On Monday, the basketball world gathered at the Staples Center in Los Angeles to celebrate the lives of basketball legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gigi, who tragically died in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26.
The event featured numerous speakers, including Vanessa Bryant, the wife of Kobe and mother of Gigi, Shaquille O’Neal and Michael Jordan along with performances by Beyonce and Alicia Keys. UConn women’s basketball head coach Geno Auriemma and former Huskies star Diana Taurasi also participated in the ceremony with poignant remarks to celebrate Bryant’s life and impact on the game of women’s basketball.
However, the Bryants’ impact stretched beyond just the NBA. In his final years, Kobe became an advocate for women’s basketball as Gigi began to play and take an interest in the sport.
The two made a connection with Auriemma’s program at UConn, where Gigi was “hellbent” on playing. The two attended a handful of games together, most notably the 2018 Final Four in Columbus, Ohio together, where they witnessed the Huskies fall to Notre Dame on a last second buzzer-beater. The loss crushed Gigi and made her even more determined to dominate with UConn. Bleacher Report’s Mirin Fader described the scene after the game in “The Legacy of Mambacita”:
Gigi is 11. She and her family are at the Final Four, hoping UConn will take it all. But the Huskies lose in the semifinals on a last-second shot in overtime by Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale.
Walking out of Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, Gigi is crying her eyes out. And she’s angry. Her face is all twisted up. She gets into a car full of family and crosses her arms tightly across her chest.
Kobe sees her in the rearview. “You OK?” he asks.
”When I get to UConn,” she manages, between tears, “this is never happening! I promise you that!”
Auriemma spoke on Monday, reminiscing on his favorite memories of the pair. He knew how much Gigi loved his team. But the coach shared a moment when he got to see that love firsthand.
“She did meet the Oregon Ducks women’s basketball team and they all gathered around and said ‘Do you want to take a picture?’ and everybody ran over and Gigi goes ‘Nah, I’m good.’ She knew where her heart was,” he said with a smile.
Geno Auriemma tells a story about Gigi being asked to take a picture with the Oregon Ducks and saying "Nah, I'm good" pic.twitter.com/90mgnrHVkh— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) February 24, 2020
However, that admiration was never more apparent than the first time Gigi and her dad visited UConn’s locker room after a game. For Gigi, she looked at the Huskies’ players the way the players looked at her dad.
“I remember when Gigi came ... the very first game that she came to, and she came into the locker room. And here she is. And 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,” Auriemma said via the LA Times. “It’s ironic. Her father is royalty and she’s excited to be around royalty that looks just like what she wants to be.”
For all Kobe’s accolades — the five championships, the MVPs, all the points — the thing that impressed and stuck with Auriemma was the way he acted like a normal dad with Gigi. Kobe never put the spotlight on himself, instead choosing to focus it completely on Gigi.
“The most impressive thing about that point in time (in the locker room) was how Kobe stepped as far back as he could. So anyone taking pictures, anyone there would not know that this was Kobe Bryant’s daughter,” Auriemma said. “This was her moment. This was her time to shine. This was her time to experience all the things that he’s experienced in his life. He was being dad then; he wasn’t being Kobe Bryant. And he was allowing Gigi to be Gigi and not Kobe Bryant’s daughter. In today’s day and age, that’s a hell of a thing for parents to be able to do.”
“When they came to UConn and they sat behind the bench and there’s dad, bringing his daughter to a game,” Auriemma continued later. “And they have their shirts on and she’s got this coat on and she has her hat on, and she’s just a little kid at a game. And again, I felt more like a dad than I felt like a basketball coach, because I’ve done that with my kids.”
Auriemma also spoke of his relationship with Kobe, who always wanted to pick Auriemma’s brain once he started coaching Gigi’s teams. Naturally, Auriemma found humor in the situation.
“How ironic that he would talk to me about coaching,” Auriemma said. “The uncoachable one wants to talk about coaching — probably the most uncoachable player in the NBA during his career wants to know about coaching. I wanted to know why. He said, ‘I’m coaching my daughter’s team.’ I said, ‘Oh my God. That poor kid.’”
Despite the somber mood of the afternoon, an emotional Auriemma still managed to bring his trademark wit to the speech.
“When I watched the highlights of her playing, on about the third or fourth time she touched the ball, Gianna passed it when she was open,” Auriemma said. “I thought, ‘She’s not listening to her father.’”
Apparently Auriemma wasn’t the only one Kobe sought out for coaching advice.
“I’m sure I’m not the only one who received the text from Kobe asking what drills you are doing when they were 13,” Taurasi said.
Taurasi spoke as well, coming with the perspective of not just arguably the most recognizable women’s basketball player in the world, but also as a kid who grew up idolizing Bryant.
“In 1996, I was a lanky awkward freshman in high school, obsessively shooting night after night in my driveway,” she said. “On the nights the Lakers played, I wouldn’t miss a second of the game. Every timeout, every commercial, I’d run to the front yard to imitate my favorite Laker, Kobe.”
But even after Taurasi made it in the WNBA, she didn’t stop emulating her childhood hero.
“Every single workout, I end the same way with the Kobe game-winner,” she said. “Three hard dribbles going right. Left foot plant pivot. Swing right leg through, elevate square up. Follow through. Five in a row and I got to go home. It’s that exact same shot that won us the championship in Phoenix in 2014.”
Taurasi spoke about Kobe’s passion and hard work, which inspired a generation of basketball players — including his own daughter. Though Gigi still had her prime way ahead of her, Taurasi felt that the 13-year old was in the greatest part of her basketball career.
“Her skill was undeniable at an early age. I mean, who has a turnaround fadeaway jumper at 11? LeBron barely got it today,” Taurasi said. “Gigi was in the midst of the best times as a basketball player’s career. No responsibilities, no expectations. Just basketball with your best friends.”
To some, Gigi was seen as the future of women’s basketball, expected to be UConn’s next superstar. That dream was tragically cut short. However, Taurasi made a pact to keep her spirit alive.
“As a daughter, a sister, wife and a mother, we embrace Vanessa, Natalia, Bianka and Capri,” Taurasi said. “We promise to carry Gigi’s legacy.”