How Kobe and Gigi Bryant have inspired college basketball's next superstar

Azzi Fudd was in the locker room before her high school basketball game on Jan. 26 when her dad walked in, pulled her aside and showed her his phone. What Azzi saw was the headline everybody remembers from that horrible day — Kobe Bryant had died in a helicopter crash.

The tears came fast. She couldn’t believe it. Just a month prior to the accident, Fudd was in New York working out with Gianna Bryant over the Christmas holiday.

“My first thought was Gigi. I couldn’t imagine how she was feeling,” Fudd told Yahoo Sports. “She just lost her dad and mentor and coach. I knew I had to text her but I didn’t know what to say so I decided to wait until after our game to reach out to her.”

Fudd sat out this particular game. She was resting her knee while coming back from an ACL injury she’d suffered eight months prior. At halftime, her mother walked over to the bench with tears in her eyes and informed Azzi that Gigi was on the helicopter, too.

“I could not stop crying,” Fudd said. “Heartbreaking doesn’t even begin to describe it. It didn’t feel real. It still doesn’t. Just thinking of it now makes me tear up. It was too much.”

Kobe follows Fudd

Azzi Fudd is the No. 1 ranked junior in the nation. She is the only girls basketball player to ever receive the Gatorade Player of the Year award as a sophomore. Fudd, 17, was one of the first females ever invited to Steph Curry’s camp he holds every summer for the nation’s top high school basketball players. She even won the 3-point contest at it, beating out future lottery pick Jalen Green. After hitting 14 threes to take home the trophy, Fudd’s social media blew up and some big-time players started following her like Curry, Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, Breanna Stewart and Elena Delle Donne.

It was early the next school year when Fudd got a follow from one player that topped the rest. She was scrolling Instagram on her phone when a text message popped up from a friend. “Dude, Kobe’s following you on IG!” it read. Fudd quickly checked and sure enough, one of the greatest basketball players of all time was following her. “I couldn’t believe it. There were all these guys in my class saying that they could beat me in basketball and I just turned to them and showed them that Kobe Bryant was following me and it shut them up,” Fudd said with a laugh.

Azzi Fudd had her own special connection with Kobe and Gigi Bryant prior to their tragic deaths. (Yahoo Sports illustration)
Azzi Fudd had her own special connection with Kobe and Gigi Bryant prior to their tragic deaths. (Yahoo Sports illustration)

A month later in October, Azzi and her mom were heading to the West Coast for a couple visits to Oregon and UCLA. She reached out to Bryant and told him she was coming to Los Angeles. He replied right away asking her to send him the dates. He invited them to the Mamba Academy for a game to watch Gigi and her team play.

Fudd was impressed watching the Mambas play, specifically Gigi. Her shot was so much more advanced than when Fudd was a 13-year-old and Gigi understood the game well. “Her basketball IQ was off the charts for a player that age. She saw the floor so well and was a fierce competitor like her dad.”

Kobe wasn’t the coach Fudd was expecting, either. Instead of pacing up and down the bench and yelling at the refs and players, Kobe sat quietly for the majority of the game with a clipboard and would give his players individual instructions during dead balls and timeouts. The Mambas were disciplined and well coached, obviously. They won the game pretty easily, and Kobe spotted Fudd immediately afterwards.

“Right after the game he walked over to me and gave me a hug like we’d known each other forever,” Fudd said. Fudd met Gigi and the rest of the team and as they were walking out Kobe extended an invite to her: “Are you ready to work this week?”

Fudd admits she’s never been more nervous than she was for that workout. Sure, the gametime nerves were there when she was a 14-year-old playing on the U-16 USA Basketball team in a gold-medal game, but this was a different kind of nervous.

A couple days later, Fudd walked into the gym to 11 teenage girls talking and laughing as they shot around and warmed up. The entire team was so close that it really stood out to Fudd. They hugged each other like it had been days since they practiced. When Fudd asked Gigi how many days a week they practiced together, Gigi shrugged her shoulders and smiled and said, “We practice every day.”

“Gigi was a goofball,” Fudd recalled. “She was a great teammate and always laughing. But once it was time to work, she was locked in. When Kobe asked her to do something she would look him in the eyes and say, ‘OK,’ and then do it.”

