It seems the whole world has been mourning since news broke that basketball superstar Kobe Bryant, 41, and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna Bryant, died in a helicopter crash Sunday in California. Countless celebrities have posted their condolences on social media, including some of the biggest names in women’s sports: tennis legend Billie Jean King, soccer star Megan Rapinoe, Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn.
Most overwhelming has been the response from WNBA players, many of whom considered Bryant to be a mentor. Gianna, also known as Gigi, was seen as a WNBA hopeful, too; she’s the one who led her father back to the sport after his 2016 retirement. The helicopter was reportedly on its way to a youth basketball tournament; seven others died, including one of Gigi’s basketball teammates.
Bryant, a five-time NBA champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist who spent 20 seasons playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, made headlines in recent years for championing women in sports. Just last week, he told CNN that he thought several WNBA players could play in the men’s league: “Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore, Elena Della Donne,” he said. “There’s a lot of great players out there so they could certainly keep up with them.”
As some of the most high-profile people in the country honor Bryant, others have pointed out his complicated legacy: In 2003, Bryant, 24 at the time, was charged with one count of felony assault for allegedly raping a 19-year-old woman working at a hotel he was staying at in Colorado. Although the criminal case was dropped, a civil suit was settled two years later. Bryant said in a statement that he recognized the woman “did not and does not view this incident the same way I did.” In 2018, Bryant was pulled from the jury of the Animation Is Film Festival because of the case.
In the wake of the news of Bryant and Gigi’s deaths, we rounded up initial reactions and reflections from five prominent women in the sports world: WNBA players Seimone Augustus and Elene Delle Donne, soccer star Mia Hamm, NBA 2K League player Chiquita Evans and sports columnist Nancy Armour. Here’s how they hope the two are remembered.
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Seimone Augustus is a professional basketball player with the Minnesota Lynx and a member of the U.S. national team. She spoke to The Lily over the phone on Monday.
“It feels like you lost a family member, like an uncle or something. It’s really crazy. I can’t believe it just like everybody else, but it’s something that we all have to take to. Just in the grand scheme of things, as a basketball player, you just appreciated his greatness.
And he appreciated women’s basketball, and this was before Gigi started playing and everything. We would have sit-downs in the players’ lounges [at the Olympics], and we’d be in there hanging out, chilling, and we’d be talking about ball.
He appreciated basketball, period, in an era when WNBA players were getting trolled or, excuse my French, people were always shitting on us for not being as good as the guys. One of the greatest players of all time respected us at the highest level and appreciated us to the extent that his daughter played ball, and he passed on that onto her.
That’s another thing — all the WNBA players, we’d be on Instagram just watching clips of Gigi. Man, we can remember when she first picked up the ball — then, this post the other day where she did a fadeaway just like her dad. We were like, ‘Damn.’ We saw that it was crazy. Like, she was really about to be the future of the WNBA, or women’s basketball, period. She was about to be someone that we had never seen before. It’s crazy to think that they aren’t here anymore.
Hopefully the younger players take heed, first of all, that we’re not here forever and time is very precious. And to play basketball is a privilege. They’ve got people that get up every day and go to jobs that they hate, and we get to wake up and do something that we love. Take care of your craft, work hard at it. Try to do your best. You may not be a Kobe, but you have potential. Everyone has a potential of greatness that they can reach, and we should all be trying to get there.”
Nancy Armour is a sports columnist for USA Today. She has been covering sports full-time since 1998. She spoke to The Lily over the phone on Monday.
“Obviously, [the news] was horrible. A horrific accident on so many different levels. I think one of the things that was so stunning was that Kobe was so young; he was 41. I think when we’ve seen him in the last couple of years, he’s looked so vibrant. You saw him with his kids. You saw him really taking on the second act where so many athletes usually struggle in retirement. You saw him transform himself. And so to see him gone was really surreal. And then, when the news broke his daughter was on the helicopter and other members of her team — it’s just a gut punch. These are kids whose whole lives were ahead of them and they were on the way to do something they loved. I don’t know how it gets more awful than that.
I’ve long struggled with Kobe and the question of his legacy and where do you put the rape case? I’ve written a lot about sexual assault and sexual abuse with athletetics, and you can’t gloss over it, you can’t ignore it. Especially if you have looked into the details of the case, which I have. If you’ve read the court documents, which I have.
I’ve often wondered what the reaction would be today, given the #MeToo movement and hopefully our changing attitudes toward sexual abuse. But I don’t think you can just parse out the good parts or the complimentary things. We’re all human. We’re flawed. And that should be acknowledged. This is part of Kobe’s story as much as the five NBA titles and the work that he did off the court and his championing of women’s sports and female athletes in the past couple of years. You can’t remove any one of those things from his legacy.
