Why the W.N.B.A. Loved Kobe Bryant

Brittney Griner #42 of Team Delle Donne speaks with Kobe Bryant during the 2019 AT&T W.N.B.A. All-Star Game in Las Vegas. Credit Brian Babineau/NBAE, via Getty Images
Brittney Griner #42 of Team Delle Donne speaks with Kobe Bryant during the 2019 AT&T W.N.B.A. All-Star Game in Las Vegas. Credit Brian Babineau/NBAE, via Getty Images

In 2013 my college team, the California Golden Bears, made it to the final four of the national championship. One day in the locker room our coach, Lindsey Gottlieb, told us there was a surprise. She projected a grainy cellphone video of a personal message from Kobe Bryant wishing us luck. We lost to Louisville in the semifinal, but Kobe’s belief in us stuck.

I grew up watching him play for the Los Angeles Lakers, and I learned to mimic his moves on the court. He perfected the jab step, pump fake, Euro step, up and unders and pivots. His game was technical — he was an athletic freak of nature, sure, but he was a thinker of the game, and so cerebral.

Kobe could score against people a half-foot taller than he. That mattered to me. Most women aren’t 6-foot-6 and up. But we could watch Kobe and do what he did. His style and discipline translate no matter your size — and no matter your gender. It’s about how you pivot, how you move your shoulders, your position against your defender. Your patience. Your first step.

This is where his thumbprint is squarely over the W.N.B.A. — in our technique and how we approach the sport. A basketball rim is 10 feet above the ground. While many of us can go above the rim, we’re not 6 foot 10 inches tall like Anthony Davis or even 6 foot 8 inches tall like LeBron James. We don’t have a safety net of size. Kobe’s game was the same — he didn’t use a safety net.

It was Kobe’s way of playing that women 5 foot 6 inches or 6 foot 4 inches could study and put into their repertoire. When you look at the career of someone like Diana Taurasi, the greatest scorer the W.N.B.A. has ever seen, you see someone who can get their shot anywhere on the court against any type of defense. Diana took a page from Kobe’s playbook.

Perhaps the young women’s basketball player Kobe influenced the most was his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, who also lost her life in Sunday’s tragedy. In recent years, it was clear that he was teaching her everything he knew about basketball. Gianna dreamed of playing for the UConn Huskies, and then for the W.N.B.A. And like everything Kobe did, he went after his daughter’s basketball dreams with vigor. Kobe knew that the best technical basketball players are women.

He wasn’t asking his daughter to wait until she was taller or stronger or bigger. He showed her that she, at 5 foot 10 inches, could do all of this now. What it takes to succeed in basketball is the commitment to be in the gym for hours and hours, practicing footwork, ballhandling and shot technique. I can only imagine he told her that every day as he reminded her of her potential.

I’m sure he was instilling in her the same work ethic that my teammates and I use while training. Kobe could work on the most minuscule component of a single move for hours. Not the whole fadeaway, but just the plant, turn and pivot — then the knees and hips, then the shoulders and elbow. If his right hand was mending from a break, he would practice with his left.

In his last N.B.A. game — after healing from a ruptured Achilles, a fractured left knee and a torn rotator cuff — he still scored 60 points. He was 37 years old at the time. No one could top him.

This was one of many high points in his career, but there were low points, too. In a civil suit filed in 2004 and settled out of court in 2005, Kobe was accused of rape. He ultimately issued an apology to the young woman who made the allegations, saying he had come to understand that she didn’t see their encounter as consensual.

Still, many survivors of sexual assault and members of the public don’t feel he faced proper accountability for what they believe happened that night. I can’t say that I have reconciled my thoughts about this incident with how I feel about his legacy of support for women’s basketball. Seventeen years later, I confront this dissonance even as I celebrate his lasting impact on the sport I love.

The W.N.B.A.’s inaugural season was 23 years ago. Bigotry, sexism and phobias have shaped attitudes toward women’s basketball. The maximum W.N.B.A. base salary recently increased to $215,000 from $117,500. The N.B.A. salary cap, in contrast, is $109.14 million.

My basketball career is supported by women like Maya Moore who, in 2011, became the first female basketball player to sign with Nike’s Jordan brand; Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike and Layshia Clarendon, who served on the executive committee of the W.N.B.A. players’ union and helped negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement that increased the players’ salary cap by 30 percent; and Becky Hammon, who in 2014 became the first full-time female assistant coach in the N.B.A.

For years, these players have spoken out in articles in The Players’ Tribune, on sport talk shows and panels to demand more respect — and fair compensation — for our sport. For that, these women deserve never-ending applause and gratitude.

But as in every equity movement, allies are needed. And Kobe was an ally.

In January 2019 he visited the Oregon women’s team when they were in Los Angeles playing the University of Southern California. He became friends with Oregon’s up-and-coming star Sabrina Ionescu. Last March he showed up with his daughter Gianna to cheer on the UConn Huskies in their game against Houston.

What began as Kobe being a great father organically grew into genuine fandom for the women’s game. He didn’t force his presence or praise. Mamba was simply a fan, and that sent an important message.

“There’s no better way to learn than to watch the pros do it,” Kobe said after he took his daughter’s club basketball team to watch the Los Angeles Sparks play the Las Vegas Aces in May. “The W.N.B.A. is a beautiful game to watch.”

In an interview with CNN last week he said that the W.N.B.A. players Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore and Elena Delle Donne “could play in the N.B.A. right now, honestly.”

What Kobe did, consciously or not, was give male sports fans a curiosity about why an all-time N.B.A. great found so much joy and pleasure in women’s basketball. He spent time with W.N.B.A. players, who were his peers. He casually mentioned their names in interviews, tweets and Instagram posts, prompting people to learn about the world-class athletes that they were late to discover.

Kobe Bryant, the scorer, the ultimate alpha, was ridiculed his entire career for not passing the ball enough. I hope he’s remembered for passing the ball to women.

Talia Caldwell is a professional women’s basketball player.

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