by Natalie Finn | Mon., Feb. 24, 2020 9:45 AM
Gianna Maria-Onore Bryant didn't get the chance to make her own history.
Her father Kobe Bryant's place in the record books, as one of the best to ever play the game of basketball, is set. His life ended preposterously too soon at the age of 41, but his 13-year-old daughter's life had barely begun.
And, oh, did father and daughter have plans.
A video making the rounds from a telecast of one of the NBA games they attended together after Kobe retired in 2016 shows him and Gianna—or Gigi, as she was familiarly known—sitting courtside, heads together as he breaks down the play they had just witnessed. She nods and, though you can't hear what she's saying, you can see that their basketball-minded brains are in sync.
But that's what happens when you're coached by the greatest—you become an expert in your own right.
Along with six adults, including the pilot, Ara Zobayan, three kids lost their lives in Sunday's crash—Gianna and her teammates Alyssa Altobelli, 13, who was on board with her mom and dad, John and Keri Altobelli; and Payton Chester, 13, who was accompanied by her mother Sarah Chester. Also flying with them was Christina Mauser, a mother of three and an assistant girls basketball coach at Bryant's Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, Calif.
That's where the party of eight were headed on Jan. 26, to watch Gianna, Alyssa and Payton play basketball, just another routine game in what was supposed to be a long series of them, leading up through high school before the girls went on to college—and, perhaps after that, the pros.
It was common for Kobe to hear from fans that they hoped he'd have a son one day to carry on the Bryant basketball legacy, but he already figured he'd be passing the torch to Gianna.
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On Jimmy Kimmel Live in 2018, he told Kimmel, "The best thing that happens is when we go out and fans will come up to me and she'll be standing next to me and be like, 'You gotta have a boy, you and V gotta have a boy, man, you have somebody to carry on the tradition, the legacy.' She's like...'I got this. No boy for that, I got this.'"
Kobe beamed. "I'm like, 'That's right! Yes, you do, you got this.'"
He truly had no doubt that Gianna would achieve whatever she set out to do. He was somewhat of an expert on that.
Kobe had four daughters with his wife of 18 years, Vanessa Bryant, the eldest of whom, Natalia Diamante Bryant, is 17 and an accomplished volleyball player. She is the one who is bittersweetly blessed with a young lifetime's worth of memories of what it was like growing up with one of the most revered, polarizing sports figures of all time as her dad.
The two youngest, 3-year-old Bianka Bella (nicknamed B.B.), and 8-month-old Capri Kobe (or Koko, as he called her), weren't even born yet when Kobe retired, and it sounds as though the plan was for the family to keep growing.
"I love having girls—like, I love it," Bryant gushed to Kimmel in September in what turned out to be the last of his 15 appearances on the L.A.-based late-night show. "They're awesome, man. Having a boy—my wife wants a boy more than I do—but I love my girls. She keeps saying, 'Stop speaking it into existence.' [I'll say] 'I love my girls.' [And she'll say] 'Stop saying that, you want a boy.'"
At the time, Natalia was learning how to drive. "I always say, if you look at the eldest daughter, she's always like the calm, responsible, thoughtful one, you know? And then the second sister's like a tornado? Like Elsa and Anna?...That's certainly our house."
When a father is that well-versed in Frozen, you know he's spending quality time with his kids. Kimmel pointed out that "Anna" was already built into "Gianna," and Kobe acknowledged how fitting that was.
In addition to devoting himself to being a present dad once the post-NBA chapter of his life had begun, Bryant sought out to inspire all kids everywhere—the avid Harry Potter fan was on Jimmy Kimmel Live in the fall promoting his first storybook (he described the intended demographic as "middle grade"), Legacy and the Queen, in collaboration with Annie Matthew. After after he died, filmmaker Chris Columbus revealed that they had been working together to adapt the tale—which of course Bryant intended to be a series—for the big screen.
