Kobe and Gianna Bryant were huge fans of women’s college basketball. Naturally, this means they were huge fans of the University of Connecticut.
They were part of a sold-out crowd at Harry A. Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Conn. on Mar. 2, 2019. It was Senior Day for the Huskies as they celebrated the careers of Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson. The Huskies also did something they had never done in program history—retire a number. Rebecca Lobo, who led the Huskies to the first of their 11 national championships and six undefeated seasons, had her No. 50 retired.
Kobe Bryant had long been a champion for women’s basketball, recently saying the women’s game’s best players could play in the same league he spent two decades dominating.
“There’s a lot of players with a lot of skill that could do it,” Bryant said in a CNN interview last Wednesday. “Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore, Elena Delle Donne. There’s a lot of great players out there, so they could certainly keep up with them.”
Gianna Bryant made no secret of her desire to play for the Huskies and Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma. Her father said she was “hellbent”. Unfortunately, she will never get a chance to realize her dream.
Kobe and Gianna Bryant were among nine people killed in a helicopter crash Sunday in Calabasas, Calif. Their deaths sent shockwaves throughout the sports world and beyond. Their presence was certainly felt in downtown Hartford, Conn. Monday night as the No. 4 Huskies played an exhibition game against the U.S. national team at the XL Center.
It was supposed to be a celebration of women’s basketball as a whole and UConn specifically. Auriemma is coach of the national team. Five of his former UConn players are currently on Team USA’s roster.
Just a few feet from Auriemma on the UConn bench was a chair symbolically reserved for Gianna Bryant. The chair was draped with a No. 2 jersey and adorned with flowers. During the pregame tribute, Auriemma sat with his head down, glasses off, rubbing his eyes, staring at the ground, and shaking his head.
“The first time they were at a game, you know the old saying, she was like a little kid, looking up at our players,” Auriemma said. “You could just see the look in her eyes. She was just so excited. Now imagine the absurdity of that. Your father is Kobe Bryant, and the most excited you’ve been in a long time is being around college women’s basketball players. But that’s what it meant to her. That is what she aspired to be.”
After the pregame tribute, there was a 24-second moment of silence. When play began, the Huskies and Team USA took intentional shot clock violations in honor of Bryant. Team USA committed an eight-second backcourt violation while the Huskies held the ball and allowed the 24-second shot clock to expire. Bryant wore both No. 8 and No. 24 for the Los Angeles Lakers. Both numbers were retired by the team.
Auriemma rubbed his eyes as the Huskies and Team USA traded shot clock violations. He had a close relationship with the 18-time NBA All-Star.
They got to know each other during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Both Auriemma and Bryant spent part of their lives in Italy and hail from Philadelphia. Auriemma said one of his favorite memories of Bryant was a conversation they had in Italian (which Bryant spoke fluently) about Italy. Auriemma also recalled seeing Bryant work out by himself in London on an off day.
“And my team was just standing there just staring,” Auriemma said. “Shot after shot after shot. I just shook my head and said, ‘That’s why he is who he is’.”
The players who had formed friendships with Kobe and Gianna Bryant were left with fond memories but also a prevailing inability to make sense of what has taken place.
“She was…great,” Samuelson, who now plays for Team USA, said of Gianna while struggling to keep tears from streaming down her face. “She was shy the first time we met her and, slowly, each time, she was more and more outgoing. On the court, she was a different person. She was a monster. She was mean. She had an attitude just like (Kobe) did. She was just a beautiful soul and a beautiful person that I was lucky enough to meet and get to know.”
Taurasi remembered his obsessive drive as a player but regrets that he died just as he was beginning his post-NBA life.
“He unlocked this energy out of people without even knowing it,” Taurasi said. “He made it OK for you to be obsessive and want something really, really badly. We saw things the same way, in so many ways…the sad part is we’ll never know what happens in the next 41 years of his life. Just not playing basketball for (the past) three years, there was this energy that he was going to do something great. We’ll never get to know what that was.”
Breanna Stewart won four national championships at UConn and was the 2018 WNBA Most Valuable Player. She tore her Achilles while playing professionally in Russia and missed the entire 2019 WNBA season. One of the first people to reach out to Stewart was Kobe Bryant.
“He knew what I was going through and wanted to assure me that I’d be OK,” Stewart said.
When Stewart took the floor for the U.S. national team, it was her first game since her injury nine months ago. She had the names of the nine victims of the Calabasas crash written on her sneakers.
Team USA defeated UConn, 79-64. This game was never about the final score. It was supposed to be a celebration of women’s basketball. It was supposed to be a celebration of the UConn program (the Huskies’ 2009 and 2010 national champion teams were also honored). This was supposed a game in which the current players got a chance to play against their heroes. It was the type of environment Kobe and Gianna Bryant would have loved.
Instead, the world is trying to make sense of their deaths and those of the seven people who lost their lives with them.
“You don’t know what to do, and you don’t know what to say so you kind of sit there, and then you have all these kids back their families and the national team is here so you’ve got to put on a happy face and do what you’ve got to do,” Auriemma said. “That wasn’t easy.”