By: Sheila Johnson
On the heels of the NBA All Star game and a chance to celebrate some of the greatest players in the game, I can’t help but feel more than a little empty. One of the greatest to ever set foot on a basketball court, and truly one of the NBA’s most remarkable individuals, in and out of uniform, has left us forever.
I’m speaking, of the late Kobe Bryant, who as most of you know was killed in a helicopter crash just a few Sundays ago, along with his daughter Gianna, six other passengers and their pilot. And where those nine individuals were headed bright and early on a Sunday – after mass, mind you – was to a basketball practice.
Only it wasn’t just any practice to which they were headed. It was a practice for little “Gigi” Bryant and one of her teammates – who, sadly, was also on the copter with her father.
That is an important fact, you see, by many reports, following his retirement Kobe began to drift from basketball, at least to a degree. He stopped going to Laker games. He didn’t watch it on television. And he rarely discussed it. Until, that is, Gianna fell in love with the game and, in the process, rekindled her father’s passion for it.
That’s when everything started to change for Kobe, both as a man and father. He began taking Gigi to Laker games. He talked strategy and situations with her as they unfolded on the court before them. In time, her favorite players became his favorite players.
And when that happened, almost overnight, women’s basketball stumbled upon the one thing it needed most – or, I should say, we needed most? We discovered a believer; an advocate. Only it wasn’t just any advocate. We woke up one day and realized we had the greatest and most influential advocate we could ever hope to have for our game.
We had Kobe Bryant; a student of basketball and its history like few others.
We had Kobe Bryant; an alpha dog’s alpha dog who, when he spoke, everyone listened.
And we had Kobe Bryant; a young man who was a sponge for information, who learned from his mistakes, who spoke multiple languages, who’d traveled the world many times over, and whose mind, especially when he was with his daughter, remained as open as his heart had become pure.
It’s sadly ironic, of course, that Kobe was killed on his way to a women’s basketball practice, especially since for many years he was the virtual poster child of the men’s game. I say that because one of the last things he said publicly, and something that received a good deal of national attention, was a quote he gave to a CNN reporter about women’s basketball.
Kobe said there are “a couple of women” who could play in the NBA now, before naming three specifically: Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore, and Elena Della Donne. He didn’t say the three WNBA players would be stars, but that they “could definitely keep up” with their NBA counterparts.
It wasn’t just that Kobe said what he did. It was that the very next day his comments triggered a tidal wave of conversation on talk shows on stations across the country. And in the process it got countless men – men who, frankly, had long dismissed the women’s game as unwatchable – to view it in a different light, if only by degree, and if only because Kobe Bryant himself had given women’s basketball his measured, informed and well-articulated seal of approval.
Look, the human cost of Kobe and Gigi’s deaths is almost beyond comprehension. A young mother has now lost her soul mate and had her little girl ripped from her arms. What’s more, three young girls no longer have their father or their sister.
But that aside, the loss of Kobe Bryant will continue to resonate long after all the grief and raw emotions have subsided. And among those places where his loss will resonate most is in the game I’ve grown to know and love, and the game for which I continue to bleed. It will, arguably, resonate most and echo loudest in the world of women’s basketball.
Because all of us in that world – from the WNBA on down to pickup games on the local playground – will be compelled to consider, every time we think of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gigi, not so much what was, but, sadly and alas, what might have one day been.