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LOS ANGELES — Shortly before her team played at USC last season, Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu discovered that her coach had a surprise for her.
Ionescu assumed Nike had sent some new shoes or gear or something, but at tipoff she learned that it was more exciting than that.
“Kobe walks in with his daughter Gianna and two of her teammates,” Ionescu explained during her speech at Monday’s public memorial honoring Kobe and Gianna Bryant. “They sat courtside while my jaw sat dropped.”
Ionescu had long emulated Kobe’s unapologetic competitiveness and unrelenting work ethic, but she had no idea the respect was mutual. Having watched Ionescu blossom into the most dynamic passer and scorer in women’s college basketball, Kobe appreciated her game and recognized that his daughter could learn a lot from watching her play in person.
The conversation Ionescu and Kobe had after that game served as the starting point for a meaningful friendship between women’s basketball’s brightest young stars and one of her childhood heroes. Over the past year, Kobe often passed along advice or words of encouragement to Ionescu and twice flew her to Southern California to work out with him and Gianna.
“He taught me his stepback,” Ionescu said. “He told me that if I could bring that to my game, it would be over for any defender trying to guard me.”
Stories like the one Ionescu shared Monday underscore how much women’s basketball lost 29 days ago when a helicopter carrying Kobe, Gianna and seven others crashed into a Calabasas, California, hillside. In one tragic freak accident, the sport lost its most famous and outspoken champion and a 13-year-old who seemed to have the talent and drive to achieve greatness and the name recognition to reach a mainstream audience.
But while the passing of Kobe and Gianna leaves an irreparable hole, the coverage of their death suggests they may yet do as much to create opportunities for women posthumously as they did while they were alive. Tales of Kobe’s sincere commitment to being the best possible dad to his daughters and to creating opportunities for other aspiring female athletes can only motivate and inspire others to take the baton from him and do the same.
Over the past few weeks, more has been said about Kobe the #girldad than Kobe the basketball legend — and rightfully so. He himself once said that he’d have failed if being an elite basketball player was his greatest accomplishment.
At Monday’s public memorial, 20,000 purple- and gold-clad mourners learned more about Kobe the father, as did hundreds of thousands more watching from home.
In her beautiful ode to her husband, Vanessa Bryant described Kobe as the “MVP of girl dads,” a father who was always hands-on and always present. In retirement, he took over dropping off and picking up older daughters Natalia and Gianna from school, he’d sing silly songs to 3-year-old Bianka as he bathed her and he took great pride in how quickly he could rock baby Capri to sleep.
Joked Vanessa, “He said he had it down to a science, eight times up and down our hallway.”
The connection between Kobe and Gianna was especially strong once basketball became a mutual passion. Not only did Kobe coach her club team the past couple years and encourage her dreams of playing for UConn and in the WNBA someday, he would go to great lengths to make sure Gianna received the best possible instruction.
Said Diana Taurasi during her speech on Monday, “I’m sure I’m not the only one who received a text from Kobe asking what drills I was doing at 13.”
Michael Jordan revealed Monday that he, too, received a similar text from Kobe at 2 a.m. last year. An incredulous Jordan drew a laugh from Kobe when he responded, “At 12, I was trying to play baseball!”
“You rarely see someone who is looking and trying to improve each and every day, not just in sports, but as a parent, as a husband,” Jordan said. “I am inspired by what he's done, what he's shared with Vanessa, and what he's shared with his kids.
"I have a daughter who's 30 and I became a grandparent. And I have two twins. I have twins at 6. I can't wait to get home to become a GirlDad and to hug them and to see the love and smiles that they bring to us as parents.”
Of course it wasn’t just Gianna that Kobe sought to help. The list of young basketball players he has mentored in retirement is long, some male but many others female.
The speakers at Monday’s public memorial reflected the sincerity of Kobe’s commitment to women’s basketball. In addition to Ionescu and Taurasi, UConn coach Geno Auriemma also spoke about his relationship with the Bryant family and his admiration for Kobe and Gianna.
“How many women are going to be inspired by Gigi’s life?” Auriemma said. “How many fathers are going to be inspired by Kobe’s life to really be fathers the way fathers are supposed to be?”
At the end of her speech on Monday morning, Ionescu shared that she still texts Kobe from time to time even though she knows she will get no response. It’s difficult for her to adjust to using the past tense when speaking about Kobe and Gianna after getting so close to both of them during the past year.
“His voice is still in my head even if his body is not on this earth,” Ionescu said.
Perhaps that will be the case for more than just Ionescu. Maybe Kobe’s message will resonate with dads whose daughters are being denied equal opportunities. Or with NBA luminaries who have a chance to serve as role models to female stars of the future.
There’s no denying how massive a loss the death of Kobe and Gianna Bryant was for women’s basketball, but perhaps their passing can provide inspiration for others to carry on this part of their legacy in their absence.
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