What Kobe’s Legacy Could Have Meant for Women’s Sports

Everybody processes things in different times, & in different ways.  Perhaps the news of Kobe Bryant’s death would not have hit me in the way that it has, had certain other events not preceded it.  On Thursday, we were told that my aunt, who has been battling cancer for seven years, is now terminal, & that there is nothing more doctors can do for her.  On Friday, I took my dog to the vet after he’d been limping badly, only to discover that bone cancer might be the cause.  Numerous tests & x-rays revealed that it was not, in fact, cancer ~ but the roller coaster of emotions that ensued while waiting for those results had me staring in the face the one thing I’ve feared most in recent years: the loss of my best friend. 

Then on Sunday, came the out-of-nowhere news of Kobe Bryant’s death alongside his daughter, Gianna.  I used to be a Lakers fan when I was a kid, during the time of Magic & Kareem ~ but I was never a particularly big Kobe Bryant fan; he always seemed a little cocky.  And that perceived cockiness absolutely ignited fans in my adopted hometown of Portland, Oregon: Blazer games versus the Lakers always brought out the most heat in fans, & the loudest chants (second only to the Warriors & Steph Curry).  Opponents & rivals seemed to LOVE to hate on Kobe: He’s just too goodToo cockyWhat a ball hog

And yet, on the day after his death, we are all deeply affected ~ in no small part because his daughter, Gianna, herself an athlete, was at his side in the helicopter when it crashed.

What Kobe's Legacy Could Have Meant for Women's Sports, Girl Who Travels the World

Kobe & Gianna often attended both NBA & WNBA games together. This shot was taken just a few weeks ago, on December 29th, 2019. Photo by Allen Berezovsky.

Perhaps much of that comes from all that is trickling out post-his death: about all the people he mentored ~ not just in basketball, but across multiple sports; & not just men, but women like superstar Oregon college athlete, Sabrina Ionescu, who had become close friends with Bryant in recent years, & who Gianna revered.  They would often travel together to her games.  And Ionescu dedicated her game on Sunday to Bryant; in fact, she dedicated her whole season to him.  To not play would likely be unthinkable to her, just as it would have been to Bryant. 

And where & how Bryant met his end, I believe speaks volumes about where his heart was at for the future: & that was beside his daughter, on their way to the center he created, the Mamba Sports Academy ~ where he coached her middle-school team.  Of all the things he could have been doing on that final day, some part of me thinks that this is exactly where he wanted to be, doing exactly what he wanted to do: coaching his daughter’s team.  Not a professional men’s team, or some prestigious college basketball team: but his 13-year old daughter’s team.

What Kobe's Legacy Could Have Meant for Women's Sports, Girl Who Travels the World

Of all the things he could have been doing on that final day, some part of me thinks that this is exactly where he wanted to be, doing exactly what he wanted to do: coaching his daughter’s team.  Not a professional men’s team, or some prestigious college basketball team: but his 13-year old daughter’s team.

What Kobe’s Legacy Could Have Meant for Women’s Sports

This choice gives us insight into where his head was at, as he reinvented himself yet again, following one of the greatest NBA careers of all-time.  And I believe his second act would have been less about ego, & more about service: about extending his love & ambassadorship of basketball to WNBA & NBA players alike, & to college players like Ionescu, & to seventh-grade players, like his daughter & her teammates. 

His particular emphasis on mentoring & working with women is slightly surprising, but perhaps less so given that he was father to four daughters.  In a Jimmy Kimmel interview, he explained how people often came up to him & said they hoped he & Vanessa would have a boy, to carry on his “legacy.”  Yet, his daughter Gianna was often at his side on these occasions.  During one of them, she said simply: “I got this.”  Meaning: “Why can’t I be his legacy?”  Kobe’s pride in her fierceness & demand to simply be seen, was immense.  Perhaps Kobe had had that kind of exchange one too many times; perhaps he had started to absorb some of his daughters’ angst at not being seen, or at not being taken seriously.

What Kobe's Legacy Could Have Meant for Women's Sports, Girl Who Travels the World

Kobe & Gianna.

And then there’s an irony that cannot be escaped: how a father of four could have been accused of rape in 2003, by a woman in Colorado.  When he was accused, his first-born daughter Natalia was just a few months old.  Gianna, or Gigi, would not be born until several years later.  Though we may never know exactly what happened in Colorado, Bryant did admit after the civil case settled, that what he thought happened in that hotel room “was not the same” as what the woman believed had transpired. 