Who knows if Gianna ever had time to even read her dad's book, since, just like her father during his pro career, she already lived and breathed basketball. (And, incidentally, the sport that features prominently in the book is tennis, which Bryant enjoyed playing and watching, attending the U.S. Open in September.)
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"His love with his family, seeing his beautiful little girl Gianna bust her turn around jumpers, and him being there for her at every turn warmed my heart," wrote Flea, one of the Lakers' most devoted celebrity fans, in tribute to the fallen star and his daughter—one of the endless stream of people who automatically included Gigi in the accounting of immeasurable athletic talent and potential that was lost on Jan. 26.
She was still in 8th grade at Harbor Day School in Corona Del Mar, but Gianna already dreamed of playing ball for the University of Connecticut, which has the most winning women's basketball program in the country with 11 NCAA championships, including four in a row between 2013 and 2016.
The Huskies left a courtside seat open for the fallen should've-been All-American for their Jan. 27 game against the USA Women's Basketball Team, decorating the chair with a bouquet of flowers and a No. 2 Huskies jersey, 2 being the number she wore for her Mamba team.
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"Gigi started to show a tremendous interest in the game," Connecticut women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma told ESPN before the game. Gianna, Vanessa, Natalia and her dad had sat behind the Huskies bench when UConn was in Los Angeles to play UCLA in 2017, and Gianna and Kobe attended the school's Senior Day last March.
"Our kids were fascinated by her," Auriemma said, "and obviously for a little girl to be in the company of those players, I can't put myself in her shoes, but it must have been an unbelievable thrill...This little girl who's looking up to these players like they're superhuman, and you've got my players looking to her dad like, 'Oh my god'...He's a basketball savant, and he's been like that since he was 16 years old. I'm just really gonna miss him."
Bryant, who officially dubbed his intense, love-him-or-hate-him sports persona "Black Mamba" in the mid-'00s, had already filed to trademark "Mambacita" for Gianna, so the name would belong to the family and no one else once the inevitable Gigi Fever took hold.
In 2017 he started coaching Gianna in youth basketball, and many a Bryant family weekend revolved around a tournament.
"How serious do you get, are you breaking down game film?" Kimmel asked Bryant in 2018. "Not yet, but we will," Kobe promised, smiling. "We absolutely will. What we try to do is, we teach the kids what excellence looks like, right?...Some of them may want to play in the WNBA, some of 'em may not, but we try to give them a foundation of the amount of work and preparation that it takes to be excellent, in whatever it is that you choose to do."
He continued, "So, we're here playing basketball, we're going to focus on the details. We're going to learn the basics, we're going to learn the fundamentals, we're going to do those things over and over, and hopefully it's something that they can apply to other areas in their life."
Gianna, though—she was going pro, as far as he could tell.
"She does, for sure," he said, when Jimmy asked if Gianna wanted to play in the WNBA. "This kid, man," Kobe shook his head, "she's like..."
At another level, is what the proud dad meant.
Considering how many projects Bryant had going at once, from his production company Granity Studios to his philanthropic endeavors and just making sure he was close to home at 2 p.m. every week day to pick the kids up from school, many sports journalists who closely observed the five-time NBA champion throughout his career surmised that he wouldn't have been nearly as involved with basketball post-retirement if not for Gianna. He was content to let his 20 years as a Laker speak for themselves, and he encouraged the young talent that came up in his wake. Hours before he died he congratulated current Lakers superstar LeBron Jamesfor passing him into third place on the all-time scoring record.
But once Gianna showed an affinity for the sport, Bryant was going to support her every step of the way.
"You know what's funny?" Bryant said in a sit-down with Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson's All the Smoke podcast, which was posted Jan. 8. "So before Gigi got into basketball I hardly watched it, but now that's she's into basketball, we watch every night."
