When Gianna Bryant first told her basketball star father that she wanted to play the sport, Kobe Bryant took her seriously.
“He kind of sat down with Gigi and said, ‘If you want to play, we’re going to do this,’” said Jeff Melton, assistant athletic director at Vanguard University. “’We’ll do this if this is a passion for you.’”
When she said yes, her father — who became legendary for his 20-year career with the Lakers — began tapping into his world of opportunities. He arranged for her to meet her basketball idol, Katie Lou Samuelson, a guard for the WNBA’s Chicago Sky. He took her to Atlanta Hawks NBA games to watch Trae Young, another of her favorite players.
Then he formed a club team at his Mamba Sports Academy in Ventura County. The group started with Gianna and a group of about 10 sixth-graders — some of whom were on their way to a game Sunday morning when the helicopter carrying them crashed in Calabasas.
It should have been just another game for the Mamba team, which regularly practiced at the Vanguard University gym in Costa Mesa.
Russ Davis, head coach of the women’s basketball team at the small Christian college, cannot forget the day two years ago when Bryant stopped by.
“When he came into the room, he goes, ‘Russ Davis!’ And I’m like, ‘How did you know me?’” recalled Davis, who also coaches the Nike Cal Swish girls club team in Orange County. “He did his homework.”
Davis invited Bryant to bring his burgeoning Mamba team to practice at Vanguard’s gym, known around campus as “the Pit.” The location was convenient for Bryant, just 10 minutes from his home in Newport Beach.
Usually a couple of times a week, the team of young girls would take to the Pit’s courts to practice under Bryant’s watchful eye. Sometimes during the summer, they would hit the courts twice in one day, for morning and night practices.
The first time Davis watched Bryant coach the team, he was “in awe.”
“I’ve always known Kobe, watching him on TV, and just how intense he was, how driven he was and holding his teammates accountable and demanding the best out of everybody,” Davis said. “His team wasn’t playing particularly well, they were making a lot of silly mistakes. And he was just sitting there and he was encouraging them.”
Afterward, Davis said, Bryant approached him and asked for his thoughts.
“’I can’t believe how patient and calm you were,’” Davis recalled telling Bryant. “He just started laughing. And he goes, ‘Hey, you’ve got to teach them. They don’t know; they’re just learning the game. We just got to teach them; they’ll be all right.’”
When he wasn’t busy coaching his daughter’s team, Bryant attended some practices of the Vanguard women’s team. He also participated in Davis’ coaching clinics.
Senior Sierra Vaglica, the Lions’ captain, said Bryant meant so much to her. Her first pair of Nike shoes were the Kobe VI. In her bedroom, she hung a plastic cutout of him dunking a basketball into a hoop that she had drawn on the wall.
So as a college sophomore, when Vaglica met Bryant, she wasn’t overly starstruck but was impressed by him. Bryant had come to teach the women’s team the triangle offensive strategy at one of its 6 a.m. practices.
“I was amazed at just how his brain works, just to see a little bit of how he functions and how he sees things,” Vaglica said. “It’s incredible.”
She offered to help Bryant by watching the gym doors during the Mamba team’s practice, making sure no prying eyes would disrupt the focus of Bryant or the girls.
Bryant kept the team’s drills simple: ball handling, passing, footwork, defensive close-outs. Sometimes he would spend up to 30 minutes just drilling the players on layups. He would watch and rewatch videos of the team in action, analyzing the girls’ technique and brimming with pride at their successes.
As Bryant helped the team, Vaglica watched as Gianna improved her game.
“I could see a little bit of her dad in her, in the way she played, in the way she would pull off these crazy shots and everyone would be like, ‘Dang, how did you do that?’ But it’s like, ‘No, that’s Kobe Bryant’s daughter — come on.’ That’s in her blood. That’s who she is. She’s a Bryant, she’s supposed to do that.”
The more time Bryant and his daughter spent at the university, the more they became embedded in its tightknit community.
When Davis was diagnosed with throat cancer in April, Bryant “was there for me from Day 1,” checking in regularly and sending motivational text messages, Davis said.
Bryant visited him once at the Newport Beach assisted nursing facility where Davis was struggling to get out of bed.
“He basically called me out,” Davis said with a chuckle. “He said, ‘Are you going to sit there and feel sorry for yourself or are you going to fight back?’”
A nurse helped Davis walk around the hallway. Bryant coached Davis through the process.
He said, “‘All right, that’s not bad. Let’s go further,’” Davis recalled. “He was just really challenging me. I’m like, ‘This is tough, man.’ He’s like, ‘Nah, you’ve got it…. It’s mind over matter.’ And he would just talk about mentality…. ‘You can’t let this beat you. You’ve got to beat it.’”
When Davis later received news that his scans had come back clean, Bryant was “so excited,” Davis said. “Yeah man!” he texted with a thumbs-up emoji.