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When I needed Kobe Bryant to open up, only one thing worked: Talking about our daughters

Five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, were killed in a helicopter crash Jan. 26. The 13-year-old shared her father's love of basketball. (Video: The Washington Post)

Over takeout sandwiches in a dusty recording studio, I asked Kobe Bryant for parenting advice. It was July 2018, and I had just begun researching a profile of Bryant, who was trying to reinvent himself as a storyteller, filmmaker and, on this day, producer of a kids’ podcast called “The Punies.” As much as anything, this was my attempt to break down the obvious barriers between Bryant — one of the greatest basketball players of all time, a global celebrity, a man on the billionaire track — and, well, me.

He looked up from his veggie sandwich.

“First kid?” he said.

I nodded, and he asked what you ask about babies.

“She sleeping well?”

I told him something I tried to avoid sharing with friends: that Lilah was a dream sleeper, sometimes snoozing for 12 hours a night. Now Bryant was engaged. His walls were lowered and, as always, he had wisdom to share.

“See, it’s usually the opposite,” he said. His first daughter, Natalia, was restless, he said; it took having a second to get those peaceful nights.

Bryant’s second daughter was a then-12-year-old named Gianna, whom he and wife Vanessa called Gigi. She was a spark plug, all attitude and no fear, and whatever Gigi wanted — daily fun, the achievement of her goals of the moment, a career in the WNBA someday — she was in a frustratingly big hurry to get it. In fact, Bryant had based the “Punies” character “BB,” hard-charging and steadfast and impatient, on his second daughter.

She was, in other words, a little Kobe. It was clear by the way he spoke about her that they were especially close. In the months since, this has been reinforced by videos on social media showing Bryant and Gigi together, hugged up against each other at Los Angeles Lakers games. In one memorable video, Bryant can be seen breaking down a play for her as he did on his ESPN show, “Detail.”

“On my hip from the day she was born until now,” he told me. “My second one, she’ll never leave my side. Never. She’s just always right there. Always, every picture.”

Gigi was with her daddy, as usual, on a helicopter Sunday morning. They had left Orange County, where Bryant’s home and offices are, on their way to a youth basketball tournament in northern Los Angeles. This was not abnormal. Gigi would play — displaying her father’s shooting form and jersey-biting urgency — and Bryant would cheer and sometimes coach. What was abnormal was that it wasn’t sunny in the hills north of Los Angeles, and the helicopter, carrying Kobe, Gigi and seven others, circled in foggy conditions before crashing into a hill in suburban Calabasas.

Looking back on more than a half-dozen meetings with Bryant — in D.C. and California, including two helicopter rides over L.A. — it was clear he was not terribly interested in sharing the details I needed for my profile. Instead, he preferred to debate ideas we each had for fiction stories and how to write a flawed character. We compared our top-five movies — Bryant’s were “The Godfather,” “Return of the Jedi,” “Steel Magnolias” (“Random, right?” he said one day), the original “Peter Pan” and “Do the Right Thing” — and made fun of what each other had included or omitted.

Kobe Bryant is a storyteller in search of perfection, and the most vexing tale is his own

Mostly, though, we kept coming back to the most powerful thing we had in common: being daddies of daughters. We lamented fumbling with car seats and strollers, and remembered how we maintained sanity during those first sleepless weeks. (I watched “Game of Thrones” on my phone; Bryant said he chipped away at “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”) Mostly, though, we lamented the passage of time: Lilah looked less like a baby every day; Natalia was 15 and would take her driving test that summer.

“Dude, the thing that I miss the most,” he said one afternoon, “is when like Natalia couldn’t sleep and I’d go downstairs, and I’d just hold her and we’d be watching TV or some s--- and I’d try to rock her to sleep. And every time, like, you think she goes to sleep and you try to close your eyes — it’s like they have a timer. As soon as you close your eyes, it’s like, ‘Oh, s---.’ ”

One day we talked about how, in strange ways, it was as if we needed to have daughters. I’m the oldest of three brothers and wanted something new from fatherhood: to teach, and learn from, a girl.

