The stories are being repeated around the women’s basketball world, and touch home poignantly here in the Northwest.
Kobe Bryant’s death Sunday at age 41 resonated with especially profound pain in that realm, where Bryant was a beloved figure. He was an absolutely unabashed supporter of the women’s game, his immersion growing as his 13-year-old daughter Gianna’s career and love of the sport grew.
“He was an advocate for us,” Storm guard Jordin Canada said Tuesday in a phone interview. “The fact that he was able to go to games with his daughter and wanted to enlighten her and help her get better from watching women’s basketball was something really special. It was amazing for someone like him to support our game so much and help elevate our game.”
Not that the WNBA or the women’s game in general needed a man’s stamp of approval to give it validity. But Bryant, the parent of four daughters and determined to move forward from the incident in 2003 when he was accused of sexual assault (charges were eventually dropped), was helping make women’s hoops cool. That, in turn, was increasing its visibility and credibility among the masses.
Bryant’s death in Sunday’s helicopter crash, as has become increasingly clear, struck with a visceral power that spoke to something deeper. The accompanying loss of Gianna just added to the immense sadness, as did the death of the seven others, including two young girls.
While much of the lamentations have rightfully centered on Kobe’s basketball feats, and how his Black Mamba persona influenced a generation of hoop players and fans, I had a slightly different takeaway.
What strikes me as most heartbreaking, beyond the obvious family losses that can’t be expressed or even comprehended, is what was taken away from women’s basketball. Bryant’s continued advocacy would have been a huge boost for the sport. And Gianna, by all accounts, carried the same single-minded determination that took her father to the top, along with a skill set and mannerisms that uncannily mirrored his. She was headed, it seemed, to an exalted place.
Every women’s superstar, or budding superstar, seemed to have a story, in the wake of Bryant’s death, of some heartfelt interaction with Kobe, a piece of encouragement or advice or life lesson that he had imparted. Just imagine what he was imparting to Gianna as well as his other three daughters.
We have heard from Hailey Van Lith, the brilliant high-school player from Cashmere who trained with Bryant at his basketball camp last summer. Just two weeks ago, Kobe and Gianna (known to all as Gigi) traveled to tiny Cashmere, a town of about 3,200 located far off the beaten path in Chelan County, to watch Van Lith play.
“Never have I seen a passion for life burn so bright in two individuals,” Van Lith wrote on Instagram. “Thank you for changing my life.”
Much the same reaction was expressed by Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu, who has also trained with Bryant. Ionescu was visibly distraught during Oregon’s game with Oregon State on Sunday night.
“Everything I do, I do for him,” Ionescu said in the postgame interview on television. “And this season’s for him.”
The Storm’s Breanna Stewart, making her comeback this week for Team USA in an exhibition game with Connecticut – the school Gigi followed ardently and was intent upon playing for – talked about how encouraging Bryant was after she ruptured her right Achilles tendon last April in Europe. When Stewart flew home for surgery in Los Angeles, a message from Bryant was waiting on her voice mail.
“He was like, ‘Hey, this is Kobe. I just wanted to reach out to you and let you know if you need anything, I’m here,’ ” Stewart told Sports Illustrated. “It was a weird time. I wasn’t in the greatest of moods, but I appreciated that. The thing with the Achilles is it stays with you forever. So now I’m invested in every person I come across who has an Achilles injury. I think he’s the same. He wants to help people.”
Bryant and Gigi also had a relationship with Sue Bird, but the Storm player closest to Kobe was Jewell Loyd. It’s a friendship that goes back to her high-school days in Illinois, when a Lakers assistant coach introduced the two at a game in Chicago. Eventually they became texting buddies, practice partners and then associates at Nike, where Bryant made Loyd the female face of his signature line and dubbed her, “Gold Mamba.”
Loyd, naturally, was profoundly affected by Bryant’s death. In a heartfelt post on on social media, she wrote:
You molded me. It wasn’t just about basketball, but about how I can make a bigger impact on the world. I’m going to miss our talks. The talks we had about Gigi & how she was the mini version of you. How it scared you because she already had your drive at such a young age. …
Kobe wasn’t just my muse, he was my family. He not only gave me wisdom, he gave me the name Mamba. Mamba is not just a word, it’s a way of life. We don’t quit and we don’t cower; we endure and conquer. I’ll miss you Kobe.
That’s all highly relatable to Canada, who growing up in Los Angeles and attending UCLA was part of the vast network of basketball players – male and female – who worshipped Bryant.
“Kobe meant everything, as a young kid growing up, watching him play, and just giving hope to young girls like me, and young men, to show if you put the work in you can be the best,” Canada said.
“I remember as a kid watching countless Laker games, re-watching the games, studying him and wanting to be like him. He’s the reason why I became a basketball player, the reason I wanted to work as hard as possible to be the best I could possibly be.”
Canada finally met Bryant, and Gigi, just two weeks ago when she attended a scrimmage of the youth team that Kobe helps coach. She was struck by Kobe’s intricate knowledge of her game – he asked Jordin how her jump shot was coming – but especially by the charisma that exuded from his daughter.
“The first thing I noticed was her smile, and how happy she was,” Canada said. “Just seeing the light she brought when she walked into the room – she was so much like Kobe; you could see it, and see how much she was going to impact women’s basketball. It’s hard to process that she won’t be able to get an opportunity to fill her dreams, and her dad’s dreams.”
That’s something that the entire world is trying to process.