There was never an NBA player who respected or promoted the WNBA or Women’s College Basketball more than Kobe Bryant” was the words spoken by ESPN commentator Rebecca Lobo at halftime of a women’s college game only a handful of hours after the devastating news of the passing of the mamba himself and his beloved daughter Gianna, nicknamed Gigi. She would later tweet out a similar statement.
It’s not an understatement to say he was one of one he most recognized faces at women’s basketball games or at Staples center watching the Los Angeles Sparks supporting Women’s basketball often even before his retirement from the NBA in 2016. He was a self-proclaimed fanatic of the UConn’s women’s basketball program and said he was excited to see Gianna play for them when she got to college. He was in attendance multiple times during the years when UConn won four straight NCAA titles. His effort on the Women’s game goes much further than him attending games. He enjoyed Women’s basketball. He was a mentor for some of the best the game has seen and currently sees. One of the brightest stars in Women’s College basketball and likely the upcoming #1 pick in 2020 draft Sabrina Ionescu was in tears before her game on the day as Kobe was not only a mentor to her the last couple of years, but he had become a close friend to her. He worked with her on her game. Kobe and Gigi went out to watch Sabrina and the Oregon Ducks multiple times in her time in a Ducks uniform.
That’s a big part of Kobe’s legacy with women’s basketball. He actually enjoyed and appreciated the game. He spoke often about players like Candace Parker, Lisa Leslie, Maya Moor and Diana Taurasi as players he admired and respected as competitors and people. He spoke highly but he spoke knowledgably about these women. He didn’t just use generic and over-used phrases. He used personal opinions and lingo that showed he personally knew these players. He watched the game and enjoyed the game of women’s basketball. That isn’t something that can be said about a lot of high profile male athletes.
A Minnesota women’s basketball connection with Kobe is during the historic senior season of Rachel Banham, her outstanding play caught the attention of her sports hero Kobe Bryant. He spoke about what made her fun to watch as a player. A major star in his farewell tour in the NBA and he still took time to speak on and tweet at and about a Minnesota Women’s basketball player. Then later that year she was able to go out to Los Angeles and got to meet Kobe and his family. He took the time to meet and talk with Rachel Banham.
He loved the game of basketball no matter what gender was playing that game. He was one of the first to not only support women’s basketball, but he did it in a way that made it seem as if it’s outrageous for anyone not to support female athletes. He spoke of them as equals in sports and showed every NBA player, and every professional male athlete how to talk about and show respect to women’s sports.
Kobe was quoted as saying after he retired, that it was his daughter Gianna (Gigi) that pulled him back to the game of basketball. She would say let’s watch this game or let’s go get shots up. He went with her all over the country to see NBA, WNBA and NCAAW games. He had happily turned into a spectator parent at her traveling games. When Kobe was on the Jimmy Kimmel show, he shared a story of someone saying to Kobe that it was sad he didn’t have a son to follow in his footsteps, and that Gigi cleared her throat standing next to him and she pointed to herself and simply said I got next.
The women’s game has felt the effects of Kobe’s wisdom and admiration of the game. He did it when it didn’t have to and many didn’t but like typical Kobe, he displayed his “mamba mentality” in championing for female athletes. Kobe Bryant will be remembered by so many as the Black Mamba, the Laker, the basketball player, but to a the lucky few he was a friend, a mentor, someone’s son, a husband and a father.
Our hearts and thoughts go out to Kobe and Gigi’s friends, family and anyone effected by their tragic passing. We also want to say thank you to both for the countless amazing moments on the court and for their love and advocacy for women’s basketball. Mamba, you will be missed!