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Defining Moments of the NBA Season: Women’s Basketball Takes Center Stage at Kobe and Gigi Bryant’s Memorial

At a service at Staples Center in honor of the father and daughter, the NBA took a back seat to luminaries from the WNBA and women’s college basketball

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA is on hold for the foreseeable future. To help fill the void, we’re looking back at the defining moments of the 65-ish games of the 2019-20 season so far.

Gianna Bryant grew up on a first-name basis with the legends of basketball, her dad Kobe among them. As a toddler, she posed with her father’s NBA championship trophies and sat on his lap during press conferences. Can you even imagine the towering heights from which famous men leaned down to greet her? One of the great joys of Kobe’s audacious 60-point final game in 2016 was its courtside audience: his wife Vanessa, blowing a kiss and catching a wink; their first two daughters, Gigi one of them, now old enough to truly comprehend the grandeur of their weird old dad.

Just like Kobe, Gigi was a burgeoning basketball hotshot and, more importantly, a true basketball nerd. She knew the degree to which her dad and his pals were stars. But it was when he started introducing her to women’s college basketball players that Gigi got starstruck. That’s the word that University of Oregon sensation Sabrina Ionescu chose to describe her memories of meeting Gigi: “She and her teammates hung out with us for a while, starstruck and a little shy, but always observing,” Ionescu said, standing at a podium on the court at Staples Center on February 24 and speaking at the 13-year-old Gigi’s memorial service.

The service was planned by Vanessa Bryant in the wake of the January 26 helicopter crash that killed Kobe, Gigi, and the seven others aboard, all of whom had been heading to a girls’ basketball tournament at Mamba Sports Academy, Bryant’s training center in Thousand Oaks, California. The memorial lineup included songs by Beyoncé and Christina Aguilera and speeches from Shaquille O’Neal and a disarmingly reflective Michael Jordan. Jimmy Kimmel hosted; people from Snoop Dogg to Jennifer Lopez were in the building. And yet at the heart of the program was women’s basketball—a moving, fitting choice given the souls being honored.

Ionescu was part of a lineup of speakers that would have made Gigi Bryant and her buddies go wide-eyed. Preceding her was Diana Taurasi, the UConn legend whom Kobe himself had declared “the White Mamba.” “The last time I saw Gigi,” Taurasi told the 20,000 people in attendance and the millions more who were watching the service live, “[Gigi’s girls team] the Mambas were in Phoenix for a big AAU tournament. Kobe brought them to the locker room to watch practice. I always remember the look on Gigi’s face. It was a look of excitement, a look of belonging, a look of fierce determination.”

Taurasi’s former coach, Geno Auriemma, who has coached the iconic Huskies since 1985, had a similar recollection. “She came into the locker room,” Auriemma told the crowd, reflecting on “the look on her face, the smile, the way her eyes just took everything in, how excited she was to be around, in her mind, royalty.” Taurasi and Ionescu may have grown up wanting to be like Kobe, but his own daughter sought to be more like them.

Kobe’s public image had long been that of a complicated basketball great. He was charged with sexual assault in 2003. He won five titles while clashing with coaches; his competitiveness bordered on the diabolical. Upon retiring in 2016, he intended to stay away from the NBA and pursue other business interests, like winning Oscars. But as his daughter’s talent became obvious, he became an increasingly passionate champion for the women’s game. His legacy became zealous #girldad as much as it was NBA legend.

Like others who spoke at the service, Auriemma joked about how persistent Bryant had been about asking for coaching tips, describing him like an archetype of the overinvested and irritating sports stage-parent. (Both Taurasi and Jordan also spoke about getting middle-of-the-night texts from Kobe asking what drills they did as teens; Jordan’s response was that at that age he just cared about baseball.) But of course, in the grand tradition of dads and their daughters, it was Kobe’s dorky persistence that both elevated Gigi while also making her all too happy to find her own outlet. “It’s ironic,” Auriemma mused. “Her father’s royalty, and she’s excited to be around royalty that looks just like what she wants to be.” And what she probably would have been, too.

That’s the hardest part, isn’t it? That probably would have been, that mental extrapolation in which Gigi goes from bashfully fangirling in NCAA locker rooms to, surely, sporting ski goggles and pouring championship champagne on ponytailed noggins in that very same space. There are so many of these glimpses, between all the passengers on that helicopter; and for me there’s one that still won’t go away, because I see it so clearly. It’s Kobe Bryant on a WNBA sideline, in his second decade as an exasperating, winning owner-coach. He has channeled his years of Mamba Sports Academy fanaticism into understanding the strengths and weaknesses of every athlete in the league, one of whom is the future Hall of Famer Gianna, whom he has recently traded for in a transaction that made as big a splash in the sports world as anything in the men’s game. She is grinning at her coach, and also rolling her eyes at her dad. It probably would have been the same as it ever was.

A little over the top? Maybe. But Kobe always was, too. “His vision for others is always bigger than what they imagined for themselves,” Ionescu said at the memorial service. “His vision for me was way bigger than my own.” One can only guess at the magnitude of his vision for his daughter. But by proudly showcasing women’s basketball at Kobe and Gigi’s shared memorial service, his loved ones made it possible to imagine.