The workout lasted two hours. At one point Kobe paired up Gigi and Azzi for some shooting drills. It was the first time Azzi had ever tried and worked on Kobe’s signature move — two dribbles, shoulder shake and a turnaround fadeaway jumper. Gigi had to give her pointers. She had it down to a tee. “I kept thinking, ‘This is a 13-year-old and she's better at this than me!’ It was pretty incredible the skillset she had for how young she was,” Fudd said.

After practice Gigi and Azzi exchanged numbers and promised to stay in touch. Gigi would check in with Azzi on how her knee was feeling, Azzi would ask about games on the weekend. In December, Gigi texted Azzi and said she was going to be in New York City for Christmas break. Azzi’s high school team, St. John’s College High School, had a tournament there, too. In true Mamba fashion, a workout was set up with trainer Alex Bazzell and WNBA Rookie of the Year Napheesa Collier. In the gym was Collier, Fudd and Gigi all working out.

To close out practice, they always ended with a 3-point shooting drill from the NBA 3-point line. Between the three of them they had to make 10 and finish with three in a row.

“If you were just watching the hoop and not paying attention to who was shooting, you wouldn’t know the difference. That’s how well Gigi shot,” Fudd said. “You wouldn’t be able to tell that it was a 13-year-old, a 17-year-old and a WNBA player in the drill. It was pretty incredible.”

Fudd finds inspiration in Gigi

Gigi had her hopes set on playing at UConn and she likely would have reached that goal. She had the potential to win gold medals for Team USA like Azzi has done and set scoring records and win state championships. She was Kobe Bryant’s daughter but she worked hard and loved the game of basketball.

“I really respected her determination and drive to be great,” Fudd said. “You don't see that in a lot of players. She didn’t need to have that drive but she did and it just goes to show how much she wanted it.”

Since the accident, Fudd said she’s struggled to wrap her head around one thing — seeing young Gigi with all the potential, and now never having the opportunity to see how much she would accomplish. “Her dad was doing everything he could to grow the women’s game and Gigi was the future of this sport. It’s heartbreaking,” Fudd said.

Azzi Fudd (R) St. John's dribbles in front of Jadyn Donovan of Sidwell Friends during a game on March 1, 2020. (Will Newton/Getty Images)
Azzi Fudd (R) of St. John's dribbles in front of Jadyn Donovan of Sidwell Friends during a game on March 1, 2020. (Will Newton/Getty Images)

Michael Jordan spoke at Kobe Bryant’s memorial service on Feb. 24. His face was stained with tears as he remembered his “little brother” as he described him. “Maybe it surprises people, but Kobe and I were very close friends. He was a nuisance. But that nuisance turned into love over a period of time,” Jordan said. “He used to call me, text me around 11:30, 2:30, 3 o’clock in the morning talking about post-up moves, footwork and sometimes, the triangle. What Kobe Bryant was to me, was the inspiration that someone truly cared about the way I played the game or the way he wanted to play the game.”

In Gigi’s young career, Kobe was facilitating the same type of relationship he had with Michael Jordan, surrounding Gigi and her teammates with the best women who have ever played the game — Elena Delle Donne, Diana Taurasi, Kelsey Plum, Napheesa Collier and Sabrina Ionescu all spent time working out with Kobe and Gigi, as well as younger up-and-coming players like Fudd and Hailey Van Lith. Kobe’s Instagram page is cluttered with photos of Gigi working out with these players. He was doing what any proud parent would do, trying to put his daughter in the best possible position to succeed in her career.

Azzi missed one of her last high school basketball games to fly across the country and attend Kobe’s and Gigi’s memorial service in LA after one of Kobe’s assistants invited her. “Even though it was a big game for us, I wouldn’t have missed the service for anything,” Fudd said. “It was so beautiful and so emotional. I just can’t believe how many lives Kobe and Gigi have touched. I was really glad I got to be there.”

A few days ago, Azzi scored her 2,000th point — an impressive feat considering she’s only a junior in high school. Like most players who loved Kobe and grew up watching the Black Mamba, Azzi is adopting the “Mamba Mentality” to honor Kobe and Gigi.

“I’m just going to keep that killer mentality in mind when I’m playing and and push my teammates to play with the same mentality,” Fudd said. “Kobe taught me to never back down and keep my goals in mind when I get tired.”

And as far as Kobe’s signature move, Fudd’s been working on that, too. “I have to get that move down for my girl Gigi.”

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