Kobe Bryant thought he had called it quits from basketball in 2016.
“I’m ready to let you go,” the decorated shooting guard wrote in a poetic ode to the sport during his final season. “I want you to know now, so we both can savor every moment we have left together. The good and the bad. We have given each other all that we have.”
Bryant still had more to give, though.
His playing career — 20 NBA seasons, all with the Los Angeles Lakers — was over.
His daughter Gianna’s was about to begin.
A year or so after Bryant retired, Gianna, known as Gigi, started to take up the game her dad so passionately loved. Her interest sparked a new connection between Bryant and the sport he had spent years mastering. The hours dedicated to playing, watching, and studying basketball returned — only they weren’t for Bryant, they were for Gigi.
“Before Gigi got into basketball, I hardly watched it,” Bryant said during a recent episode of the “All the Smoke” podcast. “Now that she’s into basketball, it’s on every night. It’s on every night. I mean, every game. She asked me to get the league pass on her phone and everything. She watches everything.”
Bryant and 13-year-old Gigi died Sunday in a helicopter crash that killed all nine passengers on board. The group was on its way to a noon game at Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy, a training facility he opened in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Gigi was expected to play, Bryant to coach.
Coaching initially wasn’t on Bryant’s retirement radar.
He had expressed interest in exploring other interests, particularly creative storytelling. He launched Granity Studios, a multimedia content company that is probably best known for its short-film adaptation of Bryant’s poem, “Dear Basketball.” The six-minute production earned him an Academy Award for Best Animated Short in 2018. Among Granity’s other projects were “Detail,” an ESPN+ series in which Bryant analyzed game film of current players, and multiple young adult fiction books that merged fantasy and sports.
But when Gigi decided she wanted to play, Bryant was there to coach. Gigi quickly made a local All-Star team, which introduced them to many of the girls that would soon form “Team Mamba.”
Two of Gigi’s teammates — Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester — were onboard the helicopter at the time of the crash. Chester’s mother and Altobelli’s father and mother were also killed.
“They all started at the ground level, but they all loved playing so much it grew into what it is now,” Bryant said on the “All the Smoke” podcast. “We’ll probably win a lot more if we micromanage how we play the game and call plays and sets, but we really just kind of sit back and let them process things and figure things out because we are playing for the long game of them being the best basketball players they can be.”
From there, the basketball memories started to multiply for Gigi and Bryant.
In November 2017, they watched the top-ranked UConn Huskies take down UCLA.
Four months later, they sat behind the UConn bench at Nationwide Arena to watch the overtime thriller between the Huskies and eventual national champion Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
In June 2018, Gigi got some shots up on an outdoor hoop in the Luxembourg Gardens during the family’s trip to France. In March 2019, they went to Gampel Pavilion for UConn’s senior night as well as the jersey retirement of legend Rebecca Lobo. In July 2019, they attended the WNBA All-Star Game in Las Vegas.
Just last month, the two sat courtside at the Barclays Center to watch one of Gigi’s favorite NBA players: Atlanta Hawks point guard Trae Young. A week later, they were courtside once again, this time at Staples Center to watch another one of Gigi’s favorites: Dallas Mavericks star Luka Dončić.
“It was the first time I was seeing the game through her eyes,” Bryant said. “It was her. She was having such a good time.”
Bryant’s pride for Gigi showed via his Instagram, where he documented some of the basketball memories they shared together. On Jan. 14, he posted a video of Gigi’s fadeaway, one that is often compared to his own, with the caption, “Gigi getting better every day.”
Gigi was proud, too. During an appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” in October 2018, Bryant relayed her interest in following in her dad’s footsteps.
“This kid, man,” he said. “The best thing that happens is when we go out and fans will come up to me and she’ll be standing next to me and they’ll be like, ‘Man, you got to have a boy, you and [Vanessa] got to have a boy, someone to carry on the tradition, the legacy.’ And she’s like ‘Oh, I got this. You don’t need a boy for that.’ Like that’s right. Yes, you do. You got this.’ ”