In addition to coaching her team, he traveled with her all over to watch all levels of women's hoops. John Altobelli, a veteran junior college baseball coach from Orange County who has been mourned as a local legend in his own right, tweeted out a photo from Kobe's Instagram Story on Dec. 15 of Alyssa with Gianna, Kobe and the University of Oregon women's basketball team.
"Future Ducks," the father of three wrote.
"Our hearts ache but we will continue to be inspired by you. RIP Kobe and Gigi," read a post on Oregon's women's basketball Instagram account, alongside a photo of a player's Nike shoe sporting the "24" drawn onto countless shoes, hats, fingernails and any other willing surface in the hours and days after the crash.
Just two weeks before they died, Gianna and Bryant went to watch Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) star Hailey Van Lith, the No. 2 player in the country who has committed to play at University of Louisville in the fall, in a game in Cashmere, Wash.
After their 63-27 win, Van Lith and her teammates enjoyed the photo opp with the day's all-star guests.
"She was a nice, shy girl, polite and very reserved outside of the game of basketball, but on the court, she had that killer instinct," Hailey, who had also worked out at Mamba Sports Academy, told the Los Angeles Times about Gianna last month.
"She was a competitor, fearless on the court. I played her one-on-one, and she was not scared of me. She didn't care that I was supposed to be better than her, taller and older. She just played with everything she had, and that was something cool to see."
Rob Pelinka, the Lakers' general manager and vice president of basketball operations, was Bryant's agent before the team hired him—as well as his best friend and Gianna's godfather.
"Gigi was pure joy," read part of the statement the executive released on Jan. 30. "Her smile brought comfort to any and every occasion. She was brilliant, warm and kind. And, like her dad, when she stepped onto the basketball court, she took on an entirely different nature, and boy could she play. Her basketball destiny was apparent, and the world knew it."
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Gianna got the VIP treatment along with her dad at his final NBA All-Star Game appearance in 2016, and at the WNBA All-Star Game in July in Las Vegas.
Bryant also took Gianna's whole club team to the Los Angeles Sparks season opener last May against the Las Vegas Aces while they were in town playing a tournament.
The Aces were excited to see Kobe after the game, but, player Liz Cambage told the Los Angeles Times, "We were more excited to see the young girls because they're the future of our game. We were discussing why this is great and why we need the WNBA. This is why we play, to see young girls get so excited to see us. Just seeing him in the locker room and seeing his AAU team was a great moment for us."
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I was just with you a month ago and to hear this news today broke my heart. I am so grateful for the time I got to spend with you all. You were all so close and loved each other so much. You guys are stronger than you know and inspire me to be great. The women’s game grew because of you, Kobe. I‘ll do my job and continue to make it shine like you wanted. I love you guys❤️🙏🏽 #mambafamily
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WNBA player Katie Lou Samuelson of the Chicago Sky reminisced to ESPN the day after the crash about visiting the Mamba academy and the sheer dedication she witnessed on display.
"Kobe let me coach one of their practices," she said. "So I saw them going into my senior year [in 2018-19]," she said. "They were all kind of goofy, a little bit. But fast-forward to see them [again], and the growth they had made just in that year. They were beautiful girls, beautiful people. It's just so hard."
"We lost a legend in Kobe," added Seattle Storm star Breanna Stewart, a four-time NCAA champion at UConn, 2018 WNBA MVP and member of the US National Team. "But you can't help but think about those kids that were on that helicopter. Obviously, Gigi—everybody saw how she was kind of taking after Kobe with her play."
"Slowly, each time she got more and more outgoing," Samuelson told SNY after the national team's exhibition against UConn. "[Bryant] always used to talk about—on the court, she was a completely different person. She was a monster. She was mean. She had an attitude, just like he did. And she was just a beautiful soul and beautiful person that I was lucky enough to meet and get to know."
