Why The WNBA Honorary Draft Picks of Gianna, Alyssa and Payton Means So Much
It’s been almost three months since that fateful Sunday morning in late January when activities were disrupted by breaking news that confirmed the unfathomable.
Iconic basketball superstar, Kobe Bryant, who made history by gifting 20 years to the championship franchise known as the Los Angeles Lakers, where he flourished in the excellence that propelled his illustrious career, and continued tradition of a famed bran, perished in a helicopter crash.
The chaos of the tragic announcement was heightened by the confirmation that Bryant died alongside his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and two of her friends and teammates, Alyssa Altobelli 13, and Payton Chester, 13.
Aside from the pilot and Kobe, four adults also were also onboard the doomed flight. Alyssa’s parents, John Altobelli, a renowned college baseball coach from Orange County, and his wife Keri; Christina Mauser, who was recruited by Bryant to serve as assistant coach for Team Mamba, and Sarah Chester, who accompanied her daughter Payton to the scheduled tournament.
The investigation into what caused the horrific crash in Calabasas, CA, is still pending but a preliminary report issued by the NTSB has ruled out engine failure. The agonizing wait for the results of the pending inquiry could take up to two years to furnish.
What we do know is that the pilot for whatever reason was granted special clearance to fly into blinding fog on a day when choppers in the Los Angeles area, including the LAPD were indefinitely grounded.
Regardless of how or why the chains of command failed to recognize the priority of securing the safety of passengers especially during hazardous travel, there is no way to recoup what has been lost.
And whether or not you were a die-hard fan of inducted Hall of Famer, Kobe Bryant or the game of basketball that he loved so much, humanness dictates the emotions that won’t allow us to casually dismiss how fairytales evolve into real-life nightmares.
By that I mean the painful end to what was to become the ambitious second act for a retired, distinguished sportsman, whose phenomenal career inspired up and coming athletes from all genres of the industry, who were actively seeking and receiving invaluable tutelage directly from the source.
Bryant had given his all to the game that chose him, and the next phase of his life was meant to serve as his tour of gratitude. His burgeoning obsession as a prolific storyteller earned him an Academy Award in 2018 for his short animated film, Dear Basketball, and that success was the launching pad for his production company, Granity Studios.
But despite hanging it up with his epic final game at Staples Center where he dropped 60 points, and triumphantly led his team to a memorable victory against the Utah Jazz, it was inevitable that Bryant would eventually return to familiar territory with a whole new affection for what birthed his undying passion.
His growing interest in women’s sports, particularly the WNBA was fueled by his daughter, Gigi’s harvested enthusiasm and promising trajectory, which Bryant was determined to nurture as a devoted father and coach.
Cathy Engelbert testifies to how Bryant was the only high-profile NBA player, past and present, who reached out as soon as she was named WNBA Commissioner. The in-depth conversations exposed the former Lakers star’s newfound activism when it came to raising the profile of women in sports, in preparation for future sportswomen like his daughter Gigi, and her equally viable teammates.
“Kobe was a huge advocate for the WNBA, and for women and girls in sports. Girls drop out of sports at an alarming rate by the age of 13.”
“Kobe also championed those who hoped to be a part of the league in the future by working with college teams like the University of Connecticut and University of Oregon. His impact was much broader than I certainly thought.”
It’s quite clear that Kobe Bryant’s mission statement was updated to feature his unwavering dedication to being the superstar presence at women’s basketball games. He understood how he was able to raise visibility in ways that could fundamentally enhance the currency of a formidable league, that should receive the same adulation as the NBA.
Bryant demonstrated his imprinted allyship with regular attendance and courtside seats at women’s basketball games with Gigi in tow. The cameras excitedly captured the father and daughter interactions that are that much more poignant based on the heartbreaking outcome.
Gigi Bryant was serious about fulfilling her destiny and daring to follow in her father’s illustrious footsteps. She adopted the game that defined her childhood as the attentive daughter of one of the greatest to ever do it. She had grown up with the celebratory pride that was ever so present during those momentous occasions that will go down in history.
Once her goals were set and the offer for her dad to show her the ropes was readily accepted, Team Mamba became a reality with the inclusion of Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester. The invitation also went out to Christina Mauser, a former basketball coach at Orange County’s Harbor Day School, where both Gigi and Alyssa were students. Mauser joined the Mamba Sports Academy as the assistant coach.
