Two very contrasting events took place Monday night at the XL Center. There was a joyous assembly of the greatest women’s basketball players in the world, but also the somber mourning of a few of basketball’s most valuable fallen angels.
“There was a lot of mixed emotions,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said.
Monday night, the UConn women’s basketball team had the pleasure of playing an exhibition game against Team USA at the XL Center, but the game was played in the shadow of a dismal tragedy.
“To the basketball world, it hit hard. For us, I think it hit a little bit harder,” Crystal Dangerfield said. “We knew how connected they were to our program, and how much Gigi wanted to be a part of our program.”
Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna “Gigi” Bryant and seven other passengers died in a devastating helicopter crash Sunday morning on the way to one of Gigi’s travel basketball games. Kobe and Gigi both were very connected to UConn women’s basketball, as it was the 13-year-old Gigi’s future school of choice.
“She [Gianna] wanted to be a part of UConn when she got older, and I think she would have been. It’s so unfortunate what happened,” Dangerfield said.
“The first time that they were at a game, she was a little kid looking up at our players. You could see the look in her eyes, she was so excited,” Auriemma said. “Her father is Kobe Bryant, and the most excited she’s been in a long time was being around college women’s basketball players. That’s what it meant to her. That’s what she aspired to be.”
Katie Lou Samuelson had the pleasure of meeting Gianna on multiple occasions during her UConn career. As a member of Team USA and as UConn alumni, she was glad to be back in Hartford, but was teary-eyed when speaking about Kobe and Gigi.
“[Gianna] was great. She was shy the first time we met her, so each time she got more and more outgoing. On the court, she was a completely different person. She was a monster, she was mean, she had an attitude just like he did. She was a beautiful soul and person that I was lucky enough to meet,” Samuelson said.
Kobe, 41, meant something different to everybody who is involved with basketball, be it as a coach, player or fan.
“To me, Kobe meant a lot. He was one of the first people that reached out to me when I ruptured my Achilles,” Breanna Stewart said. “He was someone that I tried to emulate. The way he prepares himself, his mindset, how he works and I want to continue to make his legacy grow and make sure the kids behind me know who Kobe is.”
“He unlocked this energy out of people, without even knowing,” Diana Taurasi said. “It wasn’t only in the basketball world. He made it okay for you to be obsessive and want something really,
Stewie won multiple championships at UConn, and Taurasi in the WNBA, while Kobe was winning championships in the NBA. The three of them did so in large part due to their Mamba Mentalities.
“He had a big impact on the world of sports and introducing the NBA to a whole part of the world that didn’t know about it,” Auriemma said. “And his businesses, and all of the things that he’s done. Those are the things that will last forever.”
Kobe was also very involved with helping to increase the popularity and exposure of women’s basketball.
“Since his retirement, and even before that, he was always a big fan and supporter,” Sue Bird said. “But since his retirement, just having more time to show face, to be at games and take his daughter, you really saw Kobe appreciated good basketball.”
The passing of Kobe Bryant will forever be one of those “where were you when” moments that we will talk about for generations. The reaction to his death was first met with disbelief, then with immense sadness.
“The reaction shows the impact that he had on everybody. As a women’s basketball player, there was a little extra because he was so supportive,” Bird said.
“We were just getting back from practice,” Megan Walker said. “We got a notification on our phone, and then we were just watching the news for like three hours. It was a rough day.”
“It’s been unlike anything that you get to experience,” Auriemma said. “All of it, you can’t react to something like that and say ‘this is what you do when this happens.’ You just kind of sit there.”
“We were all devastated. Kobe is an icon, a legend and I can speak for everyone in this room when I say when the news broke, nobody wanted to believe it,” Stewart said. “It’s a sad day for basketball. The fact that his daughter, her teammates and other parents were on board, it’s something that was really tragic. It makes you cherish the life that you’re living.”
“It’s a terrible, horrific day for his family and the whole city of Los Angeles. He’s such a huge part of who we were. It’s just a bad dream. I keep thinking it’s not real, and you can take your mind off of it for a little bit, and then you come back to the reality of what a tragedy it was,” Taurasi, who grew up in Los Angeles, said.
