Kobe Bryant missed only one Mambas practice in two years. The head coach had every day, every practice, every minute accounted for with his team. It was something that made him feel whole again after retiring from the NBA. Determined again. Basketball took everything out of him and coaching his daughter, Gigi, and the rest of the Mambas, filled him back up and gave him a new purpose. He had planned to put all of the girls on one high school varsity team in the near future and become the head coach.
“He loved them girls,” says Zach Randolph, the 17-year NBA veteran and father of MacKenly Randolph, a post player on the team. “Everybody was inspired by him.”
Kobe’s love for girls’ basketball extended far beyond his own team. He mentored players on rival eighth grade AAU teams and high schools. He had nicknames for all of them. He texted many of them with advice, randomly dropping in little nuggets. I was just thinking about that one move you did the other day. Remember, you have to flash higher if you want to turn, catch, and face more effectively, he’d tell them.
He invited some to work out with WNBA players he knew. He recorded a video for a local high school girls’ coach in Orange County who had been diagnosed with cancer. Giving back to the game he loved so much gave Kobe joy: traveling to high schools in the Orange County area to sit in on practices, befriending local coaches whom he had no connection to. He was trying to forge strong bonds within the basketball community. He once spent several hours teaching Santiago High’s boys’ and girls’ basketball coaches the intricacies of the triangle offense, carefully explaining to the staff how it could even be run against a zone.
Matt Moorhouse, Santiago’s head coach, couldn’t believe it when Kobe offered to attend one of the team’s practices. Moorhouse didn’t want to impose or act like he was trying to take advantage of Kobe: “No, man, it’s really OK. We don’t wanna bother you!” Moorhouse told Kobe.
Kobe just smiled. “But do you want to learn?”
These are the types of memories that remain. The types of memories that players and coaches from the team formerly known as the Mambas relive, as if by playing them in their minds they can somehow preserve those who were lost.
It’s been one year since the tragic helicopter crash took the lives of nine members of the Mambas community: Kobe, 41, and Gigi, 13; Alyssa Altobelli, 14, and her parents, John, 56, and Keri Altobelli, 46; teammate Payton Chester, 13, and her mother, Sarah Chester, 45; assistant coach Christina Mauser, 38; and pilot Ara Zobayan, 50. They were on their way to a Mamba basketball game that morning. For those still playing on the team, it’s a raw and painful memory. But the influence of those lost remains. “They touched the world,” Zach Randolph says.
Brooklyn Shamblin was one of those people. She played on rival team Cal Storm but considered Gigi a little sister, Kobe a mentor. He called her “Lucky Lefty.” Kobe started watching Brooklyn train at Mamba Sports Academy, the Thousand Oaks training facility he cofounded in 2018, where the Storm sometimes practiced, and would come to her games. They became friends; Kobe felt she had that “it” factor. They’d challenge each other to one-on-one when the court was clear. “I was shocked when he took me under his wing like he did, not being on his team,” Shamblin says. “I was so blown away by his knowledge of the game, and how he wanted to share that with all the girls.”
The 15-year-old has a “Mamba Mentality” tattoo on the outside of her left foot that she got after the accident, reminding her to lock in before the game. She has a shrine in her bedroom for Kobe: his jersey, his shoes, a signed basketball, and their photos together.
She remembers how Kobe had texted her and asked her for her shoe size the week before the accident, because he was going to send her a fresh pair. She remembers how Kobe taught her to think beyond basketball. To think about what you want your legacy to be, how you want people to know you. “He always talked about some day the ball is going to stop bouncing, and you want to leave your mark on the world in other ways, too, so people will remember you,” she says.
She cherishes the memories, shutting them out when they hurt too much but inviting them back when she feels ready.
The Mambas featured some of the most talented girls’ basketball players in California. Gigi ran point, MacKenly Randolph dominated the post, Altobelli was a strong leader and floor general, and the rest of the roster also had plenty of game. They played selflessly. They played hard. Basketball made them laugh and cry and scream and feel alive. They commanded respect when they walked in the gym. Not because of who some of their fathers were, but because of how they played.
They’d wear stone-cold mean mugs right before a game, smirking at other teams who were giggling and not taking warm-up as seriously. Just like Kobe would.
Gigi, like her dad once did for his teammates, set the tone for all of them: She needed to be first in anything. Layups? She had to have the most. Sprints? She had to finish first.
MacKenly Randolph remembers the stairs. She and her teammates ran up and down each one at the Mamba Sports Academy, which has since dropped “Mamba” from its name out of respect for Kobe’s legacy, then ran a little more on the court, at Kobe’s behest, sprinting around the perimeter.
MacKenly recalls one day being near the back of the pack, trailing alongside Altobelli. Gigi was ahead of everyone, as she always was.
A post player in the mold of her Grit and Grind father, MacKenly had never run that much in her life. Had never played that much defense, either, as the team rotated through defensive slide after defensive slide prior to the sprints.
MacKenly’s legs burned, her thoughts blurred. But there was a loud voice. An encouraging but stern shriek: Gigi turned around and looked at her. “Come on, Mac!” Gigi screamed. “Come on, Alyssa! You guys gotta finish! You can do this!”
MacKenly pumped her legs faster and faster, catching up to the middle of the group. She vowed to never be last again.
Zach and Kobe would beam, watching their daughters fly across the court, laughing when they saw their daughters do things they used to do in the NBA: Gigi doing Kobe’s fadeaway, MacKenly doing Zach’s drop step; Gigi smirking at a girl who thought she could guard her; MacKenly getting riled up at a girl who fouled too hard.
