There are few people whose deaths can make the world stop. Kobe Bryant was one.
Like many, I’ll likely never forget the moment when I first learned of Kobe’s death. I was at the XL Center, gathering my things at the press seats after yet another brutal defeat for the UConn men’s team. Typically, this is a frantic time for a beat writer — hurry back to the press conference room to await the coaches, hastily try to finish up your story, brainstorm some questions for the team.
But in that moment, none of that mattered. One of the writers saw the earliest reports on Twitter — at this point, well before it spread across the country like wildfire — and we all quite literally stopped dead in our tracks. Articles to write, tweets to tweet, players to interview, and we were all silently standing, staring at our phones, desperately waiting for someone to discredit the news.
Like everyone else, my first reaction was disbelief. Then disbelief turned to shock. And eventually shock — though some of that shock remains even as I write this — turned to absolute desolation.
What I didn’t know in that moment was that the most devastating blow was still to come: that Kobe’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, or “Gigi,” had passed away at her father’s side.
In the days since the tragic accident, it’s been the stories of father and daughter which have resonated most. The now-heartbreaking videos of Kobe and Gianna watching basketball together, the future Hall of Famer coaching up his wide-eyed daughter. The interviews with Kobe gushing over Gigi, eyes brimming with pride, boasting that she’s better than he was at her age. The incredibly arresting story shared by ESPN’s Elle Duncan, which launched an inspiring celebration of “girl dads.”
The Kobe story Elle Duncan shared on Sportscenter was so heartfelt and heartbreaking, more people need to see it.
— Gian Cruz (@gianorama) January 28, 2020
It’s easy to assume that Kobe, the father of four daughters, would’ve preferred a son. A boy who could one day dominate the NBA just as his father did. In reality, Kobe could not have been prouder to be a girl dad.
Kobe’s passing was a shattering blow to the world of men’s basketball. But the NBA doesn’t need any help defending its legitimacy or value. That’s why the loss of Kobe may be an even bigger hit to the women’s game, of which he was one of the most outspoken advocates.
And of course, where there’s women’s basketball, there’s UConn. According to her father, Gigi was determined to one day play for the Huskies. While her father is the idol of kids all around the world, Gigi’s idols were Napheesa Collier, Gabby Williams and Katie Lou Samuelson — and who could blame her? Those three, and practically everyone who comes through Geno’s program, should be admired by all aspiring basketball players, not just female ones.
“She was great,” Samuelson said about Gigi on Monday, fighting back tears. “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.”
It’s therefore no surprise that on Monday, the world turned its eyes to UConn women’s basketball, set to take on Team USA. What had figured to be a lighthearted, entertaining battle between Huskies of current and past, now became one of the most moving, emotional nights in program history.
Of the countless tear-jerking videos and photos which overwhelmed the media this week, Monday’s game brought us two of the most memorable ones. First, the image of a No. 2 jersey on the UConn bench, adorned with flowers. The seat remained empty for the rest of the night, filled only by the jersey. Perhaps one day Gigi would’ve worn that uniform. Now, we can only wonder.
Mambacita is forever a Husky 💙 pic.twitter.com/3wdAbdK0Ye
— UConn Women's Hoops (@UConnWBB) January 27, 2020
It was a touching tribute to a girl who was so much more than simply the daughter of Kobe Bryant. Bravo to the UConn athletics department for the jersey move and the accompanying ceremonies — subtle but perfectly poignant and respectful celebrations of an NBA great and a future UConn one.
But perhaps the most powerful photo of the night was not planned at all. Rather, it was a candid picture from the seats, taken by Emily Johnson of The Player’s Tribune. In the photo, a father and daughter, both wearing No. 8 Bryant jerseys, look on as the Huskies take on some of the best basketball players in the world. The girl rests her head on her dad’s shoulders — a father and daughter brought closer by the game of basketball, much like Kobe and Gianna.
This says it all. pic.twitter.com/AmkzMnfBVy
— Emily Johnson (@EmJ_not23) January 28, 2020
The two in the picture were eventually revealed to be James Hurdle and his 12-year-old daughter Jasmine, just one year younger than Gigi. James, a youth basketball coach, considered Kobe his favorite player. Jasmine, or Jaz, as her friends call her, is an aspiring basketball player herself.
“Me and my mom were talking last night, and I want to dedicate my basketball career to Gianna, who never actually got to be able to do that,” Jasmine told New England Public Radio.
Five NBA championships is impressive, but perhaps Kobe’s most important legacy will be the one he formed off the court. Being a girl dad, supporting his daughter’s aspirations with his entire heart and inspiring other fathers to do the same — that’s the legacy Kobe leaves behind. Because of Kobe, dads are pushing their daughters in the gym a little harder. Cheering a little louder. Hugging a little tighter.
It’s unimaginably sad that we’ll never see the player and woman that Gigi would’ve become. But like her father, she’ll continue to inspire generations of athletes for decades to come, athletes from current WNBA stars like Gabby Williams to potential future ones like Jaz Hurdle.
Thank you, Kobe and Gigi, for all that you’ve done, not just for women’s basketball but for fathers and daughters everywhere. I hope you’re somewhere playing one-on-one, first to 81.