The Legacy of Mambacita

Gianna "Gigi" Bryant didn't get to live her full life or achieve her grandest hoop dreams. But for those who knew her, the memories of her time on and around the court will last forever.
photo of Mirin FaderMirin Fader@MirinFaderB/R Mag ContributorFebruary 23, 2020

Something magical happens when a girl touches a basketball for the first time. Power is in her palms. She can do anything, be anything.

When she is on the court, she doesn't have to shrink. She can call a play as loud as she wants. And she can count on the court. The court never changes. It is the same when she arrives on a Monday, a Friday.

To love basketball, as a young girl, is to love something in a way that only other young-girl hoopers can understand. It's different from family love. Different from friend love. Different from relationship love. It's a deep-down love that resists explanation.

Gianna "Gigi" Bryant had that deep-down love.

And that's what you hear when you ask those who knew Gigi about her. Those who coached her and coached against her in AAU. Those who trained her. Those who watched her play, who knew her as a friend, as an opponent.

The memories they hold close are of a girl who was hardly seen without a ball hugging her hip. A girl who would bust out crossovers, any time, any place. A girl who didn't back down. To anyone.

Not even the reigning WNBA Rookie of the Year.


It's right before Christmas. During a workout, Gigi's father, Kobe Bryant, whispers into Minnesota Lynx forward Napheesa Collier's ear, "Don't take it easy on Gigi."

Collier is 23 years old and 6'2".

Gigi is 13 and 5'6".

Gigi doesn't care. She locks down in a defensive stance and swarms Collier, who of course scores easily over her, again and again, posting her up. Gigi fumes. She believes she can—and should—be stopping Collier.

And then she does. She finally gets a stop. Then Gigi takes the ball, crosses over, pump fakes and scores on a step-through move.

She isn't afraid of anyone.

Jessica Hill/Associated Press

Bleacher Report spoke to more than 30 people who were close to Gigi, and in the stories they tell, you can feel how grief works, how memory works.

You find yourself driving down the freeway, and all of a sudden, you flash back to some moment with Gigi. It seizes you. You see Gigi's bright smile. You remember her infectious giggle. You remember how kind, how sweet, the Mambacita was. How she befriended even her staunchest opponents. How she loved her mother, Vanessa, and her three sisters, Natalia, 17, Bianka, three, and Capri, eight months.

You remember how she loved peanut butter chocolate smoothies so much that she learned to make them for herself at home. You remember how she loved to make TikToks, how her dad/coach often told the players on her team, Team Mamba: "My house is a TikTok house! All these girls do is TikTok!"

You remember the time a teammate threw a pass to Gigi that soared over her head and rolled out of bounds. Gigi was upset. Not at her teammate but at herself. She expected herself to catch that ball, any ball. She was a leader, one who took responsibility even if she wasn't at fault.

You try to keep the hurt at bay, try to go on with the day, but hours later you'll be walking down the street and it's a new memory, flowing in and out of time, taking hold of you.


Gigi is five. Dad is working out in the weight room in their house. Whether he's weight training or shooting a thousand jump shots on game day at the Equinox in Irvine, he has one rule: No interruptions. "Everyone knew: He did not need to be bothered," says Ryan Badrtalei, an assistant men's basketball coach at UC Irvine as well as Kobe's friend and longtime trainer.

But on this day, Badrtalei notices the rule is broken.

Gigi and Natalia burst into the weight room, finding their father bench-pressing. They tell him something and give him kisses. The world stops. The hard parts of him melt. A big grin washes over him.

This will become a routine over the coming years: kisses between sets.


Gigi is 11. She and her family are at the Final Four, hoping UConn will take it all. But the Huskies lose in the semifinals on a last-second shot in overtime by Notre Dame's Arike Ogunbowale.

Walking out of Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, Gigi is crying her eyes out. And she's angry. Her face is all twisted up. She gets into a car full of family and crosses her arms tightly across her chest.

Kobe sees her in the rearview. "You OK?" he asks.

"When I get to UConn," she manages, between tears, "this is never happening! I promise you that!"


The memories soothe and stab at the same time. The loss of Kobe, 41, and Gigi, 13, along with teammates Alyssa Altobelli, 13, and her parents, John, 56, and Keri Altobelli, 46, teammate Payton Chester, 13, and her mother, Sarah Chester, 45, assistant coach Christina Mauser, 38, and pilot, Ara Zobayan, 50, in a helicopter crash on the way to a Mamba basketball game January 26, is a tragedy of unspeakable magnitude.

Three girls, three 13-year-old girls, did not get to live full lives. Did not get to continue loving their families, their friends. Did not get to pursue their dreams of playing in college and in the WNBA.

