Gianna, who was nicknamed Mambacita by her father, dreamed of playing college basketball at the University of Connecticut and to be drafted to the WNBA

By Karen Mizoguchi
April 17, 2020 09:18 PM
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Ethan Miller/Getty Images; Courtesy Chester Family; Facebook

Gianna Bryant‘s dreams of being drafted into the WNBA came true on Friday, nearly three months after the tragic helicopter crash that killed the 13-year-old, her father Kobe Bryant and seven others.

During the WNBA draft on Friday, commissioner Cathy Englebert named Gianna and her Mamba Academy teammates Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester, who also died in the crash, honorary draftees.

Englebert read out the three girls’ names just as she would announce any other draftee in a touching moment at the top of the draft.

“These athletes represented the future of the WNBA,” Englebert said of the three teenagers. “Players who were following their passion, acquiring knowledge of the game, strengthening skills that were way beyond their years. They represent the next generation of stars in our league.”

“Maybe, what might have been called the ‘Mambacita’ generation,” she added, referencing Kobe’s nickname for his daughter.

“While it brings us pain not to see their dreams come to fruition, I’m grateful and proud to announce them tonight as honorary draft picks,” Englebert said, before announcing the three girls in alphabetical order as jerseys with their names were displayed on the screen.

Family members then took the screen, giving emotional at-home tributes to each young athlete.

“On behalf of my family, I’d like to thank the WNBA for honoring Peyton and her teammates,” Chris Chester, Payton’s dad, said in a video message. “She exemplified the Mamba mentality and was a fierce competitor. Her skill and determination to play in the WNBA was something that I have no doubt she would have achieved but was only surpassed by her joy for life and the game.”

“We will always have fond memories of her sinking a three or a big steal and training back on defense with that beautiful smile,” Chris added. “Thank you.”

“We just wanted to say thank you to the WNBA for honoring our sister Alyssa and her two teammates, Gigi and Peyton. Alyssa loved the game of basketball and she worked extremely hard at her craft,” Alyssa’s brother J.J. Altobelli said as sister Lexi sat beside him.

“There’s no doubt in our mind that she would have made it to the WNBA after her years at Oregon,” J.J. added. “Thank you again for honoring our sister, it truly means a lot to us.”

“Thank you so much for honoring my Gigi and selecting her to be an honorary draft pick this year,” Vanessa Bryant said in a video message. “It would have been a dream come true for her. She worked tirelessly every single day. She wanted to be one of the greatest athletes of all time just like her daddy. So thank you, thank you for honoring my little girl.”
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“Kobe and Gigi loved the WNBA,” Vanessa continued, offering her congratulations to this year’s draft picks. “Work hard. Never settle. Use that Mamba mentality.

Englebert also remembered Kobe as a “legendary” NBA star as well as a “devoted youth coach.” The commissioner remembered Kobe’s passion for the women’s league as “unparalleled.”

Later in the draft, Engelbert announced a new award in honor of the star Los Angeles Lakers player and his daughter, titled the Kobe and Gigi Bryant WNBA Advocacy Award, “which will recognize an individual or group who has made significant contributions to the visibility, perception and advancement of women’s and girls’ basketball at all levels.”

The first recipient is expected to be announced during the NBA All-Star Weekend in 2021, Englebert said.

Gianna and Kobe Bryant

Nine people lost their lives in the Jan. 26 helicopter crash, including Alyssa’s parents John Altobelli and Keri Altobelli as well as Payton’s mother Sarah Chester, their coach Christina Mauser and pilot Ara Zobayan.

Gianna, who was nicknamed Mambacita by her father, dreamed of playing college basketball at the University of Connecticut and to be drafted to the WNBA.

No. 1 draft pick Sabrina Ionescu previously spoke about Kobe’s basketball legacy and Gianna’s bright future at their Staples Center memorial on Feb. 24.

“I remember Gigi, excited and smiling in the locker room. I’d always watched a ton of film of her playing basketball. She had a fadeaway better than mine. I asked her where she wanted to play ball in college and she said UConn. She had the will and determination to be able to play wherever she wanted, and if she wanted to go there, I wanted her there as well,” Ionescu, 22, said in her speech.

Kobe and Gianna Bryant
Jessica Hill/Shutterstock

“Whichever school she would come to choose, it didn’t matter. If I represented the present of the women’s game, Gigi was the future, and Kobe knew it,” shared Ionescu, whose name was called first by the New York Liberty on Friday.

“Gigi had so much of her dad’s skill set. You could tell the amount of hours they spent in the gym, practicing her moves. She smiled all the time, but when it was game time, she was ready to kill. Her demeanor changed almost instantly when the whistle blew,” she said.

“I loved watching how hard she worked and how much her teammates loved her, but also her own desire to be great. She always wanted to learn, to go to every game she could — college, NBA, WNBA. Kobe was happy with that. Because he saw it in her, just like he saw it in me. His vision for others was always bigger than what they imagined for themselves. His vision for me was way bigger than my own,” Ionescu continued.

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Ionescu was selected No. 1 overall by the New York Liberty in the draft on Friday.

The late Los Angeles Lakers star championed the WNBA not only by supporting Gianna’s love for the game, but also by appearing at WNBA and women’s college games and bringing much-needed attention to the female programs.

“The WNBA mourns the sudden and tragic loss of NBA Great Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna. Kobe’s support for the WNBA and women’s basketball along with his passion for helping young girls and boys follow their dreams made him a true legend for our sport,” Engelbert said in a statement following news of Kobe and Gianna’s deaths.

“We admired him not just as a legendary basketball player, but as a father, a youth coach, and a role model for future generations of athletes. On behalf of the WNBA, it is an incredibly sad day for all of us and we send our deepest condolences to his family and all those who mourn his passing,” Engelbert said.

Bryant, who will be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in August, founded the Mamba Sports Academy, a training facility dedicated to providing girls and other children with access to sports.