When Kobe Bryant died Sunday morning in a helicopter crash, along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others, the world wept.
The sudden loss ripped through the connective tissue that binds the sports universe, a breach made worse by the knowledge that Kobe’s and Gigi’s stories had many chapters yet to be written. Though much will be made of Kobe’s legacy and loss as one of the NBA’s transcendent superstars, it is the haunting knowledge of what was still to come for father and daughter together that triggers a unique sense of sorrow.
Kobe and Gigi died on their way to a basketball tournament at Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks — Gigi as a player, her dad as her coach. They died on their way to pushing women’s basketball forward.
You could tell just by the way they watched the game, courtside at WNBA contests, NBA events and college games. In one photo published again and again since the crash, Kobe is wearing an electric-orange hoodie stamped front and center with the WNBA silhouette, laughing with Gigi. In a YouTube video, she nods along with her father’s animated hand movements, pursing her lips at his no doubt much-too-in-depth analysis, grinning at his advice.
You could also tell by a few of Kobe’s latest social-media likes, chuckling along with the rest of sports Twitter as soon-to-be No. 1 WNBA pick Sabrina Ionescu realized she had posted another triple-double for the University of Oregon and acknowledging Alana Beard’s retirement from the women’s game.
Bryant’s vocal support for NCAA women’s hoops and the WNBA marked a new focus for the L.A. icon — one that the sport and perhaps the man himself badly needed. For two decades, he’d been Showtime Kobe, 81-point-night Kobe, one-two-three-four-five rings Kobe. To some, his legacy would be forever tainted by 2003’s very public rape allegations, and the out-of-court settlement and apology that followed.
Yet, after 2015 and his retirement from the NBA, Kobe wrote over if not erased the controversy. One of the most recognizable athletes in the world had successfully reinvented himself, adding to an overwhelming resume. He became Kobe the thoughtful artist, producing an Oscar-winning short film “Dear Basketball”; Kobe the philanthropist, businessman and mentor; and especially Kobe the sports dad, coaching Gigi’s Amateur Athletic Union team.
His evolution from NBA star to women’s basketball advocate was so seamless that it might have persuaded many of the WNBA’s doubters to reconsider their indifference. Bryant loved the game of basketball, in all its forms and at every level. Gigi, from all reports, had inherited that same love, and together the pair used any platform they could to prove persistent advocates for changing the way the world viewed women in basketball.
The WNBA, less than two weeks removed from a landmark collective bargaining agreement designed to elevate the earning potential of its stars, continues to make strides in viewership as it fights behind the scenes for more media attention. However, there remains little crossover between NBA fans’ breathless dedication to their teams and their willingness to tune in to, say, the Washington Mystics’ Elena Delle Donne battling through a serious back injury in the 2019 WNBA championship in October. The Bryants, through their ties to active players in both leagues, were busy building that bridge.
Kobe made his intentions clear. In a CNN interview two weeks ago, he was asked if there would ever come a day when women could play with the men in the NBA. He didn’t hesitate: “Right now,” he said, there are a lot of players with the skills. On Jimmy Kimmel’s show in 2018, he proudly acknowledged that he didn’t need a son: Gianna could and would carry on his legacy.
The WNBA has a lot of future makers, up-and-comers: The Seattle Storm’s Breanna Stewart has a championship title, a League Most Valuable Player award and a finals MVP to her name in just four years in the pros. A’ja Wilson entered the league in 2018, earned All-Star accolades twice and has her Vegas Aces poised for a 2020 title run. Ionescu, holder of the NCAA record for career triple-doubles (for men as well as women) will be drafted in April.
The future of the women’s basketball is bright, but now it will be forced to move forward absent two of its most compelling allies and mourning what might have been. How much faster would the women’s game have grown, how far would Gigi have risen? How exactly would the continued support of a bona fide basketball superstar and the emergence of his daughter as a player have changed the course of the women’s game.
Kobe Bryant’s confidence in his daughters’ ability to create their own legacies — and to further his — should be as honored as the rest of his towering achievements. The images of the superhuman purple-and-gold Kobe flying toward the rim will endure as long as basketball is played. So too should the more human images of the sports dad, on the sidelines in his bright orange WNBA hoodie, arm around his daughter, enjoying the game, passing it on — a different kind of champion.