A women's basketball game took place Monday evening at the XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut, but the tragic deaths of Kobe and Gianna Bryant were heavy on everyone's minds during the exhibition between UConn and the U.S. National Team.
The 41-year-old Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter died suddenly Sunday in a southern California helicopter crash that killed nine people. The flight from Calabasas to nearby Thousand Oaks, where the Bryant-owned Mamba Sports Academy resides, served as transportation for a travel basketball game, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported Sunday.
After a pregame tribute observed a 24-second moment of silence for Kobe, with a courtside seat wearing a gray No. 2 UConn jersey and white flowers honoring Gianna, Huskies head coach Geno Auriemma tried to find the words. Kobe and Gianna attended UConn games when possible, and Auriemma elected to share a story of the first time the two arrived on campus.
"First time they were at a game -- you know the old saying -- she was like a little kid, looking up at our players," Auriemma said of Gianna, who was just starting to grow the same love for basketball that her father developed over his 20-year NBA career with the Los Angeles Lakers from 1996-06. "You could just see the look in her eyes. She was just so excited.
"Now, imagine the absurdity of that -- that your father's Kobe Bryant and the most excited you've been in a long time is being around college women's basketball players. But that's what it meant to her. That was what she aspired to be.
"So in that room, the very first time. Second time, after that, it was a little bit different. But the very first time, you've got GiGi and her role models and people she looks up to. And then you've got our players looking at her dad, like, 'Ah.' So it was a real head-shaking scene. And she was, when she came up here on campus, it's like if she could've stayed, I think she would've stayed."
Geno Auriemma tells the story of the first time Kobe and Gianna came to a UConn game:- SNY (@SNYtv) January 28, 2020
"You could just see the look in her eyes, she was so excited...if she could've stayed, I think she would've stayed" pic.twitter.com/I219E7Dkom
Kobe was an accomplished player, earning 18 All-Star selections and winning five NBA championships while wearing Nos. 8 (1996-06) and 24 (2006-16) -- both retired by the Lakers -- with Los Angeles for the past two decades.
As his daughter Gianna gained more exposure to the game, she was just starting a similar type of journey on the women's side, with the two attending UConn games like last March's 83-61 Senior Day win over Houston.
Kobe was just getting started on his NBA retirement as he gained exposure to various industries outside of basketball and in businesses. Gianna was just getting started on her playing career and entire life. Both journeys were cut far too short far too soon.
"Really established one in our game," Auriemma said. "I think in the next 30 years, he would've been, for the next generation of kids that knew his daughter or played with GiGi (an inspiration for women's basketball). And now he gets involved at a whole 'nother level because of her -- you don't know, but he was just getting started.
"We started talking about what defensive drills to do. I said, 'What, you paid attention all those years at practice?' He said, 'Well, I've got to teach my team man-to-man defense.' I was like, 'All right.' Nobody could score on him for 20 years and he's asking me about defensive drills.
"Yeah, I don't think he got a chance. He had a big impact on the worl of sports and introducing the NBA to a whole part of the world that didn't know about it and his businesses, all that he's done. Those are things that last forever, but he probably would've had a bigger impact on his kids -- more than anything."
"He was just getting started."- SNY (@SNYtv) January 28, 2020
Geno Auriemma says that Kobe Bryant had so much more to offer to basketball and - most importantly - his children pic.twitter.com/L9twd90HGQ