For the first time in Sabrina Ionescu’s four-year collegiate career at Oregon, she went to Gill Coliseum on the Oregon State campus and won. There were hugs and tears after the 66-57 victory completed a pivotal weekend sweep. Yet it wasn’t much of a celebration.
Kobe Bryant was not only a force in the NBA, he was a vibrant supporter of women’s basketball at all levels especially as fans of Ionescu. Bryant, 41, and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna were two of nine who died when his helicopter crashed outside Los Angeles en route to a travel basketball game.
Ionescu: Season is for Kobe
Word of his death Sunday spread as college teams were finishing up games or about to take the court, as was the case in Corvallis. The players for both No. 4 Oregon and No. 7 Oregon State met for a moment together at center court and shed tears throughout warm-ups. Ionescu, the presumed No. 1 pick in the 2020 WNBA draft who is close with the Bryant family, stayed in the locker rooms during warm-ups and came out with “Forever 24 <3” on her sneakers.
“Everything I do, I do it for him, obviously,” Ionescu said on the ESPN broadcast after the game. “[He was a] really close friend. This season’s for him.”
— ESPN (@espn) January 26, 2020
Back in the ESPN studios, legend Rebecca Lobo broke down in tears explaining what Bryant meant to women’s basketball. The cameras focused on photos and video of Bryant rather than the studio talent.
“No NBA player supported the WNBA or women’s college basketball more than Kobe,” Lobo tweeted. “He attended games, watched on TV, coached the next generation. We pray for his family.”
Bryant was particularly close with the Ducks team, as well as with UConn, where he visited with his family. He took Gianna, known as Gigi, and some teammates to visit the Ducks last season. They were also in attendance for a win over Long Beach State last month. The five-time NBA champion broke down Ionescu’s game for ESPN+ last season as part of his “Details” series, a way to give proper recognition to a basketball star, no pronoun needed.
Bryant championed the women’s game by speaking about it, but also by simply attending such games. By being there, and by tweeting about it, he drew more attention to the star talent that deserved the spotlight.
Bryant championed WNBA
Bryant continuously praised the WNBA after his retirement in 2016 and spoke of Gianna reaching the professional level. He took his daughter’s teams to games throughout the 2019 season and broke down plays with them.
“There’s no better way to learn than to watch the pros do it,” Bryant said, via the Los Angeles Times in May 2019. “The WNBA is a beautiful game to watch.”
Bryant, arguably the GOAT of basketball, was able to lessen the trolls at least a little by lending his support. Boys and men want to be like Bryant. To be like Bryant is to watch the WNBA.
Derek Fisher, Bryant’s Lakers teammate for five titles and the current Los Angeles Sparks head coach, told the Times as much.
“We’re all trying to be impactful in this world and it’s cool to see Kobe’s positivity impacting the women’s game and youth girls. He makes a difference when he shows up and when he says something. People react, people listen.”
The WNBA called Bryant a “legend in our sport” for supporting the game in a statement released Sunday afternoon and shared by commissioner Cathy Engelbert.
Very heavy heart on loss of Kobe and his daughter and the others in the tragic crash today. Admired his Mamba mentality, and so grateful for Kobe’s support of the WNBA and girls basketball. Thoughts and prayers are with the Bryant family and other families impacted. #8 #24 pic.twitter.com/iXkDHUNT0P
— Cathy Engelbert (@CathyEngelbert) January 26, 2020
Just last week, Bryant praised the league for its collective bargaining agreement that includes pay raises, family planning coverage and better accommodations.
“It’s a huge step in the right direction,” Bryant said. “And there’s still so much room to grow, but this is a huge, huge step in the right direction.”
His Mamba Academy has programs for both boys and girls, an aspect not always available when professional players start a camp or club. And he was always looking to lend a hand to the women’s game.
Ogwumike: Sparks discussed training at Mamba Academy
Chiney Ogwumike, a member of the Los Angeles Sparks and ESPN analyst, shared her thoughts on Bryant and that the Sparks were considering training at the Mamba Academy.
"A lot of people were saying, 'Hey, don't you want a son?' and he said, 'Why do I need a son? I've got a daughter that can carry on my legacy.'"@Chiney321 reflects on the sudden death of Kobe and Gigi Bryant: pic.twitter.com/o7vri7LngN
— espnW (@espnW) January 26, 2020
“I don’t even know if I should be saying this, but our team, our Sparks, were thinking about potentially practicing this year at Mamba Academy that’s how committed he is to finding role models to support women’s basketball.”
Ogwumike said two weeks ago Bryant had a private WNBA workout session with about 10 players but it wasn’t to get attention for doing it. He wanted to impact the game “out of the love of the game,” she said. He’s worked with collegiate and WNBA players over the years.
Bryant wasn’t perfect and his legacy is complicated. He came under justifiable fire last week for saying he believed there were WNBA players who could play in the NBA right now. It was meant as a praise to the players, but also comes off as insulting to women’s sports by making men’s sports seem better-than.
But he had a large platform and used it to speak highly of women’s basketball — something not all choose to do — and helping to grow the game by giving it more positive attention. His daughter was continuing the family legacy. Both Kobe and Gianna will be missed by women’s basketball.
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