Kobe Bryant was one of the biggest advocates for both the WNBA and women’s basketball as a whole.
It’s only fitting that on Friday — nearly three months after he and eight others died in a helicopter crash outside of Los Angeles — that Bryant’s legacy was front and center during the WNBA draft.
“Kobe was not only a legendary basketball star, but a devoted youth coach, and had a tremendous impact on countless young players,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said while kicking off the draft. “I met Kobe last fall and after he left our office I remember thinking that his passion for the WNBA and girls basketball was unparalleled from anyone else I had ever met.”
Honoring Gigi, Alyssa and Payton
Before announcing that Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu had been selected by the New York Liberty with the No. 1 overall pick, Engelbert had three other draft picks to announce first.
The WNBA selected Bryant’s daughter, Gianna, and two of her teammates, Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester, as honorary picks in the draft. The three of them died in the helicopter crash with Bryant in January. The touching tribute included video messages from the girls’ families, including from Bryant’s wife, Vanessa.
“It would have been a dream come true for her,” Vanessa said. “She worked tirelessly every single day. She wanted to be one of the greatest athletes of all time, just like her daddy. So thank you, thank you for honoring my little girl. Kobe and Gigi loved the WNBA.”
The ‘Kobe and Gigi Bryant Advocacy Award’
The league didn’t stop there.
At the end of the draft, the WNBA announced the new “Kobe and Gigi Bryant WNBA Advocacy Award,” which will recognize “an individual or group that made significant contributions to the visibility, perception and advancement of women’s and girl’s basketball at all levels.”
The first recipient of the award will be announced at the 2021 WNBA All-Star Game. Vanessa will play a part in both choosing the honoree and presenting the award during the festivities, too.
“We look forward to seeing who will carry the torch in years to come,” Engelbert said, before closing in true Mamba fashion. “Thank you. WNBA, out.”
The WNBA announces the league is creating the Kobe and Gigi Bryant WNBA Advocacy Award.
It will recognize those who make contributions to the visibility, perception and advancement of girls’ and womens’ basketball. pic.twitter.com/AP5B8TopFQ
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 18, 2020
Bryant’s advocacy for the WNBA is rubbing off
Bryant’s dedication to the women’s game was immeasurable.
The former Los Angeles Lakers star was constantly attending games, working with numerous women’s players like Ionescu, coaching his daughter’s team and more. The biggest names in women’s basketball showed up in force to his memorial at the Staples Center, too, where Diana Taurasi — one of the best players in WNBA history — Ionescu and UConn coach Geno Auriemma — the greatest coach in the sport’s history — all gave moving tributes. If his impact on the game wasn’t clear before, it certainly was that day.
His efforts to help shake the stigma surrounding women’s basketball didn’t end with his death, either.
Following in Bryant’s footsteps, countless NBA players took to social media during the draft on Friday night to congratulate the WNBA’s newest players.
Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant welcomed Ionescu to Brooklyn, where the two will both play at the Barclays Center. Plenty of other players followed suit with similar posts throughout the draft, welcoming players to their respective cities with shoutouts, retweets and more.
Thanks in large part to Bryant, women’s basketball at the professional level on down is as big as it’s ever been. As evident on Friday night, his impact on the sport is going to be felt for a long, long time.
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