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LA tech industry mourns Kobe Bryant

The Los Angeles startup community is joining the rest of the world in mourning the death of NBA superstar, entrepreneur and investor Kobe Bryant who was killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif., shortly before 10 a.m. on Sunday.

Reports indicate that Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna Maria-Onore Bryant, and seven other passengers were on board a helicopter traveling to Bryant’s basketball training facility Mamba Academy. There were no survivors.

The 41 year-old NBA All-Star, Olympic medalist, Oscar winner and father of four was most famous for his achievements on the basketball court, but had established himself as an entrepreneur and investor whose reach extended far beyond the Los Angeles area that he called home.

“Kobe was loved in Los Angeles,” wrote Mark Suster, managing partner of the Los Angeles-based venture capital firm Upfront Ventures, in a private message to TechCrunch. “He not only played at the peak of his sport but everything he did was quality from film, to books to philanthropy. It’s truly a sad day in LA.”

Bryant launched his venture career with partner and serial entrepreneur Jeff Stibel back in 2013, according to Crunchbase. The pair made a mix of early- and late-stage investments in Los Angeles-based companies like LegalZoom, Scopely, Art of Sport, The Honest Company, RingDNA, FocusMotion, DyshApp and Represent.

Last year, the investment firm expanded with a $1.7 billion investment vehicle that was launched in partnership with the private equity fund, Permira, according to a report in USA Today.

“We are mourning this terrible loss and still searching for the words,” wrote Mattias Metternich, co-founder of Bryant’s grooming startup, Art of Sport, in an email. “As a founding partner to [Art of Sport] he was woven into the very fabric of our company and its vision and DNA. As a mentor we drew on his wisdom, passion and drive everyday… In the short term our thoughts and hearts are with him, Gianna and his surviving family.”

Jessica Alba, the co-founder of The Honest Company, took to Twitter earlier in the day to share her own reaction to the news. And Scopely’s official Twitter account shared a reaction, as well.

An all-time legend, and our friend and supporter. Our thoughts are with all of the families affected by the tragic accident today. You will be missed, @kobebryant. pic.twitter.com/FzhNl5ndau

Scopely (@scopely) January 26, 2020

During his time with the Los Angeles Lakers, the MVP and 18-time All-Star set records and helped architect runs to five national championships. Together with Shaquille O’Neal, Bryant helped make the Lakers the dominant team in the NBA in the early 2000s.

“Kobe was the rare combination of God-given talent on-and-off the court with a competitive athlete mindset that was unrivaled to the point it was called the ‘mamba mentality’. Whatever he put his focus turned into excellence, whether it was an NBA championship, an Oscar, entering the VC game or — most importantly — fatherhood,” wrote Upfront Ventures general partner Kobie Fuller. “This loss is shocking and puts into perspective how precious our moments on this earth really are. My heart goes out to the Bryant family during this incredibly difficult time.”

While Bryant’s sports career was storied, and his post-sports career in media and investing successful, his legacy is complicated by a sexual assault allegation in 2003, which was later settled and for which Bryant apologized, but did not admit guilt.

Apple’s China stance makes for strange political alliances, as AOC and Ted Cruz slam the company

In a rare instance of bipartisanship overcoming the rancorous discord that’s been the hallmark of the U.S. Congress, senators and sepresentatives issued a scathing rebuke to Apple for its decision to take down an app at the request of the Chinese government.

Signed by Senators Ron Wyden, Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Congressional Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Mike Gallagher and Tom Malinowski, the letter was written to “express… strong concern about Apple’s censorship of apps, including a prominent app used by protestors in Hong Kong, at the request of the Chinese government.”

Tim Cook gets a letter from @RonWyden @SenTomCotton @marcorubio @AOC @tedcruz @RepGallagher & @Malinowski re: China censorship. pic.twitter.com/dJlEAlheMX

— Jessica Smith (@JessicaASmith8) October 18, 2019

In 2019, it seems the only things that can unite America’s clashing political factions are the decisions made by companies in one of its most powerful industries.

At the heart of the dispute is Apple’s decision to take down an app called HKMaps that was being used by citizens of the island territory to track police activity.

For several months protestors have been clashing with police in the tiny territory over what they see as the undue influence being exerted by China’s government in Beijing over the governance of Hong Kong. Citizens of the former British protectorate have enjoyed special privileges and rights not afforded to mainland Chinese citizens since the United Kingdom returned sovereignty over the region to China on July 1, 1997.

“Apple’s decision last week to accommodate the Chinese government by taking down HKMaps is deeply concerning,” the authors of the letter wrote. “We urge you in the strongest terms to reverse course, to demonstrate that Apple puts values above market access, and to stand with the brave men and women fighting for basic rights and dignity in Hong Kong.”

Apple has long positioned itself as a defender of human rights (including privacy and free speech)… in the United States. Abroad, the company’s record is not quite as spotless, especially when it comes to pressure from China, which is one of the company’s largest markets outside of the U.S.

Back in 2017, Apple capitulated to a request from the Chinese government that it remove all virtual private networking apps from the App Store. Those applications allowed Chinese users to circumvent the “Great Firewall” of China, which limits access to information to only that which is approved by the Chinese government and its censors.

Over 1,100 applications have been taken down by Apple at the request of the Chinese government, according to the organization GreatFire (whose data was cited in the Congressional letter). They include VPNs, and applications made for oppressed communities inside China’s borders (like Uighurs and Tibetans).

Apple isn’t the only company that’s come under fire from the Chinese government as part of their overall response to the unrest in Hong Kong. The National Basketball Association and the gaming company Blizzard have had their own run-ins resulting in self-censorship as a result of various public positions from employees or individuals affiliated with the sports franchises or gaming communities these companies represent.

However, Apple is the largest of these companies, and therefore the biggest target. The company’s stance indicates a willingness to accede to pressure in markets that it considers strategically important no matter how it positions itself at home.

The question is what will happen should regulators in the U.S. stop writing letters and start making legislative demands of their own.