Photo courtesy Phoenix Mercury

By Jesse Morrison
Cronkite News

Whether it was winning NBA championships, securing Olympic gold medals or serving as an ambassador for the international game, Kobe Bryant’s impact stretched far and wide.

That included his support of women’s basketball.

“He had a voice,” says Ann Meyers Drysdale, Phoenix Mercury vice president and television analyst. “He gave it credibility. … Steph Curry or Vince Carter or LeBron James … a lot of these guys that have daughters but they’re not involved. They don’t support the WNBA; they don’t support women in sport. They can say it but it’s all a mouthpiece. They’re not involved like Kobe was.

“Kobe went out and did it. He came to the game. Kobe came and supported it because of his daughter. … I would like to hope that there are other players out there that would be as supportive. … Kobe gave it life.”

The former UCLA standout knew Bryant personally and said he was always “very cordial” in their interactions. She was invited to work with his daughter Gianna “Gigi,” 13, who also lost her life in the helicopter crash on Sunday in Calabasas, California.

Recently, Bryant was turning heads with his support of women’s basketball. This support was boosted by Gigi’s passion for the game.

Bryant’s support of women’s basketball included attending the WNBA all-star game with Gigi in 2019 and becoming friends with Oregon phenom Sabrina Ionescu. He even analyzed Ionescu’s game in an episode of his ESPN+ show, “Detail” last year when Oregon advanced to the final four.

“It’s just awesome to have that affirmation from one of the best ever,” says longtime Arizona State women’s basketball coach Charli Turner Thorne, who grew up a Los Angeles Lakers fan. “It’s interesting when really, really powerful people or really, really successful people or really, really talented people have daughters because a lot of times, clearly, sports is dominated by men. … When somebody like that recognizes and has an appreciation for the women’s game, it’s amazing. It helps a lot, too.”

And players in the women’s game showed a tremendous appreciation for Bryant, including ASU starting point guard Reili Richardson. Richardson, a Brea, California, native, says as a kid she would buy a new pair of Kobe Bryant’s signature Nike shoes “every two weeks.”

Richardson once encountered Bryant at a California grocery store, so excited to interact with one of the game’s greats that she kept returning to the store after that, hoping to see him again.

“He was just a big impact to not only basketball, but just the world in general,” Richardson says. “A lot of kids looked up to him growing up. I know I played basketball and I looked up to him when I was younger.”

Richardson also appreciated Gigi’s basketball ability, attending a game of hers when her team played in the Phoenix area last year.

“She just had great IQ for the game, and she was only 13 years old,” Richardson says. “She was going to be good.”

Bryant brought Gigi’s AAU team to a Phoenix Mercury practice in May to surprise his good friend and fellow Olympian Diana Taurasi, along with the rest of the Mercury team. Just last week, Bryant told CNN that he thought Taurasi could play in the NBA.

“The biggest thing is that Kobe was generous enough to come into the locker room but that’s who he was,” Meyers Drysdale says. “It didn’t matter who you are … he would go out of his way. And always had a smile on his face. He and Diana were close because of the Olympics. And he was the Black Mamba and he gave her the name White Mamba. … Certainly was exciting for all the players and everybody with the Mercury organization for him to come through.”

Meyers Drysdale said it is evident how much Los Angeles sports fans revere the athletes they cheered for, especially at moments like these when a star dies unexpectedly. Drysdale saw that firsthand following the death of her husband, Los Angeles Dodgers Hall of Fame pitcher Don Drysdale, who passed away suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 56 in 1993.