HARTFORD, Conn. — Geno Auriemma remembers one of the first times Gianna Bryant came to a UConn basketball game. He doesn’t recall the exact year, but he can vividly describe the look in her eyes.
“She was a little kid looking up at our players,” Auriemma said. “She was so excited. Imagine the absurdity of that. Your father is Kobe Bryant and the most excited you’ve been in a long time is being around college women’s basketball players. But that’s what it meant to her, what she aspired to be.
“You’ve got Gigi and her role models and people she looks up to, and then you’ve got our players looking at her dad. It was a real head-shaking scene. When she came up here on campus, if she could have stayed, I think she would have stayed.”
Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna (often referred to as Gigi) were among nine people tragically killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif. on Sunday morning. They were on their way to one of Gigi’s basketball games at the Mamba Sports Academy. While there will be plenty said and written about Bryant’s legacy, one major part will include his advocacy for the women’s game, which ran through Gigi.
Shockwaves quickly made their way to Connecticut on Sunday afternoon, where No. 4 UConn and the U.S. national team were preparing for a friendly exhibition game on Monday night. So many of those players knew and had relationships with Bryant and Gigi. The matchup was originally supposed to be a reunion that included a pregame program honoring the 2009 and 2010 national championship teams, and welcoming home so many former UConn players on Team USA like Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird, Tina Charles and Diana Taurasi. All of those things still went as planned, but with mixed emotions.
It helped that the tone inside the XL Center was set early through various Bryant tributes. Coaches wore purple and gold ribbons on their lapels. Skylar Diggins-Smith laced up purple and gold sneakers. Before tipoff, players from both teams circled up at midcourt for a 24-second moment of silence, which was followed by 8- and 24-second violations to open the game. There were a few “Kobe! Kobe!” chants from the crowd, too.
The most beautiful and classy touch, though, was that UConn reserved a seat in the middle of its bench with flowers and a No. 2 jersey for Gigi, who dreamed of playing for the Huskies and in the WNBA. Like her dad, Gigi was competitive and had a love for the game. She was on track to play a role in the future of women’s basketball.
Bryant was a huge UConn supporter and took Gigi to games at Gampel Pavilion and on the road. In November 2017, Bryant and his family sat courtside at a UConn game at UCLA and Gigi visited the locker room after, taking pictures with the team. A few months later, the Bryants sat behind the team’s bench at the 2018 Final Four. And one time, when Reggie Miller tried to convince Bryant that Gigi should go to UCLA, he said his daughter was “hellbent on UConn” instead.
“The love you saw when she came through the gym, we knew that she really wanted to be a part of this someday,” said UConn starting point guard Crystal Dangerfield. “That was probably the biggest thing that hit for me. She won’t have that opportunity. Growing up I had the dream to be here and to know that she won’t have that, it hurts.”
UConn players considered Gigi their little sister and Dangerfield had a feeling they were going to see the Bryant family soon, with big games against the national team and a home matchup against No. 3 Oregon next week.
“Disbelief,” Dangerfield said. “It’s just so unfortunate.”
Auriemma had a bond with Bryant. They met at the 2012 London Olympics and instantly clicked. They were both Philly guys—Auriemma played against Bryant’s father, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, in high school—and they both spoke Italian. A scene that will forever stay with Auriemma was one practice during those Olympics. The U.S. men’s team had an off day, but Bryant was in the gym during the women’s practice working out.
“Watching him workout by himself and having my team just stand there at their half of the court just staring at him doing his workout and being mesmerized by how many shots—shot after shot after shot after shot—went in,” Auriemma said. “I just shook my head and said, ‘This is why he is who he is.’ This is their off day and he’s in there killing it.”
Bird, who sat next to Bryant and Gigi at the WNBA All-Star Game last July, also got to know Bryant at the Olympics. The four-time Olympic gold medalist remembers one night during the 2008 Games in Beijing—a few months removed from the Lakers losing to the Celtics in the NBA Finals—that a bunch of players were playing cards. Bryant, though, was sitting there flipping through a newspaper. He came across a picture of Paul Pierce and ripped it out. “He looked at us and folded it up and put it in his pocket and said, ‘This is motivation,’” Bird said. “That’s who he was, you know? He was kind of joking as he did it, but he was also dead serious. They talk about the Mamba Mentality. It really never stopped.”
A game was played on Monday. And for a while, things were a little too close for Team USA, which ended up winning 79-64 with a 27-13 edge in the fourth quarter. Minnesota Lynx center Sylvia Fowles led the pros with 19 points and Megan Walker scored 22 for UConn. The big storyline heading in was about Stewart, who was making her highly anticipated comeback playing in her first game since rupturing her Achilles last April in the EuroLeague Championship Game. As to be expected, she didn’t look herself yet, hitting one three-pointer in the opening minutes. Stewart, who wears No. 10 just like Bryant did when he played for the national team, went 1-for-7, added three rebounds and was limited to 17 minutes on the floor.
The U.S. and UConn both have work to do—with the national team gearing up for the Summer Olympics in Tokyo and the Huskies hoping to make a Final Four run. This game was always going to be more about the nostalgia and overall experience rather than the final score or anyone’s performance. It was still all that, just missing two of the teams’ greatest supporters.