Mike Anthony: Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna had a special bond with Geno Auriemma and UConn women’s basketball

Just last March, Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna came and went from Gampel Pavilion without much fanfare. They attended a UConn game and sat behind the Huskies’ bench on a day when Rebecca Lobo had her number retired and seniors Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson were honored.

“He was looking forward to coming up here and bringing his daughter for a daddy-daughter kind of trip, just the two of them,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said afterward. “That’s why we didn’t make such a big deal about it. But, obviously, it was a big deal in a lot of ways.”

That was always going to be a neat snapshot, someone of Bryant’s stature stepping into the proudest corner of our state so his daughter could realize a dream.

And on Sunday, as sharp inhales of disbelief were taken all over the world, that daddy-daughter Gampel moment represents such a sad explanation for what was lost.

Bryant, 41, and Gianna, 13, were killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif., the type of news so inconceivable that a panicky hope initially prevails over the actual gravity of the situation.

 

My phone started buzzing with text messages around 2:40 p.m.

Holy [bleep] Kobe Bryant died

What?

Just heard Kobe Bryant died??

You hope it’s not real. You hope TMZ really screwed up. You hope to see or hear something that makes sense, because seeing pictures of smoke rising from a Southern California hillside and hearing that Bryant was gone simply did not.

 
Gianna sits on the shoulders of her father, Kobe Bryant, as they attend a U.S.-China soccer match in 2014 in San Diego.
Gianna sits on the shoulders of her father, Kobe Bryant, as they attend a U.S.-China soccer match in 2014 in San Diego. (Lenny Ignelzi / AP)

It was real, of course, and increasingly horrifying as details trickled out of the Los Angeles area. Bryant and Gianna, often referred to as Gigi, were among nine killed, one of the more stunning tragedies in sports history and news of global impact. They were reportedly on their way to one of Gianna’s basketball games and left the world together, a final and devastating reminder of how beautiful their relationship was.

Bryant, a father of four daughters with wife Vanessa, was courtside at many Lakers games lately, often with Gianna. Just Saturday night he was active on social media to congratulate LeBron James for passing him and moving into third place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.Then came Sunday afternoon’s relentless, real-time news cycle that kept getting worse.

“Shocking,” Auriemma wrote in a text message. “Beyond comprehension.”

Auriemma didn’t want to talk about it, though.

“No words right now,” he wrote.

Bryant’s death was sure to elicit so many unique emotions across the world — including here in Connecticut, up at UConn, in and around Auriemma’s program. That is where Bryant’s mentorship of his daughter started becoming an endearing, or at least visible, story.

Bryant was a good friend of Auriemma’s and a major UConn supporter.

Gianna loved Gabby Williams and dreamed of playing for Auriemma and the Huskies — so much so that Bryant once famously declared that his daughter was “hellbent” on attending UConn.

Bryant and Auriemma, another Philly guy, got to know each other at the 2012 London Olympics and kept in touch. Bryant attended several UConn road games over the years, and he brought Gianna to the Huskies’ game at UCLA in November 2017. Months later, at the Final Four in Columbus, Ohio, Bryant and his family sat behind the UConn bench. He wore a Huskies hat and watched as UConn’s season ended on Arike Ogunbowale’s overtime buzzer-beater.

Five days later, I sat in Auriemma’s office and said, “Can you put me in touch with Kobe?”

“Really?” Auriemma said.

Of course, I told him. Here was one of the biggest stars in the world following around Auriemma’s team. Auriemma chuckled and started texting.

An hour later, a Bryant representative contacted me, asking that I send a formal email request to speak to Bryant. But before I could actually do that, my phone rang. I was in a crowded break room on the second floor of The Courant’s Broad Street offices.

Caller ID read “Newport Beach, CA.” I was in no position to take notes or record the conversation, but you don’t necessarily get more than one shot with a call from someone like Kobe Bryant.

Hello?

“Hey, Mike, what’s up? It’s Kobe …”

We spoke for about 15 minutes, the first five of which were panic on my part. I had to get away from the crowd, work my way back downstairs to the newsroom. I’d ask Kobe a question and put the phone to my side, asking reporters and editors for a digital recorder as he began to answer.

I was only slightly less mentally disheveled for the rest of the call, pacing around the building, opening heavy doors, going up and down stairwells trying to find a quiet place without interruption.

Bryant couldn’t have been more gracious or thoughtful in talking about UConn, women’s basketball … and Gianna.

“My daughter loves Gabby Williams, absolutely loves Gabby, loves [all of them],” Bryant said. “She watches their interviews, watches how they play and learns — not just in wins, but in tough losses, how they conduct themselves. It’s great, as a parent, to be able to see my daughter pull inspiration from them.”

Lakers legend Kobe Bryant attends a 2017 UConn-UCLA game in Los Angeles with, from left, daughter Gianna, wife Vanessa and daughter Natalia.
Lakers legend Kobe Bryant attends a 2017 UConn-UCLA game in Los Angeles with, from left, daughter Gianna, wife Vanessa and daughter Natalia. (Reed Saxon / AP)

Remembering the excitement and pride in Bryant’s voice breaks my heart today. I didn’t know the man, but he was kind to me that day. He was in no rush to hang up. His passion for women’s basketball came through, as did his admiration for UConn.

“The fluidity with which they play, because they all play for each other,” Bryant said. “There’s not a lot of dribbling. It’s, ‘We know how to play with each other.’ And, continuously. That ball moves, and they go. They know how to recognize and read a defense, and I think that’s attributed to Geno understanding that it’s way more important to teach players how to fish instead of telling them where the fish are.”

Auriemma got a kick out of Bryant. That I know. He noted during the London experience Kobe would keep doing basketball drills while other USA teammates were done and off together. Auriemma isn’t the first to essentially refer to Bryant as a bit of a loner.

Auriemma introduced himself to Bryant by telling him he once got the better of his father, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, on a Philadelphia playground. And when Bryant told Auriemma he’d win an Oscar for his 2017 animated short film, “Dear Basketball,” Auriemma said, “What do you know about making movies?”

Nothing, Bryant told him. “But I surrounded myself with people who know everything.”

Bryant won an Oscar.

“You know what’s great?” Auriemma said in 2018. “He lets his daughters be the center of attention. He just stays in the background, like, ‘I’m not trying to be Kobe Bryant today.’ But for sure [players are in awe]. Everybody is. I mean, he’s Kobe Bryant.”

He was the dad of a little girl who dreamed of playing at UConn, a little girl he shared a basketball life with. Bryant never offered any past or present UConn players much advice when he visited the locker room. It wasn’t about that. It wasn’t about him.

“There’s nothing for me to really say,” Bryant said, “other than to just be a dad and enjoy them adopting my daughter as if she’s their little sister.”

 

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