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Happy Mamba Day...but should women’s basketball fans celebrate it?

More than three years after his death, it is still hard to settle on how Kobe Bryant should be remembered by women’s sports fans.

A mural in Los Angeles memorializing Gigi and Kobe Bryant.
Photo by CHRIS DELMAS/AFP via Getty Images

Kobe Bryant was undoubtedly one of the best basketball players of his generation, if not of all time. His untimely death at the age of 41, as well as that of his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, was a shock to the basketball community.

Along with an outpouring of sadness about Bryant’s death, there was adulation for the life he lived, including from women athletes and women’s sports journalists, who saw Bryant as a champion of women’s sports.

After all, it was Bryant who personally welcomed arguably the best women’s soccer player in history, Brazil’s Marta, on the roster of Los Angeles Sol in 2009. He publicly supported the WNBA on numerous occasions, such as when he said that three of its players—Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore and Elena Delle Donne—could play in the NBA. Bryant appreciated the fundamentals of women’s basketball players, evidenced by his breakdowns of the games of Delle Donne and Stewart.

However, away from court, Bryant allegedly committed an act that casts a shadow on his legacy as an advocate for women’s sports. On June 30, 2003 in a hotel in Colorado, a 25-year-old Bryant was accused of raping a 19-year-old hotel intern. Our own Cat Ariail asked four years ago if Kobe’s status as the ambassador of women’s sports should be questioned. Four years on, the issue still remains unresolved.

The shadow

What happened in Colorado is forever between the two people, but the consequences are not.

The fact that the story resurfaced following the rise of the #MeToo movement provided a counterpoint to the hagiographic depictions of Bryant. Kobe’s behavior surrounding the 2003 sexual assault case would not be acceptable today. Phil Jackson’s The Last Season: A Team in Search of Its Soul and Jeffrey Scott Shapiro’s Kobe Bryant: The Game of His Life have shed light on how Bryant used the trial to claim the Lakers as his team and become a self-styled basketball villain, known affectionately as the “Black Mamba.”

The sides settled in 2005, reportedly for $2.5 million. In the fall of 2004, Bryant had issued an apology, in which he admitted that the victim could have understood the intercourse as nonconsensual. While that was tantamount to an admission of guilt, the apology was perceived as an act of unprecedented honesty. Rarely do men accused of rape publicly apologize to their victims, much less use what happened as a way to educate society.

The advocacy

Many of today’s women’s basketball players knew Bryant primarily as an inspiration or mentor, somebody who willingly shared his knowledge of the sport. For Diana Taurasi, following his career as she grew up outside Los Angeles was enough to make her revere him and his play. Bryant would nickname her “The White Mamba,” a moniker she would live up to many times. Most famously, she scored 34 points wearing Bryant’s number 8 jersey during the 2020 WNBA season.

After his retirement, Bryant truly became an ally of women athletes. One of the beneficiaries of his generosity was Sabrina Ionescu, who worked out with him and helped him train his daughter’s AAU basketball team. Bryant was reportedly training the team six times a week, teaching the teenagers the intricacies of the triangle offense.

He showed up at UConn’s games, mostly because his daughter was a fan. His celebrity also brought more attention to other women’s games he was attended with Gigi. He referred to Jewell Loyd as “his little sister.” Talia Caldwell wrote an op-ed for the New York Times praising Kobe’s advocacy of women’s basketball. Katie Lou Samuelson has suggested that Bryant was “just scratching the surface” of his activism.

Final thoughts

Some say we should not speak ill of the dead, while others insist that we should not elevate them to the status of heroes who have never made a mistake.

Bryant’s actions in support of women’s basketball were many, and, most importantly, they were honest. Whether you liked him or not, there was just this aura of sincerity around Bryant; he unapologetically was who he was. Following his retirement, he could do whatever he wanted, yet he devoted his time and energy to support women athletes, praising them and making them feel seen and heard.

He was far from a perfect ally, but his status as one should never be questioned.