Portland, Ore. (KOIN) — The orange hoodie, the animated sideline conversations between father and daughter, the love of the game that transcended gender and ability.
In a life so full, a legacy so large, these snapshots provide insight into who Kobe Bryant was, who he championed in his post-NBA career — and cannot be forgotten.
The University of Oregon women’s basketball program had a front-row seat to this aspect of Kobe’s legacy. The Ducks were about to tip-off against the University of Southern California in the Galen Center in January of 2019 when Head Coach Kelly Graves’ phone rang.
It was Bryant’s assistant, saying Bryant and several of his Mamba Sports Academy players were going to be at the game and asked if it would be okay if Kobe met the team before or after the game.
“Well, of course,” Graves recalled responding in an interview done on the one year anniversary of the helicopter crash that killed Bryant, his daughter Gianna, John, Keri and Alyssa Altobelli, Christina Mauser, Sarah and Payton Chester and Ara Zobayan.
The Ducks, led by future WNBA No. 1 overall pick Sabrina Ionescu, beat the Trojans by 40. No fans were more engaged during the Ducks domination than Kobe and Gianna — Gigi, as she was known to many — sitting courtside.
“When [Ionescu] would make a play, Kobe would be talking to Gigi and pointing almost to say, ‘See in that situation, that’s what you want to do,'” Graves remembered. “That was the start of our relationship with him.”
Bryant, Gigi and her teammates came into the Ducks locker room after the win. The Ducks had worn Kobe’s signature shoe and Graves said he signed every one of them before talking with the team.
“Be in the moment,” and “Control what you can control.” That’s what Graves remembers Bryant encouraging his players to do.
That comes as no surprise to those who knew Kobe. Of the ‘Mamba Mentality’ he’s famous for, those are two of the pillars.
“Kobe wanted to be there,” Graves said of Bryant’s attendance that day. “He wasn’t there just to be seen, you know, ‘Hey, I’m supporting women’s athletics.’ No. He genuinely wanted to be there for his daughter especially and her teammates.”
Bryant became a regular attendant of Oregon games and one of Ionescu’s biggest fans.
In one of the last interviews before his death, Bryant dove deep into Ionescu’s basketball prowess.
“It was refreshing to watch Sabrina play,” said Bryant. “She just reads the game. She’s not going to give you all these fancy dribbles that you don’t need. She understands angles, she understands defensive rotations, she understands where the next pass will come before that pass has even been made available. It was refreshing to see somebody play with such a high basketball IQ.
“Sabrina reads the hell out of [opponents.] She’ll come off and she’ll be looking on the weak side, eyes always up and she understands what those coverages are. She’s picking them apart like a quarterback would.
Bryant said he hadn’t seen someone able to approach the game the way she does at the collegiate level.
“The system that Oregon runs and how she handles the ball and facilitates opportunities for her teammates — I haven’t seen that. Her competitive spirit and her toughness reminds me a lot of Diana [Taurasi.]”
The pair’s friendship flourished, founded on their love of the game and relentless pursuit of excellence.
“Growing up I only knew one way to play the game of basketball, fierce,” Ionescu said when she spoke at Bryant’s memorial after his passing. “With obsessive focus. I was unapologetically competitive. I wanted to be the best. I loved the work, even when it was hard, especially when it was hard. I knew I was different, that my drive was different. I grew up watching Kobe Bryant, game after game, ring after ring. Living his greatness without apology. I wanted to be just like him.”
Ionescu was far from the sole representative of women’s basketball on the stage that day. Diana Taurasi, three-time WNBA Champion and four-time Olympic gold medalist as well as legendary University of Connecticut Head Coach Geno Auriemma also shared memories of Bryant, highlighting his investment in the women’s game.
Bryant’s championing of women’s sports — from his attendance at the US Women’s National soccer teams games, to WNBA All-Star weekends, to his courtside seat at NCAAW’s games to coaching his own daughter and being her No. 1 fan — stands out among former men’s basketball stars.
“He seemed so genuine and down-to-earth and that’s what I really appreciated about him,” Graves said in reflecting on his last conversation with Bryant, in December of 2019 after Oregon beat Long Beach State. “He wasn’t Kobe Bryant, the superhero, incredible basketball player. He was a dad and a fan.”
Bryant’s WNBA fandom will live on through the Kobe and Gigi Bryant WNBA Advocacy Award, which will recognize an individual or group who has made significant contributions to the visibility, perception and advancement of women’s and girls’ basketball at all levels.
“He was a true advocate of women’s basketball, of women’s sports in general and you could tell that. I think he set an example for a lot of others that we want to appreciate excellence, regardless of which gender, regardless of age, just appreciating great things,” Graves said.
Be in the moment. Control what you can control.
Words of advice from Mamba that will live on forever.