In the years since his retirement in 2016, he found a road back into the game, discovering the joy of it all over again, this time through the eyes of his second-born daughter, Gianna Maria-Onore Bryant, known as Gigi.
He was taking the time to be a teacher, not a superstar, and he was finding joy in the version of the game played by girls and women. Bryant might not have wanted to be an NBA coach, but he was happy to patiently bring the hardwood lessons he had learned to Gigi’s side.
Gigi died with him and seven other people Sunday when the helicopter they were traveling in crashed near Calabasas, Calif. At 13, she had hoop dreams, hoping to one day play for the University of Connecticut. And she wasn’t shy about pointing out that she could more than fulfill any lingering dreams her father had.
In a 2018 interview with Jimmy Kimmel, Bryant, the father of four daughters, spoke with special pride about Gigi. “This kid, man,” he said. “The best thing that happens is when we go out and fans come up to me, and she’ll be standing next to me and they’ll be like: ‘You’ve got to have a boy. You and [wife Vanessa] have got to have a boy, someone to carry on the tradition, the legacy.’ And she’s like, ‘Oh, I got this.’ ”
His plans for her were clear. Less than a month before they perished in the crash, Bryant had filed a trademark application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, seeking ownership of “Mambacita,” a clear reference to his own “Black Mamba” nickname.
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The WNBA was a special cause for Bryant, as well as his daughter’s hoped-for destination. “No @NBA player supported the @WNBA or women’s college basketball more than Kobe,” former WNBA and U-Conn. star Rebecca Lobo tweeted. “He attended games, watched on TV, coached the next generation. We pray for his family.”
“He was the one everyone looked up to, especially this generation of players,” Atlanta Hawks Coach Lloyd Pierce said. “To see the way he was coming out of retirement in playing to being just a leader of people, WNBA, AAU programs, children’s books — we lost a leader.”
That was apparent at his sports academy in Thousand Oaks, where he hosted NBA and WNBA players and, for the past two years, coached Gigi’s AAU team.
“Before Gigi got into basketball, I hardly watched it, but now that she’s into basketball, we watch every night,” Bryant told former NBA players Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson on the Showtime Basketball podcast “All the Smoke."
Because of and with her, he was becoming a fixture at Lakers games again.
“We just had so much fun because it was the first time I was seeing the game through her eyes,” Bryant said. “It wasn’t me sitting there as an athlete or a player or something like that. … It was her — she was having such a good time.”