I was pretty horrified by some of the coverage yesterday reading it — there were some outlets that didn’t mention it at all, and there were some outlets that made two sentences at the bottom of the obituary.
In some ways, this has to do with the persona he crafted after the rape charge. [His nickname] ‘Mamba’ came out of his way of dealing with what happened in Colorado, he said that in interviews afterward. But, you know, too, our society has not done a good job of respecting women and believing women. It’s a heck of a lot easier to believe your favorite athlete than it is to believe a 19-year-old woman, especially 16 or 17 years ago. The woman was treated abysmally after the court documents were filed and before the case. And that’s nothing that we haven’t seen time and time again, especially when the case involves a powerful man.
I think you can be devastated by Kobe’s death — you can have loved him as a basketball player or been mesmerized by him as a basketball player — and still think that he did an unspeakable thing, committed an unspeakable crime.
We do a disservice to athletes during their lifetimes if we paint them as this one-dimensional figures. Especially our stars. We elevate them to such a point that they lose their humanity. That’s not fair to them during their lifetimes, and it’s not fair after their deaths, either.”
Chiquita Evans is the sole woman in the NBA’s professional video game league, NBA 2K League, and plays for the Warriors Gaming Squad. She shared her thoughts via email on Monday.
“First and foremost, I want to give my condolences to everyone involved in the tragic accident. Hearing the news about Kobe felt unbelievable. When those prominent people who have so much impact on everyone’s lives — you feel like they’re Superman.
Kobe was such a big supporter when it came to women in sports. I grew up watching Kobe, I respect everything he’s done for the game that I love. His hard work, dedication, on and off the court. His daughter and how she loved the game just like her father — a young, dedicated athlete in the making.
My heart goes out to everyone’s family. The game of basketball lost a great one on such short notice. To see everyone gather around and pay homage to Kobe made me realize how much one’s legacy and the way you treat an individual is very important. R.I.P to the legend himself, Kobe Bean Bryant, and his baby girl, Gigi. I know you’re at heaven’s gates being coach, father and an inspiration.”
Mia Hamm, now a retired professional soccer player, is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and two-time FIFA Women’s World Cup champion. She spoke to The Lily over the phone on Monday.
“I mean, it’s heartbreaking. I remember, I saw it on my phone, and I was in disbelief and was trying to verify it on any of the news channels. And nothing was coming up. So then I was hoping that it wasn’t true and it was misinformation. … I just kept thinking of his wife and kids and how they found out, and then of everyone else who was on board. You know, he meant a lot to a lot of people, and I think we only witnessed a small glimpse of what his greatness was. And to think about his two young daughters [Bianka, 3, and Capri, seven months], especially, and how they won’t be able to create those memories with their father.
I believe it was in 2011, I did a charity soccer game up in D.C., and we had members of the women’s national team and local Washington celebrities and [FC] Barcelona — we teamed up with them. And Kobe’s always been a huge soccer fan, obviously, growing up in Italy. He just loves sports. So he came out and was gracious enough with his time and kicked it around a little bit, which was fun. But I just remember — he didn’t have to be there. He was so sincere about wanting to help. He pulled aside the director of my foundation and said, ‘If there’s anything you need, don’t hesitate to contact me.’ It wasn’t, ‘Contact my people.’ It was, ‘Contact me.’ You just got a true sense of who he was, and that stays with you.
You know, I think our progression with regard to women in sports and equality has to be kind of attacked on so many levels in terms of how we approach it. And we need people like Kobe. I think that’s one of the things you’ve heard from WNBA players in terms of what his support meant to them. Because if it’s just women advocating, it’s looked as a women’s issue, not a human rights issue.
But my heart just breaks for his wife and his family and his friends and obviously all the other families that were lost. I know people who knew the others on the helicopter, and it’s just a hard day for a lot of people.
Maybe [the takeaway] is about spending less time on the things that in the end just don’t really matter. While you’re on this earth, do as much good as you can and just take the time for the important things and the people in your life who continue to help you grow and make you better.”
Elena Delle Donne is a professional basketball player for the Washington Mystics. She has been named the WNBA’s most valuable player twice. She sent her thoughts via email on Sunday.
“As I try to comprehend what just happened, all I can think about is their family and the families of the other passengers involved in the crash. They were all taken from us way too soon.
Kobe was always one text away for advice, whether it was his thoughts on how to handle my back pain, personal brand building or even just texting me his track workouts. He was always there for advice whenever I reached out.
One of the things I admired most about Kobe wasn’t on the court.
It was his dedication and compassion as a father.
Nothing mattered to him more than his family. When he introduced me to Gigi, I could tell instantly that she was special. She wanted to meet me, but I was just as excited, maybe even more excited, to meet her. She had passion, drive and a ‘nothing can stop me’ attitude that I love.
May they all rest in peace.”