One year ago, Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna Bryant and seven others tragically died in a helicopter crash in Southern California.
The Bryants were on their way to a girls' basketball game at the Mamba Academy. Kobe was their coach. The Los Angeles Lakers legend was a champion of the women's game. He coached his daughter's AAU team, was often seen at women's college basketball games and was just working to establish his post-NBA legacy as a huge advocate for women's basketball.
“I don’t think he got a chance to really establish (a legacy) in our game,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma told the AP after Bryant's death. “The next 30 years, he might have. The next generation of kids who knew his daughter and played with Gigi. He gets involved at a whole another level. He was just getting started.”
Bryant had a connection with a number of WNBA players from Dianna Taurasi to Sue Bird and Jewell Lloyd. He had become close with Sabrina Ionescu prior to his tragic death, helping the then-Oregon star to maximize her talent and become one of the greatest college basketball players in NCAA history.
Bryant's death, however, didn't stop his legacy in the women's game from growing. Warriors star Steph Curry has taken up the mantle as a champion for the game, and has become close with Ionescu as the two Bay Area stars work to build on Bryant's legacy.
“The way that she emulated Kob, in terms of how she approached the game, and her killer instinct and attitude, and just how he resonated with her, and obviously her growing up out here in the Bay and watching me play, there’s definitely a connection there,” Curry told Sports Illustrated's Howard Beck of Ionescu. “It’s pretty awesome to know that, obviously, after his tragic death, that that connection grew even stronger with me and her, just in terms of the opportunity to take what Kob was doing and what his legacy will continue to do in the women’s game and carry that torch.”
Curry, who sponsors a free camp for 200 girls and women, knows how important Kobe's voice was to advancing the women's game and now wants to at the head of that movement. He's been a fierce advocate for equal pay and equal opportunities for female athletes.
“The fact that you have a guy like Kob, that was lending his platform, his voice, resources, his time to champion the women’s game, that obviously is a huge encouragement to continue that mission,” Curry told Beck. “A lot of people really appreciate it more because of how Kobe celebrated and supported the game while he was here.”
Bryant's influence can be felt on and off the court, and his legacy has two torch-bearers in Ionescu and Curry to lead the way.
“ 'You have too much to give to stay silent.’ That’s what he said," Ionescu said at Bryant's memorial. "That’s what he believed. That’s what he lived. Through Gigi, through me, through his investment in women’s basketball. That was his next great act, a girl dad.
“Basketball in many ways was just a metaphor. I still text him even though he’s not here. ‘Thank you for everything. The rest is for you. Rest easy my guy.’ The last one I sent him said, ‘I miss you, may you rest in peace, my dear friend.’ "
Since Bryant's death, Curry and Ionescu have grown close with the now-New York Liberty Star referring to the two-time MVP as a big brother. Curry and Ionescu FaceTimed after her WNBA debut to break down film and go over what went right and what went wrong.
The following game, Ionescu exploded for 33 points, seven assists and seven rebounds, drawing an appropriate reaction from Curry on social media.
Not a day goes by that Bryant's death isn't felt. The tragedy left a vacuous hole in the sporting world that will never be filled. But his legacy will live on and grow each day with Curry and Ionescu serving as the proxies for a legend and champion gone too soon.