WNBA lost a huge supporter in Kobe Bryant. Who will step up?
Among some of the most powerful and notable names in entertainment and sports, it was Sparks forward Chiney Ogwumike and Las Vegas Aces center Liz Cambage who got the unexpected star treatment. In a dimly lit Staples Center, as nearly 20,000 gathered to mourn the passing of Kobe and Gianna Bryant, Kobe’s parents Joe and Pam approached the WNBA stars Monday morning.
In this moment of immeasurable grief, the parents of a legendary basketball player had a message for Ogwumike and Cambage, who have five WNBA All-Star appearances combined: We’re fans of you guys.
“That blew my mind,” Ogwumike said Tuesday, recalling the story from Monday’s memorial service. “But that was what Kobe was raised on. He was our greatest advocate. He had a crazy attention to detail.”
The same care Bryant took in advocating for women in sport before his death appeared at Monday’s “Celebration of Life,” which honored the late NBA star, his daughter Gianna and the seven others who died in a helicopter crash Jan. 26.
As thousands gathered in Staples Center, with millions more watching worldwide, female empowerment took center stage. Beyonce opened the program by singing “XO” and “Halo.” The video screen at Staples Center showed Gianna’s basketball highlights.
The first three speakers of the event following host Jimmy Kimmel and Bryant’s widow Vanessa were stars in the women’s basketball world: Diana Taurasi, the WNBA and Olympic champion who introduced herself as “the white mamba;” Sabrina Ionescu, the Oregon point guard who hours after eulogizing her friend and mentor became the first college player — male or female — with 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists; and Geno Auriemma, the Connecticut head coach whose team Gianna aspired to join one day.
Shaquille O’Neal, Michael Jordan and Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka would soon take the stage. They shared poignant stories of their friend during his legendary NBA career, but the first part of the speaking lineup highlighted Gianna’s life as a budding basketball player and her father’s second act as an ally to women’s sports.
“I don’t know how you walk away or listen to anything” at the memorial “and not take away that we need to elevate women,” Ogwumike said.
Vanessa Bryant, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal were among the speakers at a memorial service honoring the lives of Kobe and Gianna Bryant at Staples Center.
Kobe was the “total package of influence and impact,” UCLA coach Cori Close said.
He was a highly respected former player. He was a current coach, passing his knowledge to the next wave of players. And he was a dad to a girl with big dreams — Gianna hoped to play at UConn then star in the WNBA and wrote papers in school about closing the wage gap between the NBA and WNBA. Gianna’s growing interest in the game prompted Kobe’s fervent support of women’s basketball.
“He walked the walk, but most people just talk the talk,” Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike said.
When Cathy Engelbert noticed a WNBA hoodie in the audience of an event Tuesday night hosted by the Sparks, the WNBA commissioner said she gifted Kobe a similar hoodie when she met with him soon after taking her new job in July 2019. He wore the orange sweatshirt with the white WNBA logo during a Lakers game Dec. 29, when he was photographed with Gianna in their courtside seats. It was one of his last major public appearances.
When Engelbert went to the NBA store in New York recently, she noticed all the WNBA hoodies were out of stock. She asked an employee, who didn’t recognize the first-year commissioner, if they would get the item back soon.
“You mean the Gigi hoodie?” the employee replied.
From at times turning into a literal billboard for the WNBA, Bryant was also generous with his knowledge of the game. Monique Billings recalled how she worked out with him one summer day. The Atlanta Dream forward, who graduated from UCLA in 2018, approached him to introduce herself. Kobe gave her a puzzled look.
“I know who you are,” he said.
Lee Zeidman didn’t know when Kobe Bryant’s memorial would be but he knew there was only one place it should be held: Staples Center.
The moment still gives Billings chills.
“It goes back to respect,” UCLA’s all-time blocked shots leader said. “We work just as hard as the men, sometimes harder. We have to go through a lot being women and having children and still being able to play in the WNBA. … I’m hoping that when people like LeBron James and people like Kawhi Leonard and obviously people like Kobe Bryant, the greats of the game, respect women’s basketball, [others think] ‘maybe we should too.’ ”
Billings remembered that Bryant was patient while teaching her footwork during the workout and excited when she mastered it.
Pelinka spoke Monday about how calmly Kobe coached his team of middle school girls against a boys all-star team on which Pelinka’s son played. The Mambas “were so well prepared, they functioned like a Swiss watch,” the NBA star’s former agent said. The girls won in a landslide.
The time Kobe invested in women’s basketball players might have been one of his most important contributions.
“It’s a little scary to know who’s going to take the baton,” Close said. “Who’s going to step up and not only honor his legacy in that way, but continue the growth and see those opportunities and visions come to fruition?”
Watching Kobe pivot from his successful playing career into life as a coach for his daughter is familiar script for Dee Brown, the general manager of the G League’s Agua Caliente Clippers. The 12-year NBA veteran also coached his daughter — Lexie Brown — on her AAU team and ran his own training facility. He realized the dream that Kobe and Gianna were working toward: Lexie, after becoming a McDonald’s All-American in high school, playing in two Final Fours with Maryland and graduating from Duke in 2017, was a first-round WNBA draft pick in 2018.
Brown said it’s his responsibility as a basketball executive to ensure that “that not just my daughter, but everybody’s daughters, get a full chance of accomplishing those goals that any other male could,” Brown said.
“I’m not blind to things that happen in our society, but from my daughter’s standpoint, I will fight the fight with them,” the father of four, three girls and one boy, added. “I want them to understand that there’s a place for you in every organization, situation, environment. If you’re good enough, you’re smart enough, take pride in not just being great at it, take pride in being a woman being great at it. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Brown, who began his professional coaching career in the WNBA with the Orlando Miracle, said the rise of social media has made it easier for NBA players to voice their support of women’s basketball today. NBA players see their WNBA counterparts as “peers,” Brown said, linked together by “the pureness of the sport.”
Washington Wizards guards John Wall and Bradley Beal are among current NBA players who have become vocal supporters of women’s basketball. The All-Stars sat courtside to watch the Washington Mystics win the franchise’s first WNBA title last year, wearing matching No. 20 Kristi Toliver jerseys. Toliver, a former Mystics guard who signed with the Sparks as a free agent this month, is also an assistant coach for the Wizards.
Hours after the memorial, Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry attended Ionescu’s game in Palo Alto on Monday night. The Oregon star recorded her 26th career triple-double with 21 points, 12 assists and 12 rebounds in No. 3 Oregon’s 74-66 win over No. 4 Stanford. Curry sent his approval on Twitter, sharing a tweet about Ionescu’s historic night, which took place on Feb. 24, 2020, a date that combined Gianna’s, Kobe’s and Ionescu’s jersey numbers, with the comment “can’t write this any better.”
To Chiney Ogwumike, who Tuesday night was still wearing a yellow wristband from the ceremony with the Nos. 24 and 2 separated by the infinity symbol, Curry, a father to daughters Riley, 7, and Ryan, 4, “literally is embodying what Kobe wanted.”
“He amplifies women and that’s because he has daughters and he gets it,” Ogwumike said. “That’s the energy that I hope our male allies will provide. … It’s now creating that accountability so that we crush that gap.”
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