"Especially with signing this new [collective bargaining agreement], we were really looking forward to the future of the league," the Sparks' Nneka Ogwumike, president of the WNBA Players Association's executive committee, told ESPN. "And Gigi was symbolic of that future. To think how she could have lived on and maybe impacted things...there's a lot of things we'll never know and questions we can't answer. But I do know she was meaningful to women in basketball. It's a loss for a lot of people that she is gone."
And, of course, Gianna had an incomparable in with the NBA's current crop of superstars.
"She likes watching Trae Young a lot, she watched Luka Doncic a lot, she watches James Harden, she watches Russell Westbrook, I mean she watches Bron [LeBron James]," Bryant said on All the Smoke.
Watching basketball with her, "[w]e just had so much fun because it was the first time I was seeing the game through her eyes," he continued. "It wasn't me sitting there you know as an athlete or a player or something like that, and you know it's like about me, and I don't like that. It was her, she was having such a good time."
Young, a 21-year-old point guard with the Atlanta Hawks, wore No. 8 in Kobe's honor when the team played the Washington Wizards hours after the crash, as the horrible news was still unfolding. He clocked an 8-point second violation after the opening tip and went on to score 45 points, four short of his career high. Teams continued to let the clock run for 24-second and 8-second violations for the rest of the week, and the Lakers also started their emotional first game back that way, on Jan. 31.
Kobe wore No. 8 from 1996 until 2006, when he switched to 24, his number when he starred at Lower Merion High School in Philadelphia. (He wanted to wear his boys' club number, 33, when he first came to the Lakers, but that number, worn by Kareem Abdul Jabar, was already retired.)
"This S*** can't be real... this the first moment I was able to meet Gianna Maria Bryant, she's been to only 3 games this year... 2 of them were mine...," Young wrote on Instagram. "She told me I was her favorite player to watch... I can't believe this...Rest Easy Gigi."
Kobe and Gianna attended two Lakers games at Staples Center this season, the last being the team's win over the Dallas Mavericks on Dec. 29.
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Mavericks owner Mark Cuban vowed that no one on the team would ever wear No. 24 again.
Meanwhile, the NBA canceled the Lakers-Clippers game at Staples Center that was scheduled for Jan. 28. The L.A. Clippers had to play on the afternoon of the 26th, and coach Doc Rivers broke down in tears talking to reporters. Laker players, meanwhile, were on their flight home from Philadelphia, where LeBron James had just passed Kobe on the scoring list in their loss to the 76ers, when they got the news. Video showed the team deplaning at LAX and somberly collecting their bags, some—including James—wiping away tears.
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The Lakers, whose owner Jeanie Buss has been close to Bryant since he joined the team as a 17-year-old, didn't break their silence until the following night, and only then issued a brief statement thanking everyone for the outpouring of support in what was obviously a "very difficult time." But the terseness of those first remarks can be attributed to despair, as the team grappled with how to properly honor one of the most idolized players to ever wear their uniform.
In his first sorrowful words, James admitted he was not actually to say anything, but he needed to say something.
"I literally just heard your voice Sunday morning before I left Philly to head back to LA. Didn't think for one bit in a million years that would be the last conversation we'd have. WTF!! I'm heartbroken and devastated my brother!!" he wrote.
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Kobe was so much more than an athlete, he was a family man. That was what we had most in common. We love our families. Whenever we got together I would hug his children like they were my own and he would embrace my kids like they were his. His baby girl Gianna was born on the same day as my youngest daughter Me’Arah. I miss you already brother. This is truly unbelievable. Everyone please keep the Bryant’s in your prayers. R.I.P
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Shaquille O'Neal, who won three titles with Kobe between 2000 and 2002, acknowledged on The Big Podcast With Shaq a day later that he wasn't doing well in the wake of his sister's death from cancer in October, and now this. Despite the prevailing narrative that he and Bryant had a prickly relationship, he said at the end of the day they were brothers, and Kobe's kids meant the world to him, as his kids did to Kobe. In fact, Bryant had just texted Shaquille's son Shareef O'Neal on Sunday morning, writing "You good, fam?," seemingly in light of the news that Shareef was leaving UCLA.
