Column: Vanessa Bryant’s honest words and emotions connected the world to Kobe and Gianna Bryant
For two decades, Kobe Bryant owned the Staples Center court with courage under pressure.
For 20 minutes Monday morning, Vanessa Bryant did the same.
Where he once amazingly flew, she stood strongly still. Where he once pumped a fist in triumph, she clutched a tissue in survival.
“I’d like to talk about both Kobe and Gigi,” she said after stepping up as a surprise first speaker at the Kobe and Gianna Bryant Celebration of Life.
What ensued was as compelling as five NBA titles, as inspiring as an 81-point game, as impressive as any last-second shot.
“I’ll start with my baby girl first,” she began. “My baby girl Gianna Bryant is an amazingly sweet, gentle soul. … She would always kiss me good night, kiss me good morning.”
Few people thought Vanessa Bryant would talk. She has barely spoken publicly during her 20-year marriage to Bryant. She is extremely private. She was always in the background. She was his silent partner.
“OK, now for my soul mate,” she continued after a few minutes talking about Gigi. “To me, he was Kobe-Kobe, my boo-boo, my bay-boo, my papi chulo.”
It was stunning, such composure coming less than a month since she lost her husband and 13-year-old daughter in a helicopter crash that claimed the lives of seven others. How exactly does one speak to a crowd of 19,000 about that? What does one say?
Her black hair swept into her tear-stained eyes as she continued to fight back sobs. But, with the same determined grace her late husband repeatedly showed in virtually the same midcourt spot she stood, she pushed through the pain to share intimate stories of laughter and love.
“They were funny, happy silly and they loved life,” she said of Kobe and Gianna. “They were so full of joy and adventure. God knew they couldn’t be on this earth without each other. He had to bring them home to heaven together.”
In a two-hour event filled with basketball royalty, entertainment icons and 35,000 roses, it was the simple words of this grieving widow and mother that captured the moment.
Fans without tickets to the Kobe Bryant memorial at Staples Center arrived in Los Angeles anyway, hoping to attend and wanting to be here to honor him.
Beyonce crooned, Michael Jordan wept, Shaquille O’Neal cursed, women’s basketball legends Diana Taurasi and Geno Auriemma inspired, but it was Vanessa Bryant’s honest emotion that truly connected.
She started by describing Gianna not as simply the young basketball star that has been portrayed in the media, but as an ordinary 13-year-old girl.
“Last August, she made a beautiful birthday cake for daddy,” she said. “It had fondant and looked like it had blue agate crystals. … She made the best chocolate chip cookies. … She loved watching cooking shows and “Cupcake Wars” with me. … She loved watching “Survivor” and NBA games on TV with her daddy. … She also loved watching Disney movies with her sisters.”
She talked about Gianna’s “secret talent.”
“She had Kobe’s ability to listen to a song and have all the lyrics memorized after listening to the song a couple of times,” she said, adding, “And Gigi loved her TikTok dances.”
At certain points when Vanessa was describing her daughter, the crowd quietly gasped. How difficult this must have been. How did she find the strength? Could this brave woman have been the long-hidden source of Kobe’s strength?
She talked about her daughter’s brains as only a wonderfully bragging mother can do.
“Gianna was smart,” she said. “She knew how to read, speak and write Mandarin. She knew Spanish.”
She also talked about her daughter’s appearance, as if Gianna were standing right there, a description only a carefully attentive mother could give.
“Wearing a white tee, black leggings, a denim jacket, white high-top Converse, and a flannel tied around her waist, and straight hair was her go-to style,” she said.
She concluded her love letter to Gianna with words that brought many in the crowd to tears.
“She gave the best hugs and the best kisses,” she said. “She had gorgeous soft lips like her daddy. She would hug me and hold me so tight. I could feel her love me.”
The crowd could feel that love, and that feeling continued when she talked about her husband not as a basketball player, but as a partner and father.
“He was my sweet husband, and the beautiful father of our children,” she said. “He was mine. He was my everything.”
Earlier in their marriage, their relationship endured tough times that included Bryant’s public confession of cheating, rape charges that were eventually dropped, and a divorce filing by Vanessa that was later withdrawn. To hear her speak of him in such glowing terms was powerful and healing. It completed the narrative that Bryant’s life had a fulfilling second chapter. It delivered a compelling message about the strength of forgiveness.
“I was his first girlfriend, his first love, his wife, his best friend, his confidant and his protector,” she said. “Kobe loved me more than I could ever express or put into words.”
She said he was “truly the romantic one in our relationship,” and then told the story of an iconic anniversary gift.
Michael Jordan remembered Kobe and Gianna Bryant in a speech during their public memorial Feb. 24 at Staples Center.
“He gave me the actual notebook and the blue dress Rachel McAdams wore in ‘The Notebook’ movie,” she said. “When I asked him why he chose the blue dress, he said it was the scene when Allie comes back to Noah. We had hoped to grow old together like the movie.”
Since Bryant’s death, considering the way he doted over his four daughters, there has been much public admiration about Bryant’s role as a “Girl Dad.” In words that should resound with every girl’s dad, Vanessa wonderfully detailed that role.
“Kobe was the MVP of girl dads, or MVD,” she said. “He never left the toilet seat up. He always told the girls how beautiful and smart they are. He taught them how to be brave and how to keep pushing forward when things get tough.”
Vanessa also marveled over how Kobe did the hands-on work of a dad, even claiming he showed up an hour and 20 minutes early to be the first in the kids’ school carpool line.
“He helped me bathe Bianka (3) and Capri (eight months) almost every night,” Vanessa said. “He would sing the silly songs in the shower and continue making them laugh and smile as he lathered them with lotion and got them ready for bed. He had magic arms that could put Capri to sleep in only a few minutes. He said he had it down to a science, eight times up and down our hallway.”
Vanessa Bryant, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal were among the speakers in the sold-out tribute.
Vanessa was not only revealing about the intimate past moments, but also the horrors of her present reality. Through her words, a city was reminded that this is about far more than the loss of celebrity athlete and his daughter, it’s about the gaping hole in a family’s future.
About Kobe, she said, “He isn’t going to be here to drop Bianka and Capri off at pre-K or kindergarten. … He isn’t going to be able to walk our girls down the aisle or spin me around the dance floor while singing, ‘PYT’ to me.”
She concluded with the words of grief, yet another statement of incredible strength. And here’s hoping this is not the last Los Angeles hears from Vanessa Bryant.
“Babe, you take care of our GiGi, and I got Nani, BB and Koko. We are still the best team. We love and miss you Boo Boo and GiGi. May you both rest in peace, and have fun in heaven until we meet again … forever and always, Mommy.”
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