For Mambacita
Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna Bryant, attend a basketball game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks on December 29, 2019, in Los Angeles. Photo: Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images

For Mambacita

Gianna Bryant wanted to dominate the court with the Mamba Mentality her father invented

A tiny powerhouse came across my timeline a few years ago, playing a mean game of one-on-one with a future NBA Hall of Famer. The setup was adorable yet fierce: Gianna “Mambacita” Bryant stayed toe-to-toe with her father, Kobe Bryant, her small frame seemingly quadrupled by his. With quick footwork, she executed her layup, and a viral darling was born.

The impact of 13-year-old Gianna Bryant may have been fleeting, but it was breathtaking. As she entered her teen years, it was clear she wasn’t interested in being a thing of beauty or a socialite influencer like so many of her peers — she wanted to dominate the court with the Mamba Mentality her father invented.

This is the part where I admit that, enthusiasm aside, I’ve never been much of an athlete. In high school, I once had to stay in gym class until I made a single basket; let’s just say my PE teacher didn’t try to recruit me for the junior varsity team. Aside from completing a couple half marathons, my stat sheet is pretty bare. But I’ve been a sports fan my entire life — and seeing Gigi attached to Kobe’s hip, learning as much as she could about the sport she loved, reminds me of me and my dad.

Kobe was never my guy. It was only later, watching him play ball with his daughter on social media, that my respect blossomed into genuine admiration.

Papi didn’t play sports once I was born, but he worked at Yankee Stadium for 47 years, and like Gigi and Kobe, we knew our way around a legendary stadium. And my dad, a sports Wikipedia in his own right, could count on his daughter to share one of the greatest joys of his life over burgers and cans of Pepsi. To this day, our phone calls begin with a sports recap and practically end with a sports forecast.

Kobe Bryant was never my guy; I was a huge Michael Jordan fan as a kid, and then a die-hard LeBron James fan from the first time he put on a Cavs jersey. But growing up alongside Kobe, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the fact that he was an NBA giant by the age of 18, not to mention that he took Brandy Norwood (the one and only Moesha!) to her prom. It was only later, watching him play ball with his daughter on social media, that my respect blossomed into genuine admiration. And it piqued further when he started the Mamba Sports Academy, with a focal point on girls’ basketball. He knew his daughter had immense talent and would shine in her own right.

As Kobe mentioned in a 2018 interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live, fans constantly asked him how he felt about not having a son to carry on his NBA legacy. “I’ve got this,” his daughter told him. “We don’t need a boy for that.” And she was right — not just a descendant of the best, but in a perfect position to learn what excellence looks like. The fact that Kobe empowered his daughter with that confidence is what turned me into a true fan, years after his retirement.

In the last viral clip of the dad-and-daughter duo, filmed while they sat courtside at a December NBA game, Kobe talks Gigi through the thinking behind the play unfolding on the court — only to have Gigi finish his sentence with a grin. They enjoyed not only a tight bond but also a mind-meld; the 13-year-old had picked up every single note from her dad.

Much can and will be said about Kobe’s legacy, on and off the court. A figure that dominating, that record-shattering, and that complex deems it necessary. But it’s Gianna Maria Bryant who changed me. Whenever she has come across my timeline, sinking shots in heels or breaking her dad’s ankles (as I know she will remain for years to come), it’s a reminder of what women and girls can do. What I can do. It’s the energy we all deserve — when you’re validated and you have the confidence to know you’ve got this. It’s the same energy I’ve given my dad when I made game-changing moves in my own career, when I landed my scholarship at NYU: I’ve got this, Pops. Don’t worry.

Learning yesterday that Kobe Bryant had been killed in a helicopter crash was a gut punch. Hearing soon after that Gigi died alongside him — Gigi, whose promise wouldn’t just extend her father’s legacy but would establish her own — makes it unbearable. To know that this little light of hope and diesel power is gone is a devastating blow that won’t ever entirely heal correctly in my heart.

Hoping it was all just a Twitter nightmare, I prayed I’d wake up today to different news. Instead, I stayed in bed a little longer to mourn. Scrolling my timeline, I spotted little Gianna, her long hair sleek like a tween who’d just found the beauty of a good blowout, alone on a court somewhere, sinking shots. I got out of bed; it was time, I knew, to channel my own Mamba Mentality. As Kobe taught Gigi, I’d have to remember the approach in his own words: “It takes a lot of work to be successful, and people will celebrate that flash and hype. Behind that hype, though, is dedication, focus, and seriousness — all of which outsiders will never see.”

I owe it to Gigi. Because I know that little one is up there, dunking on the sun.