"Kobe was so much more than an athlete, he was a family man," O'Neal wrote Sunday on Instagram. "That was what we had most in common. We love our families. Whenever we got together I would hug his children like they were my own and he would embrace my kids like they were his. His baby girl Gianna was born on the same day as my youngest daughter Me'Arah. I miss you already brother. This is truly unbelievable. Everyone please keep the Bryant's in your prayers."
As O'Neal did, James also referred to Gianna as his niece.
The Lakers paid tribute to Bryant with an emotional ceremony before their Jan. 31 game at Staples Center, which included Usher singing "Amazing Grace," Charlie Puth and Wiz Khalifa performing "See You Again," and a montage of Kobe's many accomplishments and great moments set to "Hallelujah," performed live by LA Philharmonic cellist Ben Hong.
Stepping up to speak for the Lakers family, James literally tossed aside his prepared speech, preferring to "go straight from the heart."
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"The first thing that came to mind, man, is all about family. As I look around this arena, we're all grieving. We're all hurt. We're all heartbroken," said the three-time NBA champion, who's hoping to win his first with the Lakers this year. "But when we're going through things like this, the best thing you can do is lean on the shoulders of your family. And from Sunday morning all the way to this point—and I've heard about Laker Nation before I got here last year, about how much of a family it is—and that's absolutely what I've seen this whole week. Not only from the players, not only from the coaching staff, not only from the organization, but from everybody. Everybody that's here, this is really, truly, truly a family. And I know Kobe, Gianna, Vanessa and everybody thank you guys from the bottom of their hearts as Kobe said."
He concluded, "So in the words of Kobe Bryant, 'Mamba out.' But in the words of us, not forgotten. Live on, brother."
The chills were palpable as Lawrence Tanter, the Lakers' public address announcer since the 1981-82 season, announced all five members of the Lakers starting line-up as, or as some version of, "No. 24, 6'6" 20th year out of Lower Merion High School, Kobe Bryant."
Chants of "Ko-be! Ko-be!" erupted periodically throughout the night.
Today the team, family, friends and thousands of fans will gather at Staples Center for a public memorial for Kobe, Gianna and the seven other lives lost—the date itself, 2-24-20, laden with symbolism.
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Being only 13, Gianna had yet to experience public life beyond being the daughter of an extremely famous person, but she could rest assured that her image was safe in her father's hands.
"What I love about Gigi is her curiosity about the game. She's very curious," Bryant told the Los Angeles Times in October. "Even in a heated situation in a game where it's going back and forth, she can detach herself and come to me and ask a very specific question, which is not common. She'll come over and say, 'OK, on this particular trap when I'm trying to close the gap but she's getting on the outside, do I need to change my angle?' It's a very specific question. That's pretty damn cool."
Who knows how many millions of times more his videos of Gianna shooting hoops—including one in which she's dressed up and wearing heel—have been viewed since she died.
Harbor Day School retired Gigi's No. 2, as revealed by mom Vanessa, who made her Instagram public a few days after her husband and daughter died in order to thank supporters and share some of her still very raw feelings.
"My brain refuses to accept that both Kobe and Gigi are gone," Vanessa, who met Kobe when she as 17 and was engaged to him at 18, wrote on Feb. 10. "I can't process both at the same time. It's like I'm trying to process Kobe being gone but my body refuses to accept my Gigi will never come back to me. It feels wrong. Why should I be able to wake up another day when my baby girl isn't being able to have that opportunity?! I'm so mad. She had so much life to live."
She vowed to be as strong and present as possible for her daughters Natalia, Bianka and Capri.
First Take host Stephen A. Smith recalled hanging out with Bryant on New Year's Eve, the last time he saw him, and how Kobe was just looking forward to coaching his daughter more and "bragging about how she's gonna be at UConn, how she's ultimately going to be in the WNBA. He was just loving life. He was in a very, very peaceful place and practically euphoric about what lied ahead."