Zach and Kobe had many battles in the NBA, but they respected each other deeply. In retirement, they became friends. Zach remembers how Kobe was always there for MacKenly. “He loved my daughter,” Zach says. Kobe would call her out when she wasn’t playing up to her potential. He knew how good she could be, especially given her high IQ for the game. “Mac,” Kobe said during one practice, when she looked gassed, just going through the motions. “You can do way better than that! You need to pick it up!”
Zach saw the love that Kobe had for Gigi and it melted the Grit and Grind bruiser. “I’m a softie,” Zach says. “Especially when it comes to them. For my babies, I am.”
Softie. It’s a word Zach never thought he’d use. He was so intimidating, just walking on the court used to put fear into opponents. But he melts when he thinks about his baby girl. Like Kobe, he is proud to be a Girl Dad.
Alyssa Altobelli seemed to notice everything. She was acutely aware of what her teammates needed, wanted. Not just where they liked the ball, but how they were feeling.
Altobelli noticed how MacKenly would make shot after shot from the post in practice, then hesitate come game time. In one contest, when MacKenly seemed to get rid of the ball as if it were on fire, Altobelli came right up to her. “Mac! Shoot the ball! You got this!”
Something in MacKenly relaxed. For the first time a teammate thought she could be more than a back-to-the-basket girl. She could be who she really wanted to be.
Kelly Graves, Oregon’s women’s basketball coach, remembers when the Mambas visited the Ducks during an Oregon road trip to play Long Beach State and USC.
Gigi, Altobelli, and Chester, particularly, were wide-eyed and thrilled at the opportunity to meet star Sabrina Ionescu and her teammates. They couldn’t stop smiling. These were the women they wanted to be like, the ones they studied religiously.
Graves told Kobe that he appreciated him being a role model to his own players, especially to Ionescu. Then Graves and Kobe talked about being a parent and what it meant to both of them. How one attempts to balance basketball and fatherhood.
“It’s the greatest honor you can have,” Kobe told Graves. “Being a dad.”
Saiya Sidhu is the same age as Gigi, but she’s always looked up to her. Sidhu idolized Kobe, attending one of his basketball camps when she was 8 years old. She remembers everyone saying the triangle was too complicated to learn, but Kobe insisted each kid learn the same complicated system he once bristled at.
“You’re never too young to learn to do it right,” Kobe told the campers. He signed Sidhu’s jersey.
Sidhu was so excited when she found out that her team, Fresno Lady Heat, was going to play the Mambas last January. The night before, Sidhu thought about the game. She was nervous. “Just to be on the same court as Gigi,” Sidhu says. “She was Gigi Bryant.”
She arrived at the Mamba Center, warming up for the game, set for 2 p.m. Then the news broke about the helicopter crash. The devastation could be felt in every corner of the gym.
Sidhu clearly remembers the screams of the people in the gym, the tears streaming down her face. So many girls had just suddenly lost their hero—and some of them their best friend.
Sidhu and other girls like her have continued playing, but the pain remains.
Ionescu continued to text Kobe, months after his death: Miss you and love you.
It was an attempt to cope, to find some sense of normalcy. She and Kobe had been tight for months, training together in the offseason after Kobe complimented her game. He said that she could be one of the best to ever play. Kobe even let her coach the Mambas for a game. She became just as tight with Gigi.
Little things reminded her of Kobe, like the strong-arm emoji, his favorite. She remembers pearls of wisdom he used to drop, like: “You can’t control your teammates. You can’t control how hard other people work,” Ionescu recalls. “It’s you versus you. He was big on that. If he could be the best he could be, then people would follow.”
She kept having dreams. Visions of Kobe, Gigi, and her standing on the court. She could hear Gigi’s laugh. That warm, bright, booming giggle that could be heard from any location on the court.
Few understood how deeply Gigi loved basketball. She wasn’t just playing the game because she was Kobe’s daughter. She was the one directing him to work out. She was the one asking him to schedule games against the toughest out-of-state teams. She was the one telling him she could go one more rep. Always one more rep.
One day Zach and Kobe were standing together on the sideline, watching their daughters dribble across the court. They looked so happy, playing dummy defense against each other. Kobe turned to Zach and burst into a big smile: “Man, I love MacKenly.”
Zach smiled. Almost didn’t have the words: “Man,” he managed. “I love you for loving my baby, and teaching my baby.”
Zach thinks about that moment a lot. MacKenly thinks about the TikToks she and Gigi used to make. And how both of them would forget how to do the moves as soon as they hit record.
But that didn’t deter them. They’d laugh and laugh and bop awkwardly to the beat, improvising, making fun of each other. With each other, they never had to be perfect. They never had to meet expectations, like they did when they stepped on the court. Gigi was one of the few people who understood the pressure MacKenly faced and vice versa.
“That made us relate even more,” she says. “We both knew how to control it. Not control it, but deal with it.”
A year later, the loss is still incomprehensible to MacKenly. “I can never forget,” she says. “I can never get over it.”
“I would hope nobody ever goes through this,” she says. “It’s just so much to take on at once.”
When MacKenly’s on the court, she doesn’t think about grief. But she carries the pain inside. She is a private person. She says she has five true friends. “I kind of keep all of my emotions to myself,” she says. “I don’t like to show others my emotion. My way of grieving is just, getting in the gym, going extra hard.”
MacKenly trains like it could be her last day on the court. “I know Gigi, Pay, and Alyssa would have worked super hard and did everything they could if they were here,” she says. Her voice softens, slows. “I know it’s a privilege that I’m even able to get in the gym right now.”
She needs to be there. They all do. The girls are still trying to figure out how to move forward, how to live in the aftermath. They lace up their sneakers, clutch the ball tightly, and dribble.