Their teammates, their families, are reeling. The Mambas have stayed together, often sleeping at each other's houses. They went to the beach two days after the crash, just to be with each other. A mental health professional was present. They got on the court the day after that and resumed practicing, because they needed to. Because that orange leather ball is what bound them together.

Now, before every practice, each player goes around and says what she is grateful for. Many of them have said they are grateful that at least they have each other. At least they are not enduring this alone.

The last time they were all on the court, the night before the crash, they faced Tree of Hope Lloyd, a team that had beaten them twice before. The Mambas trailed most of that game but made a run, capped by Chester's step-back three, eventually pulling out the 35-29 win.

Another play stood out. Gigi received a dribble-handoff exchange, passed to a player on the other side of the floor, then came off a backscreen and received the ball for a layup. She made it.

Gigi was so happy that she turned around and looked at Kobe. Her dad was right. She had been struggling with her shot in the game before, against Cyfair Nikecoop 2024, and he had told her: "Trust your game. Just trust it. It'll come."


Gigi is two. Kobe has a workout on the track at UC Irvine with Badrtalei and decides to bring her along. She is his Velcro strip, after all—always snuggling up to his side, always reaching for his hand.

Kobe puts down his bag. When he looks up, Gigi is already in the blocks, her little feet positioned just right. She is thrilled, somehow knowing exactly where to go. She is staring straight ahead. She looks ready to compete, ready to fly down the track.

Kobe is beaming. Nobody taught his girl how to do that. She is a natural.

ORLANDO, FL - JUNE 14: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers kisses his daughter Gianna Bryant as they celebrate the Lakers winning the 2009 NBA Finals against the Orlando Magic in Game Five of the 2009 NBA Finals at Amway Arena on June 14, 2009 in Or
Noah Graham/Getty Images

Gigi started playing basketball later than most girls who were at her level, but with the Mambas practicing seven days a week, along with yoga and strength training, she improved rapidly (as did the team) over the past two years. She became one of the best long-distance shooters in Southern California, able to knock down shots from the volleyball line.

Games would be standing-room only. They came to see Kobe, but soon, they were coming to see Gigi too. "For these girls, their future icon was Gigi," says Demetrius Porter, the director of the Fresno Lady Heat, a team that was supposed to play the Mambas at 2 p.m. the day of the crash. "They followed her. She was their young superstar."

Gigi loved wrapping the ball and taking it hard to the basket. She lived for practices where Mauser would take out the pad to hit her as she'd dip her shoulder in and absorb contact and finish a layup.

She was the spitting image of her father. She bit her jersey like him. She flashed the same underbite as him. She was out for blood like he was. She had his smooth cruise of a walk. She had his basketball IQ, his understanding of angles and footwork.

Russ Davis, the coach at Vanguard University and Cal Swish, who was close with Kobe and Gigi, remembers Kobe telling him: "Gigi's just like me. She's a killer, man. She's a killer."

She had his signature spin move, fadeaway jumper. "I don't think I shot a fadeaway like that maybe until a couple years ago," says Candace Parker, Los Angeles Sparks forward and two-time WNBA MVP. "I mean, going left, over your left shoulder, when you're right-handed? Her skill set was far beyond her years."

She'd gather her teammates together before a free throw. She was the first off the bench clapping for her teammates. "They listened with their eyes when she spoke," says James Parker, Pacifica Christian head girl's basketball coach and Cal Swish EYBL assistant. "Her presence was amazing at 13 years old."


Gigi is 13. The Mambas have just finished practice at Newport Rec. Gigi has extra shots to get up. But first? She begins chasing her little sister, Bianka, around the court. This is one of her favorite things to do.

Gigi, Vanessa, Kobe, Bianka and Natalia Bryant at Kobe's jersey retirement in 2017.
Gigi, Vanessa, Kobe, Bianka and Natalia Bryant at Kobe's jersey retirement in 2017.Harry How/Getty Images

Around and around they go, faster and faster. Bianka is giggling so hard her tiny body almost topples over. Gigi is all teeth when she finally catches her, wrapping her arms around her little sister. She doesn't want to let go.


Gigi is 11. The Mambas just won a game. Kobe is so excited that he sends Davis a video of one play, along with multiple strong-arm emojis, his favorite emoji.

"My man! Look!" Kobe writes. "They went to the pinch post, to the skip, to the center, to the three in the corner. Gigi hit a three in the corner!"

Davis laughs. He remembers when Kobe swore to him he was never going to coach. And then, as Gigi started asking him to get shots up with her, he started enjoying coaching. Then he became competitive about it. At one point, before his team was to play against the top eighth grade team, Cal Sparks, Kobe said, pacing the sidelines: "I want that smoke!"