Smith noted how we saw Bryant's family more often toward the end of his playing career, but Gianna was the daughter seen most out in public with her dad recently because of their basketball connection. "And she was the basketball player he was talking to everybody about... [saying] 'Hey, wait'll you see her play.' She was going to carry the torch—and she was the one saying she was going to carry the torch, not him.
Co-host Max Kellerman said he was taking his eldest daughter to basketball practice on the morning of Jan. 26 when he found out what happened. When someone asked him if he'd heard the news about Kobe, Kellerman's first thought was that the former player had bought the Lakers.
"He was always talking about his kids, and about Gianna, about how competitive she was," he said. Looking back through their old text exchanges, "sure enough, half the things you would talk about with him...he was such a family guy. There was something about Kobe Bryant that was so present and alive, and invincible, that the idea that the sun comes up today and he's not in the world seems unreal."
Smith wasn't the only one who saw Bryant recently, and saw a man at peace. Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, Los Angeles Times owner and billionaire tech entrepreneur who bought Magic Johnson's share of the Lakers in 2010, said he last saw Bryant at the Mavericks game in December. Soon-Shiong, who also consulted on the surgery to repair Bryant's torn Achilles tendon in 2013, told the Times, he was "at such peace. I've known him for such a long time, there was always this burning in him." They had planned to get their families together for dinner soon.
Bryant was with Gianna that night at the game. The common thread, as far as Bryant's newfound sense of peace, was his family, the one he planned to spend the rest of his days lifting up and taking care of. The family that he took helicopters all around the Southland for, so as not to spend too much time away from them idling in L.A. traffic.
Asked if he was going to be at the Lakers' home opener back in October, Bryant laughed. He would be watching Natalia play volleyball that night instead.
"I have a life and I have my routine at home," Bryant told the Los Angeles Times' Arash Markazi. "It's not that I don't want to go, but I'd rather be giving B.B. a shower and sing Barney songs to her. I played 20 years and I missed those moments before. For me to make the trip up to Staples Center, that means I'm missing an opportunity to spend another night with my kids when I know how fast it goes...I want to make sure the days that I'm away from them are days that I absolutely have to be. I'd rather be with them than doing anything else."
He didn't have enough time, but at least he had some time—time to become a champion five times over, time to make 18 All-Star Games, time to make amends with his wife and with a city spurned by an accusation of sexual assault against him in 2003, time to overhaul his image and be both the Black Mamba on the court and a devoted student of how to be better at life off of it.
Which he inevitably was, approaching all other interests besides basketball with the same intensity and desire for greatness—and in the end making sure it all took a backseat to his family's needs.
Gianna, however, was robbed of her time. Everything she was learning about life from her pretty remarkable dad—whose favorite thing in the world was talking about his remarkable girls—will remain untested. Her future was supposed to be limitless, as was Alyssa Altobelli's, as was Payton Chester's.
"It's been fun!" Bryant told Entertainment Tonight in December 2018 about coaching his daughter's team. "We've been working together for a year and a half and they've improved tremendously in that time. I've got a group of great parents, a group of really, really intelligent, hardworking girls, and—they're all seventh graders, they're all 12 years old—but they've been playing so well!"
Gianna was "pretty easy to coach," he said. "We haven't had any issues of dad-daughter sort of thing. She's very competitive and she's a hard worker, so there haven't been any issues with that."
Talking to the Times in October, he marveled at how the apple didn't fall far from the tree.
"It's a trip to see her move and some of the expressions she makes," Bryant said. "It's a trip how genetics work."
Everyone is saying now that they couldn't wait to find out what Kobe Bryant was going to do next. But we know what he did for 20 years. As for Gianna, we're left only with a hint of what could've been.
(Originally published Jan. 28, 2020, at 1:08 p.m. PT)
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