In this current #MeToo climate, men who’ve been accused of sexual crimes are given zero penance; for most, there is no allowance for forgiveness.  And in the case of men like Harvey Weinstein, men who’ve created an avalanche of harm, & displayed decades of predatory behavior, yet who still refuse to take responsibility for their actions: this may be right & just.  Kobe’s incident happened long before the #MeToo era; still, it’s a tarnish on his record.  And yet, based on the overwhelming response to his death, it seems that by & large, we have forgiven him.  The legacy of his good seems to outweigh whatever stain was created by the allegations of 2003.

Then, as fate works in mysterious ways: Bryant became the father to three more girls, post-2003.  I don’t think anyone who knew him would say that this did not alter him significantly, as a man.  I believe it gave him a different lens through which to view the world, a lens in which not everyone is the alpha male, the conqueror.  And I believe that he would never have wanted any of his daughters to find themselves in a hotel room, having an encounter with a man that was anything less than entirely consensual.  What father would?

Did those allegations from 2003 somehow affect his trajectory?  Quite possibly, but not as much, it seems, as having four daughters did ~ one of whom is now just an infant.  The sense you get with Kobe is that his admiration of & friendship with players like Ionescu though, was genuine, as was his mentoring of close friend Derek Fisher’s WNBA team, the Sparks.  One gets the sense that he is doing these things for the love of the game, & for the respect he has for these players’ talents: not out of any penance or guilt from earlier allegations.

What Kobe's Legacy Could Have Meant for Women's Sports, Girl Who Travels the World

Bryant was accused of rape in 2003, which makes him an odd candidate to be a later champion of women’s sports & women’s basketball. Yet, his close personal friendships & mentoring of athletes, like Sabrina Ionescu (pictured here) don’t strike me as those of a man “trying to do good.” They seem to come from a more genuine place. And they represent an important, if not complicated, part of his story.

A Redemption Story

Kobe’s story is not only a story of basketball greatness & excellence: it has also turned into an odd story of redemption.  A redemption that no longer seems to be allowed in our culture.  Kobe was in a unique position to affect millions because of the respect he had garnered over the years, & the fact that he was using so much of his post-career time to work with & mentor female basketball players is significant: perhaps he was leaving a guidepost for other NBA players to emulate, in the twilight of their careers. 

And not just the ones with daughters. 

“I want us to continue to push for what he was most recently striving for in terms of equity & opportunity for young girls, for girls like his daughters that are still with us. For girls like my daughters, for women to come. He didn’t just talk about those things. He lived it. Very similar to what he did on the court, he didn’t talk about being great. He worked at it everyday.”

– Former L.A. Lakers Teammate, Derek Fisher

What Kobe Bryant's Legacy Could Have Meant for Women's Sports, Girl Who Travels the World, Derek Fisher Kobe

What Kobe’s Legacy Could Have Meant for Women’s Sports

If the outpouring of emotion & grief is any indication: Kobe’s legacy was, is, VAST.  The country of Italy hailed him as “one of their own,” due to much of his childhood being spent there.  Players in the Australian Open paid tribute, with some calling Bryant their mentor.  The usually snappy Doc Rivers wept in front of reporters when talking about Bryant.  Nearly every basketball game on Sunday saw teammates taking 8 & 24-second shot-clock violations, in honor of Bryant’s two jersey numbers: 8 & 24.  The Grammy’s, which were held Sunday in his basketball home of the Staples Center, took on a more somber feel, as nominees of all ages acknowledged him; Demi Lovato broke down at the start of her performance, then started again.  All the while, Kobe’s two retired jerseys soared above the crowd.

Kobe Bryant’s legacy was, is, VAST.

What Kobe's Legacy Could Have Meant for Women's Sports, Girl Who Travels the World

Kobe Bryant & his family. Photo credit: Kobe Bryant Instagram.

But the biggest part of that legacy is his family: the women in his life.

And I think much of what he was doing at what turned out to be the end of his life, reflects that influence.  He’d started a production company: he wanted to tell stories.  He won an Academy Award in 2018 for his short film, “Dear Basketball.”  He was coaching his daughter’s team, & talked about it proudly with nearly everyone he encountered.  He was encouraging youth athletic excellence at his Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, & was on his way to a tournament there the morning he died.  He was mentoring athletes, both individually & as teams, many of whom were female athletes. 

Towards the end of his life, I think it was less about him ~ & more about giving to others.  It’s what could have made his second act even finer than his first, had he lived.

xoxxo Noelia 

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