Sabrina Ionescu is remembering her mentor. At Kobe Bryant's public memorial service on Monday at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California, the 22-year-old Oregon Ducks basketball star remembered the late NBA legend, who died in a helicopter crash last month along with his daughter Gianna ("Gigi") and seven others.
During her speech, Sabrina revealed that she idolized Kobe when she was a child and wanting "to be just like him." She then recalled the first time she met Kobe and Gigi when they, along with two of Gigi's teammates, surprised her at one of her games.
"He congratulated us on the win that day and our season up to that point but said, and I’ll never forget, 'Don’t shoot yourselves in the foot,'" she said. "He meant don’t settle, keep grinding, control what you can. The national championship wasn’t far and our goal was to win it all."
During that meeting, Sabrina was also struck by Gigi, whom she described as having "the will and determination to be able to play wherever she wanted."
"If I represented the present of the women's game, Gigi was the future and Kobe knew it, so we decided to build a future together," she added.
Sabrina also discussed Kobe's support of her basketball career, revealing that they'd text often, with him offering her encouragement and advice.
"His vision for others is always bigger than what they imagine 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," she said. "He was giving me the blueprint. He was giving Gigi the same blueprint. He united us."
As for his support of women's basketball as a whole, Sabrina said: "I wanted to be a part of the generation that changed basketball for Gigi and her teammates, where being born female didn’t mean being born behind, where greatness wasn’t divided by gender. We had too much to give to stay silent, that’s what he said, that’s what he believed, that’s what he lived through Gigi, through me, through his investment in women’s basketball. That was his next great act, a girl dad. Basketball, in many ways, was just a metaphor."
She concluded, "May their light forever shine. Kobe and Gigi, I'll love you forever."
Ahead of speaking at the service, Sabrina penned an essay for the Players Tribune, where she wroteabout her decision to stay at Oregon for another season, rather than enter the WNBA draft as many expected. The decision was one that Bryant supported.
"Kobe had invited me to stop by this gym and serve as a guest assistant coach for his girls. And the one thing about Kobe is, he tells no lies. So I knew that if he thought I should have declared for the draft, he’d have let me know. With love, for sure, but he’d have let me know," she wrote. "Pretty much the first thing he said to me, though, when I walked through the doors -- well, it wasn’t even him saying anything, actually. It was more just like….. a smile and a nod. You know what I mean? That was our secret language. He gave me this smile and nod. That was him letting me know he thought I’d made the right call."
"... Most people saw the fact that nothing would be normal for us this year as a negative. But Kobe? He saw it as this, like, blessing. He saw the pressure that we were about to face this year as a privilege. A challenge to overcome," she continued. "And the fact that it was scary to me at first?? He saw that as an opportunity. Harnessing your fear as an opportunity to learn something new about yourself -- that’s Mamba Mentality 101. And I took it to heart."
Sabrina also wrote about Kobe's death, confessing that it led her to "start questioning things."
"It was just, like, HOW? How could this amazing father and husband be taken away from the world? How could someone as full of life as Gianna be taken away from the world before she even got to LIVE her life? How could nine people be snatched away from their loved ones -- just like that, in a blink? How could we all be living in a world without Kobe Bryant?? How could I have lost my friend?" she pondered. "Kobe’s death also left me with some questions about my own path. What was I supposed to do now without his presence?? Without his guidance?? Who was I going to turn to for advice??"
Sabrina added that she was left with "angrier questions" as well, which included, "How could the world have brought me together with someone like Kobe, someone who understood me so well — maybe the first person in my life who truly got me on this deeper basketball level — only to then rip him out of my life after less than a year?! And why?!"
Despite the brief nature of their friendship, Sabrina noted that her and Kobe's paths still "connected for a reason."
"Not just because of the wisdom that he shared with me. Not just because of the friendship, and confidence, and support that he gave me. Not just because of the way that he made me a smarter teammate, and a tougher competitor, and a harder worker. Not just because of the promise that he recognized in me -- as a player, and a leader, and a person," she wrote. "I think my path connected with Kobe’s because of a bigger picture. Kobe always saw the bigger picture."
According to Sabrina, one of the ways Kobe saw that bigger picture was through women's basketball, a game, she wrote, that he saw "as a movement."
"He didn’t see growing the game with girls as his hobby, or as some side project, or as a charity case. He saw it as a movement. And he didn’t get involved because he just wanted to be a fan of our movement. He got involved because he wanted to be a part of it," she explained. "And that’s what I always loved so much about Kobe, and it’s one of the things that I hope people will remember about him. He didn’t care about your age, or your gender, or your background….. or any of that. Even your talent, at the end of the day, wasn’t what Kobe was there to judge."
"All that he cared about really was your love of the game. That was the test you had to pass with Kobe: Could you match him passion for passion when it came to hoops," she added. "If you could do that, then you had his respect."