University of Oregon women’s basketball star Sabrina Ionescu said she sees a lot of Kobe Bryant in herself.
She also saw a lot of Bryant’s big smile and competitive intensity in his 13 year-old daughter. Gianna Bryant died with her father and seven other people in a helicopter crash last month.
At a mostly somber and emotional memorial in Los Angeles on Monday, Ionescu provided a lighter moment when she remembered sitting next to Bryant at one of his daughter’s games.
“I remember one time, someone grabbed [Gianna’s] jersey and she sort of just knocked them down and stepped right over them,” Ionescu said.
“Me and Kobe looked at each other, smiling, and he goes, ‘I don’t know where she learned that from,’” Ionescu said.
“I laughed and said, ‘I do.’”
Unlike NBA Hall of Famers Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal, who knew Kobe for decades, Ionescu’s relationship with the Bryants started just a year ago.
Ionescu recalled feeling awestruck at first meeting Kobe Bryant after a game between Ionescu’s Ducks and University of Southern California in L.A. The meeting started a mentoring relationship between Bryant and Ionescu. It also sparked a connection between Ionescu and Gianna Bryant, who sat courtside at that UO game with her young teammates. Ionescu knew Bryant’s daughter as “Gigi.”
“I remember Gigi — excited and smiling in the locker room — I’d always watch a ton of film of her playing basketball,” Ionescu said. “She had a fade away better than mine.”
Ionescu could already predict that Gigi, 13, was on track to being an elite basketball player with her pick of college programs. Ionescu said the younger Bryant’s heart was set on playing for University of Connecticut, a perennial women’s basketball powerhouse.
“Whichever school she would come to choose, it didn’t matter,” Ionescu said.
Ionescu worked out with the Bryants over the summer of 2019. When the college season started, she would get text messages from Kobe Bryant after her games, sometimes punctuated by “flex emojis,” she said.
Ionescu said she felt Kobe and Gigi were on the verge of a big new chapter.
“If I represented the present of the women’s game, Gigi was the future,” she said, “and Kobe knew it.”
Ionescu described having a hard time coming to terms with the Bryants’ deaths. She struggled to talk about them in the “past tense.”
Ionescu recalled a recent road game for the Ducks in Colorado. She said she prays before every game, and before the Colorado game she asked for a message from Kobe. She said she looked outside to see a glowing sunset of “Laker yellow” and a helicopter flying in the distance.
Ionescu concluded by calling on Bryant’s friends, family and fans gathered at the Staples Center to honor Kobe by supporting college basketball. And by remembering what was going to be his next accomplishment: his daughter’s career.
“In the end, she was a sun just starting to rise, and God, did she glow,” Ionescu said. “May their light forever shine. Kobe and Gigi, I’ll love you forever. Thank you.”