‘She was the future’: WNBA stars saw themselves in Gigi Bryant’s own hoop dreams

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HARTFORD, Conn. — Chicago Sky guard Katie Lou Samuelson couldn’t hold back her emotions Monday.

Growing up in Huntington Beach, California, when Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers‘ dominance in the NBA, she understood what Bryant means to the City of Angels. In getting to know the basketball star and his second-oldest daughter, Gianna, Samuelson once helped with Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy girls’ basketball program.

So, as she stood in a quiet XL Center, with the U.S. national team set to face her alma mater, UConn, that same night in an exhibition game, her eyes filled with tears.

“Kobe let me coach one of their practices. So I saw them going into my senior year [in 2018-19],” she said. “They were all kind of goofy, a little bit. But fast-forward to see them [again], and the growth they had made just in that year. They were beautiful girls, beautiful people. It’s just so hard.”

Samuelson and her fellow WNBA players are grieving many losses. In the aftermath of the deaths of Bryant, Gianna (Gigi) and seven others, including two of Gigi’s fellow young basketball players, Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester, in a helicopter accident Sunday in Los Angeles, these current women’s basketball stars couldn’t let go of this: what those young girls with big dreams won’t get to do.

Gigi Bryant had become something of a celebrity as a young player, thanks to the adoration and devotion of her famous father. Gigi was just 13, and we’ll never know if she would have developed into a top-level Division I player, or go on to the WNBA. But she was on the right track.

In interviews with the likes of Jimmy Kimmel and in social media posts, Bryant regularly commented on his daughter’s competitive nature, love for basketball, and mind for the game. He was especially proud of how Gigi would ask specific, detailed questions about strategy, and how her skills kept improving.

“We lost a legend in Kobe,” said Breanna Stewart, an Olympic gold medalist, four-time NCAA champion at UConn and 2018 WNBA MVP. “But you can’t help but think about those kids that were on that helicopter. Obviously, Gigi — everybody saw how she was kind of taking after Kobe with her play.

Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike, the 2016 MVP and WNBA champion, said Gigi was, “symbolic of his legacy, and also the future of women’s basketball.”

Gigi had become a big fan of 11-time national champion UConn, and went to Huskies games with her father, including UConn’s senior day in 2019 for Samuelson and Napheesa Collier. Samuelson said Bryant sent her a text after that game.

“He recorded me walking out with my dad,” Samuelson said. “He said he had to get that moment, because he knew he’d be a wreck if it was him.”

Now Bryant and Gigi won’t have that opportunity. That weighed on Samuelson, who recalled how committed he was to his daughter’s future.

“He took it upon himself to make a difference,” she said, “and show Gigi and those other girls what they could do as basketball players.”

Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird sat next to Bryant and Gigi at he WNBA All-Star Game last July in Las Vegas. The four-time Olympic gold medalist — at the game with girlfriend and U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe — was sidelined with a knee injury. They got a chance to chat with Bryant and Gigi while watching many of the best women’s basketball players in the world.

“He just really wanted to expose Gigi to as much greatness as he could,” Bird said. “He wanted her to meet Megan, to meet me. I know he’s taken his whole family to Megan’s soccer games. He’s been very present in the WNBA. He was going on this journey with his daughter, and I think we could all feel that it was going somewhere special. For him as a father, for her as a future basketball player, for them in that father-daughter relationship.”

For guard Diana Taurasi, who won two NCAA titles at UConn, three in the WNBA with the Phoenix Mercury, and four Olympic gold medals, Bryant was a longtime inspiration. She grew up in Chino, California, as a die-hard Lakers fan.

“He meant so much to a city … that fighting spirit that he had, I think everyone had that in them, and he found a way to make it OK for everyone to be that way,” Taurasi said. “As an athlete when you see someone you share so many things with … there was this common thread that we had. We found comfort in that unapologetic way of playing basketball.

“The sad thing about it is, for as great as he was at playing basketball, the greatest was coming. And you could see it. The last three years, you saw a different human being. You saw this person at peace … he found happiness in the little things, like coaching his daughter. Showing his daughters that they could be more than anything they could have ever thought of being. I think we have a responsibility to make sure that message and mindset is carried on.”

How Bryant’s involvement with women’s basketball would have continued to grow with Gigi’s career has been very much on players’ minds. The WNBA and the players’ union agreed earlier this month to a new eight-year collective-bargaining agreement. Ogwumike, who was heavily involved in the negotiations as president of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association’s executive committee, said the Sparks had talked to Bryant about possibly practicing at his Mamba Sports Academy facility.

Ogwumike added that when the U.S. women’s soccer team had its post-World Cup victory tour game in Los Angeles last year, the Sparks were there in one box, and Bryant, Gigi and the rest of their family in another. Bryant invited the WNBA players into his box and shared amusing stories, including a few about his former teammate, Sparks coach Derek Fisher.

“In the past year, we had developed even more of a relationship with Kobe,” Ogwumike said. “That spoke to his commitment to his daughter and the league. I believe he saw where the league is going, and had that vision. It was reflected in his actions.”

Gigi and her father’s last moments together were spent traveling to a basketball game, something each player on the U.S. squad had done so many times with their own parents while growing up.

“Every tournament my sister [fellow Sparks player Chiney Ogwumike] and I went to as kids, our dad drove us,” Ogwumike said. “I understood that shared love for the game with a family member that is supporting you.

“Especially with signing this new CBA, we were really looking forward to the future of the league. And Gigi was symbolic of that future. To think how she could have lived on, and maybe impacted things … there’s a lot of things we’ll never know and questions we can’t answer. But I do know she was meaningful to women in basketball. It’s a loss for a lot of people that she is gone.”

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