“You’ve got your girl; that’s it,” Bryant said. “Hell yeah, man. … You’re going to hold that baby till your arms fall off."

Bryant said he had wanted a daughter for a long time, imagining that a future son could learn from his elder sister. I also suspected Bryant saw fatherhood as a way to help him reshape a different part of his story.

Natalia was born in January 2003, a few months before Bryant traveled to northwest Colorado to undergo knee surgery. It was there, at a resort in Eagle, that he met the 19-year-old woman who later accused him of sexually assaulting her. The criminal charges against Bryant were dropped, but he later acknowledged that he understood that the woman believed she hadn’t consented to their encounter. Bryant paid an undisclosed sum to settle a lawsuit.

Bryant wouldn’t talk much about it, but it seemed obvious that he was trying to flood “Colorado,” as he referred to it, from his résumé. Of the 21 people employed at the time by Kobe Inc., 15 were women. The stories he told, like “The Punies,” often featured strong girls and women as lead characters. He tweeted often about women’s basketball, attended the 2018 Women’s Final Four and traveled with Gigi last March to attend a game at the University of Connecticut. He developed a friendship with Sabrina Ionescu, the University of Oregon star, and often tweeted about her dominant performances. Just last week, Bryant said during an appearance on CNN that some top WNBA players — Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore, Elena Delle Donne — could play in the NBA.

Kobe Bryant had left basketball behind. His daughter Gigi brought him back.

Maybe he was trying to atone for some shame he felt. Maybe, as several close acquaintances suggested, Bryant was changed by having daughters, and seeing the game through Gigi’s eyes had reignited his passion for basketball. Either way, whenever I’d see Bryant during those four months, he almost always asked me about Lilah. What was she up to now? How different did she look? If I complained about exhaustion or stress, he would wave me off and encourage me to appreciate the little things — even the frustrations — because no matter what you do or who you are, everything ends.

During one of our last meetings, Bryant told me Vanessa was pregnant with their fourth child. They didn’t know the gender yet. Part of him wanted a son, he said, but it wasn’t an especially overpowering part.

“Seriously, girls are daddy’s girls,” he said. A few months later, they had Capri, their fourth daughter.

Before we parted ways, Bryant offered some more advice. Not on the right way to draw a flawed character in search of redemption but on something I had said that first day in the recording studio: that Lilah might be our only child. If you win the lottery, I told him in that stuffy control room, you don’t keep buying lottery tickets.

“Just, no. Sounds good, but no,” he said. “She needs a running mate, man.”

He sounded like a neighbor or a co-worker, being reflective and corny, not one of the richest and most famous former athletes on the planet. But he was coaching, breaking down what he had already seen, just as he would do these last few months with Gianna.

“Take lots of pictures, man,” he said, reminding me that it would always be nice to revisit those memories and pretend, if only for a moment, that nothing had changed.

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The death of Kobe Bryant

Here’s what you need to catch up on what happened in Calabasas, California.

Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash in California on Jan. 26. The NBA legend and sports icon was 41 years old.

Nine people, including Bryant, were killed in the crash. Gianna Bryant, the former player’s 13-year-old daughter, was among the dead.

Memorial service: Los Angeles honored Kobe Bryant, his daughter and the victims of the crash with a memorial at Staples Center. Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, spoke at the memorial, as did NBA legend Michael Jordan, among others.

Obituary: Bryant was an individual whose tirelessness and competitive drive were as notable as his versatility and ambition.

Photos: Bryant’s milestones | Kobe through the years | The scene as people mourn in L.A.

Commentary: Bryant accomplished so much, sports columnist Jerry Brewer writes. “Yet his story still feels disturbingly incomplete, and that’s why so many are taking his death so hard.” Barry Svrluga writes: “Lives are not clean. Legacies are messy. Memories are personal. It’s worth talking through.”

Read deeper:

Kobe Bryant’s beautiful game was built on grace, intensity and confidence

• For LeBron James, Bryant’s death provided a powerful reminder of life’s priorities

• Bryant was a storyteller in search of perfection. The most vexing tale was his own.

Media coverage of Bryant’s death was a chaotic mess, but there were moments of grace