LOS ANGELES -- I have always been Team Shaq. While always having the utmost respect for Kobe Bryant’s talent, drive and accomplishments, Shaquille O’Neal was who I sided with when I felt I had to choose between the legendary Los Angeles Lakers stars.
My opinion changed Monday, nearly one month after Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif.
Upon hearing countless stories about Bryant’s support of his daughters during his "Celebration of Life" at Staples Center, I was introduced to a different side of the five-time NBA Champion.
It's unfortunate that we often don’t appreciate what we have until it's gone. What was shared by several women Monday, including Bryant’s wife Vanessa, was how much of an advocate he was for his daughters as a "girl dad" and to women as a coach and mentor.
Being a woman in a man's industry or sport is challenging, and the men who support us are invaluable. That’s what Bryant did by supporting his daughters in every way possible. Women don’t want special treatment or favoritism, just fair opportunities and inclusion.
University of Oregon point guard Sabrina Ionescu might have given the best examples of how Bryant did this in her moving and emotional speech. The NCAA's all-time leader in career triple-doubles (25) detailed how Bryant spoke to her as he would have spoken to any aspiring player, regardless of their gender.
“Wake up, grind, get better,” Ionescu recalled Bryant advising.
Ionescu continued, explaining how technical their discussions would be about her play on the court. Bryant was as relentless in his coaching as he was as a player.
Not just because he knew she could handle it, but because it would make her better. Bryant, most importantly, believed in Ionescu and wanted her to believe in herself just as much.
He inspired her, telling the Oregon star that “[being] born different doesn’t mean being born behind."
Lakers vice president of basketball operations Rob Pelinka was Bryant's agent for two decades. He might have been the last person to communicate with Bryant, too, texting him moments before the crash.
What was so important to Bryant on that fateful Sunday morning to prompt several texts? Assisting fellow helicopter passenger, John Altobelli’s surviving daughter Alexis in getting an internship with a baseball agent who was acquainted with Pelinka.
“Kobe vouched for the girl’s character, intellect and work ethic,” Pelinka said. “He clearly wanted to champion a bright future for her.”
No matter how big or how small his acts of support were, Bryant did everything he could to be “girl dad” and mentor to women in sports.
Honestly, for the Basketball Hall of Famer, that might be his most important accomplishment of all.