“Whenever you see young lives taken so early, it’s hard to process,” Dangerfield said.
Though he played a full, 20-year basketball career, Bryant had no means lived a full life at 41 years old. He still had so much more to offer the world, and this tragic accident has deprived us of that.
“The thing that makes me saddest has nothing to do with the fact that he can put a ball in the hole, it has nothing to do with that. It’s that at 41, he had so much life to live,” Bird said. “He was just starting his life in a lot of ways. We know him as the basketball player, but even in that small amount of time that he was retired, you could see that he had a lot to give and a lot to do. That’s what makes me the most sad.”
“He was just getting started with what he was doing with women’s basketball and women’s sports in general. He was there trying to bring all those girls to every game he could and show them what it could be. For him, it was so important to show what we could do as athletes and as people instead of focusing on his own basketball career,” Samuelson said. “He started the best part of his life after basketball. You could tell in everything he did, he loved. Whether it was his podcast or his book, everything that I got the chance to talk to him about, it was superhuman the way he put his whole heart into everything.”
The sad part is we’ll never know what happens in the next 41 years of his life,” Taurasi said. “There was just this energy about him that he was going to do something great, and we’ll never get to know what that was.”
UConn, Team USA, the XL Center and all of the fans in attendance gave a 24-second moment of silence before the game. Then once the game started, Team USA gave up their first possession with an 8-second violation. UConn responded with a 24-second violation, to honor Kobe’s memory with the two jersey numbers he wore. The Huskies also left an open seat on their bench, covered only by flowers and a No. 2 UConn jersey for Gigi.
“Everybody on the floor wanted to do something for them. People writing on their shoes, Skylar [Diggins-Smith] had the purple and yellow on her shoes, the violations, just anything to honor them,” Dangerfield said. “When we did our starting five, we moved down one to make sure she was a part of it. I wish we could have done more.”
Despite how sad the recent tragedy was, Auriemma told a few stories from his interactions with Kobe over the years that lightened the room up a bit.
“He was asking me what defensive drills to do, I was like, ‘Didn’t you pay attention to all those years in practice?’ He [Kobe] said, ‘Well I have to teach my team man-to-man defense tonight,’ Nobody could score on him for 20 years and he’s asking me about defense,” Auriemma said.
Auriemma told another story from him and Kobe’s shared time with Team USA one summer.
“We were speaking in Italian at one of the competitions. Here are two guys that grew up in the Philadelphia area talking about Italy because we both also lived in Italy,” Auriemma said. “It was really kind of a neat conversation. We talked about his dad, who was my age so we played against each other in high school. It was really ironic and funny. It was something that has always stuck with me.”
Auriemma had another story that truly encapsulated what everybody means when they say “Mamba Mentality.”
“Watching him work out by himself on the off days at the Olympics and having my team just stand there at their half of the court and stare at him during his workout and be mesmerized by how many shots, shot after shot, that went in,” Auriemma said. “I just shook my head and said, ‘That’s why he is who he is.’ This was their off-day, and he was in there killing it.”
Bird also had a story that showed what made Kobe so different. This one occurred in a player’s lounge in one of the hotels the basketball players stayed in during the Olympics.
“There was one night we were all out playing cards and he had just lost to the Celtics in the NBA Finals a couple months prior. He was flipping through a newspaper and there was a picture of the Celtics winning the NBA Championship. He tore out the picture of Paul Pierce and he had this look on his face, folded it up, put it in his pocket and he looked at us and said, ‘This is motivation,’” Bird said. “That’s who he was. You could tell he was kind of joking, but he was also dead serious as he did it. You talk about the ‘Mamba Mentality,’ it really never stops.”
Kobe and Gianna’s legacy will live on through that Mamba Mentality that made them such admirable people to those lucky enough to know them. Every player that spends those extra hours in the gym, getting up those extra hundred or so jumpers, will do so knowing that it can make them successful with Kobe as their role model.
Kobe is the standard, for exceeding the standard.
Thumbnail photo provided by UConn WBB instagram.