It was revealed after her untimely death that Gigi had her sights set on playing for the UConn Huskies women’s basketball team as the class of 2024. And that explains why she and her father were front and center at as many games as they could muster.
Most of the time it was just the two of them and on occasion Alyssa would join them. Those instructional excursions also extended to informal visits with the notable faces of the league, like Sabrina Ionescu, formerly of the Oregon Ducks, and now the WNBA’s number one draft pick for the New York Liberty, who spoke at the memorial service at Staples Center.
Bryant understood the importance of exposing his girls to the leaders of the industry they were hoping to dominate. And with his daughter Gianna, the dream to play for the team that she had already vetted meant forming tangible bonds with UConn head coach, Geno Auriemma, and former Huskies superstar, Diana Taurasi, who was christened “White Mamba” by the Black Mamba himself.
Both Auriemma and Taurasi spoke at the celebration of life ceremony and movingly shared their reasons why Gigi Bryant was destined to be one of their own. And later on Auriemma recounted the lovely letter his biggest fan sent him after her favorite team lost a game where she gave words of encouragement and signed off with:
“When you think you can’t, UCONN.”
For the past few days, my mind has been preoccupied by the unimaginable set of events that cruelly ended the bright futures of three teenage girls, who were working hard, day and night, under the guidance of Kobe Bryant’s “Mamba mentality.”
He was sharing the work ethic that he adopted during a harrowing period earlier in his career when his own insurmountable challenges almost derailed his dreams.
The periodic visits to Vanessa Bryant’s Instagram page only magnifies the despair as you’re faced with yet another tear-jerking homage to what was, and what could’ve been.
I had no idea the WNBA draft picks were going to be unleashed by commissioner Cathy Englebert on Friday night of April 17th until Gigi’s mother posted the details hours before the ceremony.
And it was heartwarming to know that Gigi (2), Alyssa (5), and Payton (14), would be awarded honorary draft picks by the WNBA as a way to uplift the spirits of bereft family members by pledging to reinstate those stolen dreams of joining the league with the ceremonial anointing that will last a lifetime.
There’s also the impact of Kobe Bryant’s legacy when it comes the profound influence he purposefully wielded with the intent to recharge the grossly underrated and devalued world of women’s sports, across the boards.
And the upsetting aspect of his death has to be the gaping void it leaves when you consider that not many superstar male athletes if any at all, are willing to align their support past the vocal cosigns, even when the American women’s soccer team cried foul over getting criminally short-changed, despite bringing in more revenue than their male counterparts.
In addition to the lovely and fitting tribute to jerseys, 2, 5 and 14, and Team Mamba, the league also created the Kobe and Gigi Bryant WNBA Advocacy Award that aims to highlight individuals or agencies that bring much-needed awareness to women’s and girls’ basketball in progressive ways.
As we take into account the immeasurable loss of the future young stars of women’s basketball and their faithful coach, who was actively grooming his well-positioned proteges for the defined roles they were born to inhabit, we must be thankful for the optimistic narrative that will continue to endure.
The WNBA draft picks of Gianna “Gigi” Bryant, Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester means so much because of the symbolic message it sends to young hopefuls and dreamers, including the remaining members of Team Mamba, who were dismayed and discouraged by the life-altering disaster that will now be beautifully landscaped.
I briefly ran track in high school and while I could’ve been a good tennis player there was never the desire or encouragement to take it seriously.
I have never really been that invested in the driven mechanisms of women’s sports, but that will change moving forward.
For me, it goes beyond the celebrity of Kobe Bryant, and the fact that his daughter’s shared love for the game was his personal goal. It’s about making sure that those three girls didn’t die in vain.
It’s about the next generation, including my energetic nieces, who should be allowed to discover the unique correlation between playing sports and the applicable lessons of competitiveness, consistency of output, and the glory of the wins and losses.
The WNBA is forever changed by the Mamba girls and the teacher who found a new love in an old friend, and heroically answered the calling to pave the attainable path for the upcoming generation of women who don’t want to rely on generic labels for validation.
There’s just so much more from where that came from, and we should aspire to be a part of that reignited journey.