"I don't think Kobe ever lost the love of the game," Davis says. "But I think Kobe was ready to step away from the game of basketball. And I think Gigi brought him back to it."


Gigi started to gain more buzz when a Ballislife mixtape of her highlights dropped in May 2019. The video has over 10 million views on YouTube.

"People were so happy," says Cazzie Luz, who filmed the video. "They were like, 'He has a daughter, and she can play?!"

She was becoming ultra-competitive. Last summer, the Mambas were beating a team 50-0. With less than a minute to go, one of the Mambas fouled a player, sending her to the free-throw line. The girl made her first free throw and a Mamba player clapped. Gigi turned to her, gently hit her hand and said, "Don't clap for them!"

She and Altobelli—her best friend on the team, the one she shared the most inside jokes with—were a terror at the top of the team's 1-2-2 full-court press and 2-3 matchup zone. Kobe didn't even tell them to trap, but Gigi, with her long arms, instinctually figured out that they should, and she began hounding girls.

Last spring, she shut down a girl six inches taller than her. "She fought. She had this fire," says Mike Alexander, CEO and president of Swoosh Basketball, who was at that game. Gigi rarely took breathers. "Even after the whistle blows, she's still going, still keeping the play alive," says Athena Tomlinson, 14, a friend and rival who was mentored by Kobe (he'd call her "Shifty Lefty").

One game, against OC Rhythm, Gigi and an opponent dove for a loose ball. The girl fouled Gigi so hard she tumbled and hit the floor, nearly hitting her head. Kobe walked over, but Gigi bounced back up, heading back to the bench like nothing happened.

Jimmy Valverde, a coach for OC Rhythm and the head girl's basketball coach for Esperanza High, came up to Kobe after and said, "I hope she's OK."

"Man," Kobe said. "She's a tough kid."


Gigi is 11. She and Kobe arrive early to practice at Vanguard. The previous night, Kobe's jersey was retired during halftime of the Warriors-Lakers game at Staples Center. "That was really cool," Davis tells Kobe. "I can't believe Allen Iverson came all the way out."

"AI?" Kobe says. "Yeah that was great, but Bill Russell was there! And Magic! And Kareem! People forget, I grew up a big-time Lakers fan, and for me to have all those people there? Man, that was so awesome."

Gigi is glowing. She stares at her father like he's the only person on the planet. "Last night was so cool!" she says. "My dad was so happy! It was so cool to be there for my dad!"


Gigi is 13. She is sitting courtside to watch her friend, 14-year-old Brooklyn Shamblin of Cal Storm, a girl she looks up to, face off against Cal Sparks. Shamblin doesn't have the best game and is disappointed with herself.

Gigi finds her afterward. "It's OK," she tells Shamblin. "You got the next one. You guys really played like a team!" Shamblin cracks a smile, the first one all day.

"Gigi had the kindest heart," Shamblin says. "All she wanted was for every basketball player to succeed."


Gigi was smart. By sixth grade, she knew the intricacies of the triangle offense, an offense that can confuse even the most astute NBA players. Her relationship with her dad was a dialogue. She wanted to know the whys, the hows. She was not just passively receiving instruction. She had the confidence to explain her opinions, and he welcomed them.

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 29: Kobe Bryant and Gianna Bryant attend the game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks on December 29, 2019 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees th
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Kobe taught her how to feel the defender with her back, how to jab left, jab right. Practices were monotonous, with the girls working on the same footwork for 30 minutes straight.

He never raised his voice, because he wanted them to learn. To think for themselves. A year ago, in the middle of a game against OC Rhythm, Kobe explained his philosophy to the opposing coach, Vernon Henderson.

Henderson had been yelling at his girls, who are sixth graders, all game. Kobe called a timeout and walked over. "Hey, man, all that hollering and screaming at these kids you doing," Kobe said, "you not gonna do that at my game. I don't play that s--t." Later in the tournament, the two met again. "Hey, we good?" Henderson asked.

"Yeah. It's all good. It's all love," Kobe said back.

"You get your girls seven days a week. I get them once a week. You know?" Henderson said.

"I understand that," Kobe said. "But listen, I just think it's traumatic for a sixth-grade girl to hear an older man yelling at her like that. And, plus, my philosophy is: If they don't get something in their game, it's because I didn't teach them in practice."


Gigi is 12. The Mambas are practicing at Santiago High School. Jeff Gomez, Santiago High's varsity boys' assistant coach, walks over.

"You beat your dad in HORSE, huh?" Gomez asks Gigi.

She starts giggling: "All the time!"

Kobe laughs too: "Never."

