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Kobe Bryant memorial: Sabrina Ionescu talks about what he meant to her

Sabrina Ionescu leaves the stage after speaking at the Kobe & Gianna Bryant Celebration of Life on Monday at Staples Center.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“Growing up, I only knew one way to play the game of basketball: fierce, with obsessive focus. I was unapologetically competitive. I wanted to be the best. I loved the work, even when it was hard, especially if it was hard.

“I knew I was different, that my drive was different. I grew up watching Kobe Bryant game after game, ring after ring, living his greatness without apology. I wanted to be just like him, to love every part of the competition, to be the first to show up and the last to leave, to love the grind, to be your best when you don’t feel your best and make other people around you the best version of themselves. And to wake up and do it again the next day.

“So that’s what I did: Wake up, grind and get better. Wake up, grind and get better.

“A year ago, my team, Oregon, was playing at USC. Morning of the game, our coaches told us that there was a surprise for the day. I was thinking Nike sent us some new shoes or swag or something. The game starts and, shortly after, Kobe walks in with his daughter Gianna and two of her teammates. They sat courtside, where my jaw sat dropped. They watched the entire game. And that was the first time I met Kobe.

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“Kobe, Gigi and her teammates came into the locker room after the game. He congratulated us on the win that day and our season up to that point but said, and I’ll never forget, ‘Don’t shoot yourselves in the foot.’ He meant don’t settle, to keep grinding, control what you can. The National Championship wasn’t far, and our goal was to win it all.

“I remember Gigi, excited and smiling in the locker room. I’d always watched a ton of film of her playing basketball. She had a fadeaway better than mine. I asked her where she wanted to play ball in college and she said UConn. She had the will and determination to be able to play wherever she wanted, and if she wanted to go there, I wanted her there as well.

“She and her teammates hung out with us for a while, starstruck and a little shy but always observing. Whichever school she would come to choose, it didn’t matter. If I represented the present of the women’s game, Gigi was the future, and Kobe knew it.

“So we decided to build a future together. I worked out twice with Gigi over the summer; I’d gone down to help Kobe coach his team. Gigi had so much of her dad’s skill set. You could tell the amount of hours they spent in the gym, practicing her moves. She smiled all the time, but when it was game time, she was ready to kill. Her demeanor changed almost instantly when the whistle blew.

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“I remember one time someone grabbed her jersey, and she sort of just knocked them down and then stepped right over ’em. Me and Kobe looked at each other, smiling, and he goes, ‘I don’t know where she learned that from.’ I laughed and said, ‘I do.’

“You can’t teach that and definitely not at her age. Kobe was right. She had it. I loved watching how hard she worked and how much her teammates loved her, but also her own desire to be great. She always wanted to learn, to go to every game she could — college, NBA, WNBA. Kobe was happy with that. Because he saw it in her, just like he saw it in me. His vision for others was always bigger than what they imagined for themselves. His vision for me was way bigger than my own.

“More importantly, he didn’t just show up in my life and leave. He stayed. We kept in touch, always texting, calls, game visits. I’d drop a triple-double and have a text from him, “Another double triple-double I see you” with a flex emoji. Another game, another text. “Yo, Beast Mode,” or “Easy money.”

“I felt some pressure early on in the season, and he wrote to me, “Be you, it’s been good enough, and that will continue to be good enough.” He taught me his stepback; he told me that if I could bring that to my game, it’d be over for any defender trying to guard me. He told me how high my arc needed to be on my shot, how to angle my foot, which led to kick-out. How much power to push off. ‘Real sharpness comes without effort,’ he said.

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“He was giving me the blueprint. He was giving Gigi the same blueprint. He united us. He made it so that the outsiders who outworked everyone else, who were driven to be just a little bit different every single day to make those around them, behind them and above them a little bit better every single day. And they weren’t the exception. They were the rule.

“I wanted to be a part of the generation that changed basketball for Gigi and her teammates. Where being born female didn’t mean being born behind, where greatness wasn’t divided by gender.

“ ‘You have too much to give to stay silent.’ That’s what he said. That’s what he believed. That’s what he lived. Through Gigi, through me, through his investment in women’s basketball. That was his next great act, a girl dad.

“Basketball in many ways was just a metaphor. I still text him even though he’s not here. ‘Thank you for everything. The rest is for you. Rest easy my guy.’ The last one I sent him said, ‘I miss you, may you rest in peace, my dear friend.’

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“The texts go through but no response. It still feels like he’s there on the other end, that the next time I pick up my phone, he would have hit me back. Sometimes I find myself still waiting.

“It’s so strange to describe him or Gigi in the past tense; you don’t get used to that. No one tells you that about grief.

“The week after the accident, I was in Colorado. I had a game, and like I do before every game, I prayed. This time, I was thinking about Kobe and Gigi. His voice is still in my head, even if his body is not on this earth. And all I wanted was a sign that in some way he still heard me too.

“I looked off into the sky and there it was: a beautiful golden sunset, the boldest yellow, Lakers yellow, and further in the distance, a helicopter. There was my sign that he will forever be with me. I heard his voice in my head, the last line from one of his books, ‘Walk until the darkness is a memory, and you become the sun on the next traveler’s horizon.’

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“Today may feel like darkness. He was, in so many ways, a sun beaming, radiating, fixed in the sky. I ask each of you, every girl dad, every human here with a voice, a platform and a heart to not let this sun set.

“Shine for us, for our sport, where he once did. Invest in us, with the same passion and drive and respect and love, as he did his own daughter. In the end, she was a sun just starting to rise and God did she glow.

“May their light forever shine. Kobe, Gigi, I love you forever. Thank you.”


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