In 2020, Kobe Bryant's legendary Lakers career was behind him, the stats safely secured for his eventual inclusion in the NBA Hall of Fame, his two numbers retired, his five championship rings under lock and key. All that was squared away.
But he was still coming into his own as a father of four daughters when he was killed in a helicopter crash.
Compounding the tragedy, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna "Gigi" Bryant was with him, as were two of her youth basketball league teammates, Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester, Alyssa's parents John and Keri Altobelli, and Payton's mom, Sarah Chester. All died, along with assistant coach Christina Mauser and pilot Ara Zobayan, and the world—for the most part just going about its business at the time—stopped to mourn.
For years, Kobe had traveled via helicopter the way most people hop into their cars and drive, the superstar athlete turned entrepreneur, author, producer and girls basketball coach not wanting to waste precious time stuck in L.A. traffic. They had been on their way to a tournament at the Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, about 82 miles away from the Bryant home in Newport Beach. Gigi's love of the game and promising talent had served as a bridge back to basketball for Kobe, who retired in 2016.
Within hours after the unbelievable news washed over the Southland, the courtyard outside Staples Center ("the house Kobe Bryant built," as Grammys host Alicia Keys put it that very night) filled with fans wearing their No. 24 and No. 8 jerseys. Flowers, candles and other mementos carpeted the ground. For days, buildings were awash in purple and gold lights, murals started to appear all over the city, and bus signs lit up with "R.I.P. Kobe" in between destinations. Meanwhile, the tributes online, on TV, on radio, on podcasts began, and wouldn't stop for weeks.
Amid the reports pouring in as Kobe's life was examined from every angle—the exalted highs and career-threatening lows, the triumphant and the tumultuous, his awe-inspiring skills and his all-too-human flaws—came an ESPN segment that particularly stood out amid all the rest, one that paid tribute to an aspect of Kobe's life that both highlighted his best qualities and which countless people could actually relate to.
Recalling meeting Kobe backstage at an event when she was 8 months pregnant, SportsCenter anchor Elle Duncan told of how he immediately asked her how far along she was and what was she having. When Duncan told him she was having a girl, he gave her a high five and gushed, "Girls are the best!" She asked if he had any advice, and Kobe told her, "Just be grateful that you've been given that gift because girls are amazing."
Asked if he wanted more children, the father of then only three—Natalia, Gigi and Bianka—said that wife Vanessa Bryant was up for trying again, because perhaps they'd finally have a boy. Then asked what he would do if he became a dad to four girls, Kobe told Duncan, "I would have five more girls if I could. I'm a girl dad." (He and Vanessa welcomed daughter Capri in June 2019.)
With tears welling, the host signed off, saying, "When I reflect on this tragedy and that half an hour that I spent with Kobe Bryant two years ago, I suppose that the only small source of comfort for me is knowing that he died doing what he loved the most—being a dad. Being a girl dad."
And with that, #girldad started trending worldwide, dads—and women posting pictures of dads and grandpas—using the hashtag to unite as one proud family, a network of people who may have been grieving a loss but who also were damn proud to be the fathers of daughters, joined by the girls-of-all-ages who loved them for it.
Tweeted Olympic decathlete Trey Hardee (a father of two daughters and, since this tweet, a son), "This video had me in tears. Being a girl dad has been the best part of my short life. I wish I knew about this part of Kobe. This will be his lasting impression on me. Not the wins, rings, or records. #girldad."
And when Vanessa stoically, inspirationally and heartbreakingly eulogized her husband and daughter at the February 2020 memorial held at Staples Center for Kobe and Gigi, she called him "the MVP of girl dads, or MVD."
When Kobe's former teammate Pau Gasol welcomed his first child in September (and honored Gigi in naming her), he immediately joined the club. "Our little one has finally arrived!! The delivery went really well and we couldn't be happier!!" he shared on Instagram. "Elisabet Gianna Gasol, a very meaningful name for our super beautiful daughter!! #girldad."
Or "#Padredeniña" in Spanish.
