Sabrina Ionescu, Diana Taurasi and Geno Auriemma pay tribute to Kobe and Gigi Bryant

LOS ANGELES — Geno Auriemma took a look all around him, laying eyes on the greatest collection of current and former basketball players he has ever seen.

But first, the legendary UConn women’s basketball coach had to recognize something that a packed — and still mourning — Staples Center also had witnessed.

“There’s some amazing women in this room, aren’t there?” Auriemma asked.

Amid a constellation of NBA Hall of Famers, All-Stars and some of the greatest coaches to ever be a part of the game in attendance, Monday’s emotional, sold-out memorial service for Kobe and Gianna Bryant — who were among nine people killed last month in a helicopter crash in Los Angeles — featured an unmistakable women’s basketball presence. Gigi’s life and aspirations, as well as Kobe’s post-playing days as a father and girls’ basketball coach and mentor, were rooted in women’s basketball.

Auriemma, WNBA champion and four-time Olympic gold medalist Diana Taurasi and Oregon basketball star Sabrina Ionescu were asked to be among the seven featured speakers at the celebration. The first four speakers were Vanessa Bryant, Taurasi, Ionescu and Auriemma, each setting a clear tone of how much women’s basketball had become a part of the Bryant family’s life and Gigi’s dreams and goals.



Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu shares some of her most cherished memories of Kobe and Gianna Bryant at their memorial in Los Angeles.

Taurasi and Ionescu idolized Bryant but also saw Gigi’s passion for women’s basketball and her unlimited potential.

“Kobe’s willingness to do the hard work and make the sacrifice every single day inspired me and resonated with the city of Los Angeles,” Taurasi said. “We struggled together, we grew together, we celebrated victories together. The same passion we all recognized in Kobe, obviously Gigi inherited. Her skill was undeniable at an early age.

“I mean who has a turnaround fadeaway jumper at 11? LeBron [James] barely got it today,” she cracked.

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Ionescu — the front-runner for women’s college basketball player of the year and projected No. 1 WNBA draft pick who later Monday became the first men’s or women’s Division I player to get 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists — spoke about first meeting Bryant and his daughter at an Oregon-USC game, and how she developed a relationship with both of them after that.

Ionescu, who flew up to the Bay Area right after the celebration to play against Stanford on Monday night (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN App), talked about how Bryant taught her his step-back shot, complete with how high the arc should be on her shot and how to angle her foot and which leg to kick out for maximum power.

Ionescu, like Taurasi and Auriemma, saw the future in Gigi.

“If I represented the women’s game, Gigi was the future, and Kobe knew it,” said the Oregon star, adding that she worked out twice with Gigi last summer and helped Kobe with his team. “So we decided to build a future together. …

“She always wanted to learn and to go to every game she could — college, NBA, WNBA. Kobe was helping her with that because he saw it in her. Just like he saw it in me. His vision for others is always bigger than that for themselves. His vision for me was way bigger than my own. More importantly, he didn’t just show up in my life and leave — he stayed.”

Taurasi grew up in nearby Chino, California, watching Bryant play for the Los Angeles Lakers. She said Bryant made “this little girl believe she could be a Laker one day.”

“[Watching him] was like getting to know myself every single day,” Taurasi said. “He made it OK to play with an edge that borderlined crazy. Early onset Mamba Mentality was in full effect. Years later, when I spent time with Kobe at the 2008 Olympics, I learned firsthand that it just wasn’t limited to the basketball court. His competitive fire ran through his veins just like many of us today.

“Every single workout, I end the same way: with a Kobe game winner. Three hard dribbles going right, left-foot plant, pivot, swing right leg through, elevate, square up, follow through. Five in a row and I got to go home. It’s that exact same shot that won us a championship in Phoenix in 2014.”

Like Taurasi, Auriemma shared stories about Bryant constantly asking for coaching tips for his daughter and how to run practices for his girls’ team. Though visibly fighting back tears, Auriemma still brought his trademark sarcasm.



Geno Auriemma shares personal stories about Gianna and Kobe Bryant that inspired him to be the best coach and dad he can be.

“How ironic that he would talk to me about coaching,” Auriemma said to an audience that included coaching legends such as Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich. “The uncoachable one wants to talk to me about coaching. Probably the most uncoachable player in the NBA during his career wants to know about coaching, and I wanted to know why. He said, ‘I’m coaching my daughter’s team.’ I said, ‘Oh my god. That poor kid.’

“So when I watched highlights of her playing and on about the third or fourth time she touched the ball, Gianna passed it when she was open,” Auriemma continued. “I thought, ‘She’s not listening to her father.'”

Diana Taurasi said, “Watching Kobe play at the Great Western Forum as a rookie made this little girl believe she could be a Laker someday,” and later added, “We promise to carry Gigi’s legacy.” Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Before the celebration began, two lengthy videos played — one for Bryant and one for Gianna. Gianna’s video was even longer than her father’s and featured several clips of her playing basketball. She wanted to play college ball at UConn, and Auriemma remembered when the two attended a game in Storrs, Connecticut.

“She came into the locker room, and here she is and the look on her face, the smile, the way her eyes just took everything in, how excited she was to just be around, in her mind, royalty,” Auriemma said. “It’s ironic — her father [is] royalty and she’s excited to be around royalty that looks just like what she wants to be.

“And the most impressive thing about that point in time was how Kobe stepped as far back as he could, so anyone taking pictures, anyone there would not know that this was Kobe Bryant’s daughter. This was her moment. This was her time to shine. This was her time to experience all the things he’s experienced his whole life. He was being Dad, he wasn’t being Kobe Bryant.”

While some of the game’s greatest players such as Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal paid homage to Bryant, Vanessa Bryant, Taurasi, Auriemma and Ionescu also made the celebration about Gigi’s basketball aspirations and how her life can inspire future players.

“Gigi in many ways represents the future of women’s basketball,” Taurasi said. “A future where a young woman aspires to play in the WNBA the same way I wanted to be a Laker. Gigi already had goals to play for UConn. That in itself showed her fearless mentality.

“She represents a time where a young girl doesn’t need permission to play. Her skill would command respect.”

Vanessa Bryant had no doubt.

“Gigi would’ve most likely become the best player in the WNBA,” Vanessa Bryant said. “She would’ve made a huge difference for women’s basketball.

“Gigi was motivated to change the way everyone viewed women in sports. She wrote papers in school defending women, and wrote about how the unequal pay difference for the NBA and WNBA leagues wasn’t fair. And I truly feel she made positive changes for the WNBA players now, since they knew Gigi’s goal was to eventually play in the WNBA.”

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