By TIM REYNOLDS, AP Basketball Writer
She had next.
Her name was Gianna Maria Onore Bryant. The world, now and forever, knows her as Gigi. Her dad, Kobe Bryant, called her Mambacita. He was Mamba, of course, and she was going to be basketball’s female version of him. She was going to play at Connecticut and head to the WNBA. That was the plan.
Over the years, the world watched her grow from a baby in her father’s arms, to a small child trying to hold his Finals MVP trophy, to his companion at WNBA, college and NBA games around the country, listening to her father break down play and watching every detail on the court, just as he always did.
In this July 26, 2018 file photo former Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna watch the U.S. national championships swimming meet in Irvine, Calif. Bryant, the 18-time NBA All-Star who won five championships and became one of the greatest basketball players of his generation during a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, died in a helicopter crash Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. Gianna also died in the crash. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson, file)
“Gigi was really turning into a special player,” said Russ Davis, the women’s basketball coach at Vanguard University in Southern California and someone who became close with Bryant in recent years. “It’s hard to predict her future, but with the way she was improving and the way she understood the game, she was going to have a bright one.”
Gigi was 13. She was one of the nine people, her father also among them, on the helicopter that crashed Sunday morning into a hillside in Calabasas, California, as the group made its way to a basketball tournament where she was supposed to be playing. The helicopter burst into flames. All nine — including two of her teammates — died, officials said.
Kobe and Vanessa Bryant had four daughters. Gigi was the baller of the group. She was going to carry on the Bryant name in basketball. Few things in life made Bryant happier than that realization.
“I try to watch as much film as I can,” Gigi said in an interview with Las Vegas CBS affiliate KLAS in 2019, when she and her dad attended the Las Vegas Aces’ WNBA opener. “More information, more inspiration.”
She was even sounding like her dad.
The film study was working. So, too, was the five- or six- or seven-times-a-week workouts that Bryant would host for Gigi and her teammates on the team he coached. They ran the triangle offense, the one Bryant had so much success with during his career. Grown men, professionals, the best players in the world, struggled with the triangle. Bryant had preteen girls figuring it out.
“He never yelled or anything,” Davis said. “They just listened to him.”
Earlier this month, Bryant posted a short video clip of Gigi in a game. The sequence: dribble-drive, pass to the corner, post up, wait for the ball to come back, catch, footwork, shoot the fadeaway.
Her father’s unstoppable fadeaway.
She scored. Of course.
“Gigi getting better every day,” her dad wrote.
Bryant and Gigi went to a UConn home game against Houston last March. Bryant wore a UConn shirt — just like Gigi was — and told SNY television during an in-game interview that he was thrilled that one of his daughters wanted to follow in his sneakers and take up the family basketball business.
“It’s pretty cool. It’s pretty cool,” Bryant said. “She started out playing soccer, which I love. But she came to me about a year and a half ago and said, ‘Can you teach me the game?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ We started working a little bit and the next thing you know it became a true passion of hers. So, it’s wonderful.”
Many of Gigi’s favorite players had UConn ties, like Katie Lou Samuelson — she had played for Davis, which led to the initial connection between him and Bryant — and Gabby Williams.
“From what I saw,” Williams said Monday, “she was going to be heaps better than me.”
Williams was floored when Gigi told her she was her favorite player. She would FaceTime with the Bryants before games, gave Gigi her Chicago Sky uniforms, even practiced with Gigi and her teammates and was blown away by how hard she had to play against them.
“She had the right mentality, so confident, relentless, so mean and aggressive,” Williams said. “And then (she would) walk off the court with the biggest, sweetest smile on her face. But my favorite part about her was just seeing how much she loved the game and loved to learn.
“It’s intimidating to have to follow in those footsteps,” Williams added, “but she really embraced it.”
The UConn allegiance made all the sense in the world. Bryant played in Los Angeles, but he was a Philadelphia guy. So is UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who was heartbroken by the news of the crash Sunday. UConn has been the gold standard in the women’s college game for a generation, driven by excellence. Bryant identified with that quality.
UConn was aware of Gigi’s affinity for the Huskies and paid a fitting tribute. Before its game with the U.S. women’s national team Monday night, UConn draped a No. 2 jersey with a bouquet of flowers across it on the team’s bench. Gigi wore No. 2 for her dad’s team.
Jewell Loyd of the WNBA’s Seattle Storm knew plenty about Gigi. Loyd sponsors an AAU team in Seattle. They played against Bryant’s team, and over the years Loyd and Bryant forged an extremely special, extremely close bond. They looked at one another as family.
Her description of Gigi? “Awesome,” Loyd said.
“When I went to work out with Kobe, most kids her age would be on the tablet,” Loyd said. “She stayed still and watched the entire time. Didn’t say anything. She was studying the game of basketball. If that didn’t say Kobe, I don’t know what does.”
Even NBA players were impressed. Atlanta’s Trae Young couldn’t believe it when Bryant told him that Gigi was a huge fan of his and was trying to emulate parts of his game. So Young paid tribute Sunday by opening a Hawks game in a No. 8 jersey, before switching back to his customary No. 11.
Afterward, Young recalled some of his final conversation with Bryant.
“He said how proud he was of me and how he wants me to continue to be a role model for kids growing up, for Gigi,” Young said.
There were similarities in how father and daughter looked — the dark, piercing eyes, especially — but Loyd also saw similarities in the way father and daughter played the game. Both, she said, were methodical. Both were willing to outwork their opponents. Gigi knew who her father was and knew that meant a lot of eyeballs would be on her, that comparisons between her and her dad on the court were going to be inevitable.
Gigi didn’t care, either.
She wanted to be like Dad.
“That’s his legacy,” Loyd said.
That’s now Gigi’s legacy as well.
AP Basketball Writer Doug Feinberg in New York contributed to this story.
More AP coverage of the life and death of Kobe Bryant: https://apnews.com/KobeBryant