Kobe and Gianna Bryant’s celebration of life at Staples Center provided space to grieve, love, and remember. It gave a lasting message, too. To their final day, Kobe and Gianna wanted to expand appreciation for women’s basketball. So that’s what everyone came together to do.
Monday’s event was one of the most inspiring and heartbreaking scenes in sports history in an arena packed with the world’s most recognizable athletes and Hollywood stars. Beyonce opened the ceremony. Alicia Keyes played piano. Michael Jordan wept over the loss of his “little brother.” Shaquille O’Neal jokingly recalled Bryant’s selfish tendencies on the court. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Kim Kardashian, Kanye West, Jennifer Lopez, Alex Rodriguez, and dozens of other celebrities watched as Vanessa Bryant eulogized her husband and 13-year-old daughter in a way that was both crushing and beautiful. They, along with millions watching, left with the same message:
Women’s basketball deserves your attention.
“Gigi would’ve most likely become the best player in the WNBA,” Vanessa said. “She would’ve made a huge difference for women’s basketball. Gigi was motivated to change the way everyone viewed women in sports. She wrote papers in school defending women and wrote about how the unequal pay difference for the NBA and WNBA leagues wasn’t fair. And I truly feel she made positive changes for the WNBA players now. Since they knew Gigi’s goal was to eventually play in the WNBA.”
The message Vanessa wanted to carry out in memory of Kobe and Gianna was clear in the speakers she chose to follow her eulogy: Diana Taurasi, the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer; Sabrina Ionescu, college basketball’s all-time leader in triple-doubles; and UConn’s head coach Geno Auriemma, who Gianna always wanted to play for. The event was about Kobe and Gianna’s lives, and not just who they were, but what they loved — namely, their passion for growing women’s sports, and platforming those who could do it best.
“We all saw a piece of ourselves in [Gigi],” tweeted Gabby Williams, Chicago Sky forward and former UConn star. “We play and fight to improve and create a league that she deserved to play in.”
Kobe and Gianna’s deaths wounded the women’s basketball community at a time when it was gaining strength. Weeks prior, the WNBA negotiated its best collective bargaining agreement yet, nearly doubling the pay ceiling for the league’s top players, and, for the first time, providing fully paid maternity leave. It’s a huge stepping stone for an under-appreciated, underpaid and under-covered sport. It was a leap players said over and over again was just as much for the future of the league as it was the present.
Even though the WNBA’s best players hadn’t shared the court for more than a few training sessions with Kobe and Gianna, they were on the same team. Women’s basketball players’ voices have been amplified over the last few years, and the Bryants were just starting to contribute.
“If I represented the present of the women’s game,” Ionescu said during the memorial, hours before traveling to Stanford to beat the No. 4 team in the country and become the first Division I player to score 2,000 career points, 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds, “Gigi was the future and Kobe knew it.
“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.”
It will always be difficult to understand why Kobe and Gianna Bryant, Alyssa, Kerry and John Altobelli, Christina Mauser, Payton and Sarah Chester, and Ara Zobayan were lost so tragically. But an influential collection of talent gave that tragedy a place of purpose Monday. One that any fan of basketball, or of Kobe, can’t ignore, knowing what they fought for in women’s basketball will live on.
“What we do have is, today, how many numbers of kids like Diana [Taurasi] have been inspired to do more,” Auriemma said. “To work harder. To strive for more. The numbers we also don’t have is how many kids in the future, how many women, are going to be inspired by Gigi’s life. How many fathers are going to be inspired by Kobe to be fathers. To really be fathers the way a father is supposed to be.”
The pressure is on for the rest of the world not only to take note of what Kobe and Gianna have said in the past, but what the people they’ve impacted say in the future. Their words will carry traces of the Bryants’. They shared one goal.
“We promise to carry Gigi’s legacy,” Taurasi said.
The Bryant family stood for women’s basketball at a time when it’s still considered an inferior product. Kobe and Gianna knew it deserved so much more.