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 14:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers and the Western Conference warms up with daughter Gianna Bryant during the NBA All-Star Game 2016 at the Air Canada Centre on February 14, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario. NOTE TO USER: User e
Elsa/Getty Images

Gigi is 13. She and her dad walk out of a practice, him with a mesh bag filled with a half-dozen basketballs slung over his back, her with her backpack and a ball. She gets into his black Range Rover, riding shotgun, as always. She rolls down the tinted windows when she sees the rest of her teammates. "Bye!" she yells one last time, with a huge smile on her face, as if she wouldn't be seeing them for a while. She'd see them the next day.

"The love [the girls] had for each other, it was amazing," says Azzi Fudd, the top prospect in the 2021 class, who has worked out with the Mambas. "They were so excited to see each other. It was nonstop smiles."


Destiny "Ky'She" Lunan didn't pick up a ball for six days after she heard Gigi was gone. She wouldn't leave her room. Her body was there, her mind elsewhere. They were close friends off the court, fierce rivals on the court. "We'd go at it," says Lunan, 13, her voice cracking.

She keeps replaying memories from the last time the two played, back in December. She was so excited to face Gigi that she and her father, Mike, blasted Jay-Z's "Takeover" in his gray BMW on the ride there. One sequence, Gigi made a jumper, and then Destiny made a three. Then Destiny got a steal, causing the ball to go out of bounds. She screamed in Gigi's face: "Let's goooooo!!!" Gigi didn't even flinch; she just responded by calmly wetting a three.

After the crash, Mike told Destiny it would make her feel better to shoot. "That's what Kobe would have wanted,"he said. Kobe was a mentor to Destiny. "Kobe told me, 'I hope you and Gigi play in the WNBA one day,'" she says.

Gigi had so many opponents who were also friends. "She was such a sweet girl. Respectful and down to earth. She didn't think she was better than anybody else," says James Singleton, coach and co-founder of Lady Nation, the team Destiny plays for. "She made friends easily without using her status as Kobe's daughter."

One of them was Serenity "Reni" Johnson, 14, Shamblin's teammate on Cal Storm. Gigi looked up to Johnson. Called her a big sister. Kobe was a kind of father figure for Johnson too. He had planned to become the coach at Sage Hill School in Newport Beach and potentially coach Johnson and Shamblin there, along with Gigi and some other girls from Mamba.

Johnson and Shamblin both recently got "Mamba Mentality" tattoos. Johnson's is right below her heart, on her rib cage. Shamblin, who Kobe called "Lucky Lefty," got hers on her left foot. "I just lost it when I found out," Johnson says. "It's still really hard. Sometimes it feels real. Sometimes it feels fake. Sometimes it feels like a dream."

Johnson and her mother, Veronica, remember Gigi's composure. Her ability to handle the enormous pressure that followed her. "There were people that wanted to see her do badly," Veronica says. "Her frustration, you couldn't see it on her face, whether she was or she wasn't." People would whisper that she was overrated, that she was only receiving attention because of her father.

Gigi was above it all. One time, at Santiago High, a high school boy came in, took out his phone and started recording her. She walked right up to him and told him to leave. "She was comfortable in her own skin," says Julie Rubio-Shamblin, Brooklyn's mother.

So much so that Gigi even mentored girls younger than herself, like Kaleena Smith, 11, of Team Obsessed in Moreno Valley. "Gigi always told me to keep my head up and make sure I stayed on the right track," Smith says. "I'm devastated. She inspired me."

Smith manages a laugh, remembering a TikTok Gigi recorded but never posted. Gigi was dancing and did a move that had both of them near tears, wildly swaying her arms in the air, shaking her legs, moving side to side.

She wasn't worried about what people thought of her. She knew who she was, who she wanted to be.


One day, little Capri will learn about her father, her sister. She will come to know them through Vanessa's, Natalia's and Bianka's stories. Stories from other family members, friends, coaches, players. Stories like the time Gigi made three shots in a row in a Phoenix tournament and then took an ill-advised fourth, missing badly.

"That's a bad shot, Gigi," Kobe called out. She gave him the Jordan shrug as she ran back down the court. They both smiled at each other. All washed away, onto the next play.

Maybe Capri will pick up a basketball. Or maybe the ball will pick her. Some force from above drawing her closer to the leather, to the very blood that runs through her. To the player that her big sister was and could have been.

Capri will come to know that Gigi was more than talented, more than intelligent. More than kind, more than competitive. More than hardworking, more than compassionate.

She was loved.

                

Mirin Fader is a staff writer for B/R Mag. She's written for the Orange County Register, espnW.com, SI.com and Slam. Her work has been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, the Football Writers Association of America, the Los Angeles Press Club and the Best American Sports Writing series. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.

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