More than a year after Kobe's death, that hashtag remains a fixture on social media, with more than 1 million posts coming up if you search for it on Instagram, plus countless others with slight variances (the addition of heart emojis, for example). And if you're in the mood to have your heart warmed and you've already been through all the best puppy pics on Twitter, a quick scroll through the results of a #girldad search should suffice. The term itself, which Kobe didn't invent but certainly gave a winning assist to, simply has become part of the cultural lexicon.
Talking to People the day after the memorial, Duncan said she was happy that her remembrance had led to such a "positive moment" amid all that pain, but naturally she hadn't expected it to have the impact it did.
"At first, I was very hesitant because I was like, 'It's not about me, it's about Kobe,'" she recalled of putting the piece together. "I don't know Kobe, I met him that one time. I feel like people probably want to hear from people that knew him intimately." But her producer pointed out that "if Kobe was willing to open up to this complete stranger about his daughters and his love for his daughters, that was probably a great indicator of who he was."
She also said that Kobe "was the first person to make me feel like [having a girl] was the best thing in the world. He really poured cold water all over this notion or this stereotype that men only feel complete if they have boys."
Meanwhile, the Ohio woman who actually trademarked the term in 2017 and ran an online business selling apparel that said "GirlDad" was quite startled to see it start trending—especially since she'd already been privy to just how un-open certain people could be toward the celebration of families with all-girl broods.
"We got a lot of negative comments at times," Hilary Wertin, whose site alldaughters.com also sells "BoyDad" items, told CantonRep.com last February about what motivated her to get into the "GirlDad" business. "It was surprising."
Referring to the overnight global popularity of the phrase, which resulted in a sudden uptick in orders, her husband Jonas Wertin acknowledged, "We have a strange piece of this national conversation that's happening."
Hilary said that she didn't want to "be one of those people" profiting from tragedy, but would-be customers started requesting Kobe-related gear, so she created a basketball-themed shirt in Lakers colors—and donated the proceeds of its sales to the MambaOnThree Fund, created to benefit the four other families who lost loved ones in the crash.
She also, incidentally, had to start taking steps to reassert her trademark in accordance with the law because of all the merchandise that started popping up to capitalize on the viral moment.
"I didn't do it to jump on someone else's bandwagon," Hilary said of her company. "I did it because I believed that raising all girls was just as important and powerful as a family of all boys."
While daughters and dads from all walks and stages of life have utilized the term, from gestation (lots of excited soon-to-be #girldads out there) to graduation to inauguration ("As a #girldad it's great to hear glass shatter today," tweeted one proud pop on Jan. 20), it remains especially poignant in the athletic community, where Kobe's legacy looms large.
And parents aren't the only ones who have been appreciating the additional attention being paid to budding female sports stars, as Gigi Bryant was.
Kami Miner, a Stanford-bound high school volleyball All-American whose father is former NBA player Harold Miner, told the Los Angeles Times, "It hurt my entire family when [Kobe] passed away. It was great to see the media focus on how he was as a father and that these athletes are trying to pass on what they learned to their children."
"Hearing about Kobe and the relationship he had with his daughters," she continued, "it gave some visibility to girls' sports and hopefully that trend continues. There's a lot of girl athletes come of age. They deserve it. They train as hard as the boys."
MacKenly Randolph, daughter of two-time NBA All-Star Zach Randolph, was coached by Kobe at the Mamba Sports Academy (since renamed Sports Academy, the "Mamba" retired) and had made the same helicopter trip with him and Gigi the week before they died after a sleepover at their house. "He basically taught me how to play defense and how to rotate," the teen told The New York Times. As a coach, "You would know when he's mad, or he's not playing around, but he would never, like, yell at you."
As her father added, "He loved them girls. He loved my baby. He told me, 'I love her, man.' When he told me that, I told him, ‘We're brothers for life.'"
As a 6-foot-tall freshman, MacKenly now plays for L.A.-area private school Chatsworth Sierra Canyon. And her father certainly understands where Kobe was coming from.
"It's a great feeling," Zach told the Los Angeles Times. "Girl dad, oh man. I wouldn't change it for anything."
This story was originally published on Tuesday, January 26, 2021 at 12 a.m. PT.