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Kobe Bryant became champion of women’s sports after career

Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna watch the first half of an NCAA college basketball game between Connecticut and Houston.
Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna watch the first half of an NCAA college basketball game between Connecticut and Houston on March 2, 2019.
(Jessica Hill / Associated Press)

Kobe Bryant sauntered through the locker room doors and eyes widened. After watching the Oregon women’s basketball team beat USC by 40 points at the Galen Center last January, the NBA legend, his daughter Gianna and other aspiring basketball players visited the Ducks.

Bryant greeted players with hugs. He signed their shoes — Kobes, naturally — while they were still on their feet. He complimented their playing style.

Bryant wasn’t in the courtside seat as a dad just chaperoning his daughter and her friends, Oregon coach Kelly Graves realized as he watched the interactions. This wasn’t a duty, this wasn’t an obligation and this wasn’t a publicity stunt.

This was respect.

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“We lost a great voice and a champion of women’s athletics,” Graves said Monday night, one day after Bryant and Gianna, 13, were killed in a helicopter crash that claimed seven other lives.

Graves’ Oregon team, with dynamic point guard Sabrina Ionescu and a high-octane offense, was a regular subject of Bryant’s attention as the Lakers star became a vocal supporter of women’s basketball. Graves said Bryant’s support for women’s basketball, whether at the college or WNBA level, “wasn’t phony” and had a “tremendous impact” on the game.

“Kobe’s support for the WNBA and women’s basketball along with his passion for helping young girls and boys follow their dreams made him a true legend for our sport,” WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a statement Sunday.

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Bryant and such NBA stars as Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and John Wall became fervent supporters of the WNBA. Bryant was featured in an ESPN commercial promoting the women’s Final Four last spring.

Women don’t need men to validate their talent, UCLA coach Cori Close said. That is already there. But growing the game requires allies, she added, and Bryant was one of the best they could have asked for.

Bryant was a one-named icon for a generation. He was confident, relentless and determined. As he spoke in support of women’s athletics, the “Mamba Mentality” became gender neutral.

“It’s all about focus; I don’t care who you are, where you’re from, doesn’t matter,” Bryant said on Pac-12 Networks during Oregon’s game at USC last January . “It’s just having a focus and having a purpose.”

At a team meeting Monday, according to Close, Bruins guard and L.A. native Charisma Osborne shared that Bryant was her favorite player. Freshman Camryn Brown told her team about how watching Bryant play made her choose basketball over all other sports.

Lakers star Kobe Bryant, center, sits between Magic Johnson, left, and Sparks star Lisa Leslie at an event during the 1998 NBA All-Star Weekend in New York.
Lakers star Kobe Bryant, center, sits between Magic Johnson, left, and Sparks star Lisa Leslie at an event during the 1998 NBA All-Star Weekend in New York.
(Tim Clary /AFP/Getty Images)

“Who would have predicted 10, 15 years ago that one of his biggest legacies would be on women’s basketball and girls basketball?” Close said. “It’s been really life-forming for a lot of players.”

In 2003, Bryant was charged with one count of felony assault after a 19-year-old worker at a Colorado hotel said he raped her. The accuser decided that she would not testify, and prosecutors dropped the case in September 2004. A civil suit brought by the accuser in August 2004 was settled out of court on March 2, 2005.

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For a coach who preaches the importance of responding to events, Close respects Bryant for the way he appeared to grow as a husband and a father. There is space to appreciate his redemption as well as recognize the suffering caused by the allegations against Bryant.

“A lot of us have rough spaces in our life and maybe we make choices that are not choices we want to make according to our character but we really mess up,” Close said, “and how you handle and respond to that mess-up and who you choose to become as a result of those mistakes and how you respond to those, I think are defining moments. …

A fan started a petition to honor Kobe Bryant by altering the NBA logo to feature the late Lakers star. More than 2 million people have signed it.

“It doesn’t diminish the mistakes and the consequences that come from those mistakes, but I sure think it’s a part of his legacy of how he responded in the public light.”

After retiring in 2016, Bryant pulled away from basketball, he said this month on former teammate Matt Barnes’ Showtime podcast “All the Smoke” with Stephen Jackson. He barely ever watched games and definitely didn’t attend them except for when the Lakers retired his jersey in 2017.

Only Gianna, known as GiGi, pulled him back in when she began to pepper him with questions about the sport several years ago. She wanted to play college basketball at Connecticut. Then she wanted to play in the WNBA.

First, she played for her dad.

Bryant coached his daughter’s AAU team, the Mambas, and was the face behind the Mamba Sports Academy, which offers physical and mental training for athletes of all ages and skill levels. He hosted NBA and WNBA players alike at the facility in Thousand Oaks.

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Kobe Bryant, Natalia Bryant
Kobe Bryant and his oldest daughter, Natalia, attend a game between the Sparks and Connecticut Sun at Staples Center in June 2006. Bryant’s father, Joe Bryant, was the coach of the Sparks from 2005 until 2007.
(Branimir Kvartuc / Associated Press)

“In the last three years, you saw a different human being,” WNBA star Diana Taurasi told reporters Monday as Team USA played an exhibition against the University of Connecticut. “You saw this person at peace, this person that was happy to live every single day and he found happiness in the little things and coaching his daughter and showing his daughters that they could be more than anything they could ever [think] of being.

“I think now we have that responsibility to make sure that message and that mind-set is carried on.”

Rebecca Lobo, another former UConn star and WNBA player, said in a tweet after his death: “No NBA player supported the WNBA or women’s college basketball more than Kobe.”

Bryant told Mo Hines, a friend who coaches the Nike EYBL girls program Tree of Hope in Seattle, that he wanted to see the women’s game grow for the sake of his daughters. He said he would do whatever it took to bring the game to prominence.

“It was one of the coolest things he ever said to me,” said Hines, a former Washington State women’s basketball assistant. “I thought it was awesome.”

In an interview with CNN last week, Bryant said there were a couple of WNBA players who could play in the NBA.

“Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore, Elena Delle Donne,” he said. “There’s a lot of great players out there. They could most certainly keep up with them.”

Bryant attended Oregon’s 81-45 win at Long Beach State in December and afterward Graves thanked him for being a great role model for the Ducks and a great dad to his four daughters.

Bryant had become especially close with Ionescu, the Ducks’ star player. They worked out together last summer, she said this month. He taught her his signature fade-away jump shot.

They were “good friends,” Ionescu said.

A teary-eyed Ionescu said on the ESPN broadcast Sunday after the No. 3 Ducks won an emotionally charged game at No. 10 Oregon State she would play the rest of her season in Bryant’s honor.

“That mentality he had — that work ethic — lives in Sabrina,” Graves said. “I think now even more; it’ll be even stronger inside of her because she knew and knows what it takes and knew what he did.”

Times staff writer Jack Harris contributed to this story.

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