions. Zobayan was piloting the helicopter carrying retired Lakers great Kobe Bryant that crashed on Sunday, killing Bryant and eight others including the pilot who Leonard described as "one of the best."
"That is a guy who you ask for to fly you from city to city," Leonard said, as quoted by The Los Angeles Times. "It's just surreal still," he added.
After winning the NBA championship as a member of the Toronto Raptors in the 2018-2019 season, Leonard signed a reported three-year, $103,137,300 contract with the Clippers as a free agent, according to SpoTrac. The deal pays Leonard an average salary of almost $35 million per season.
Leonard played college basketball at San Diego State University, and following last season, he purchased a house in Rancho Santa Fe, a suburb of San Diego, according to the Times report. Leonard said that he frequently commuted to Los Angeles by helicopter, often with Zobayan, who Leonard called a "good dude," flying the aircraft.
"Flown with him a lot. Great guy, super nice," Leonard said, as seen in the video of his comments, below.Leonard, who now also owns a penthouse apartment in a building near the Staples Center where the Clippers play their home games, also said that he has not yet decided whether he will continue commuting by helicopter in the aftermath of the accident that claimed the life of Bryant, 41, and Bryant's 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.
"I can't really speak on it," Leonard said. "I don't know yet. It's a lot of thoughts in my head."
According to a report by aviation journalist Jeff Wise published online Wednesday by Vanity Fair, while star athletes, corporate executives, and other wealthy people often use private aircraft — both helicopters and planes — to get around the world, their luxurious form of travel has a safety record significantly worse than that of commercial airliners.
While the Federal Aviation Administration applies its strictest safety regulations to large, commercial jets, the safety rules for smaller, private planes and helicopters are much looser, according to Wise. Among the more relaxed rules, commercial airline pilots must pass a fitness test every six months, while private pilots are tested only once per year. Commercial pilots must retire at age 65, but the FAA imposes no age limits on private pilots.
In 2018, large commercial flights suffered only one accident, with just one fatality — compared to six crashes with 12 deaths for private aircraft. From 2010 to 2017, commercial airliners recorded no accidents at all. But in that same time period, private aircraft averaged 22 deaths per year, according to Wise's report.
While no cause for the crash that killed Bryant has been determined, experts have said that pilot error related to the foggy, adverse weather conditions appears to be a likely reason for the tragic helicopter disaster.