"Kobe was a huge advocate for the WNBA," Cathy Engelbert tells PEOPLE

By Gabrielle Chung and Nicholas Rice
February 05, 2020 07:30 AM
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WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert told PEOPLE on Tuesday that the league is “devastated” over the tragedy and plans to honor the late athlete — along with Gianna and her Mamba Sports Academy teammates Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester that perished in the fatal helicopter crash — in the coming months.

“Our next big tentpole for the WNBA is our draft in April, so we’ll clearly be honoring those three young 13-year-old basketball players — the future of our game,” she told PEOPLE at the DICK’S Sporting Goods Here for Her Summit in New York City.

Cathy Engelbert; Gianna Bryant
Cathy Engelbert and Gianna Bryant
| Credit: Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE via Getty Images;Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Engelbert went on to reflect on Bryant’s impact on women’s basketball, sharing a story of the Lakers legend when she was named the first commissioner of the WNBA in 2019.

“We’re devastated over that loss and Kobe was a huge advocate for the WNBA.”

“I’ve been telling people that he’s the only NBA player that reached out and came to see me at the WNBA offices since I started as the commissioner six months ago,” she told PEOPLE. “The first thing he said to me was, ‘Cathy, I spent four hours every day on girls sports and I love it.'”

Gianna Bryant, Payton Chester and Alyssa Altobelli
Gianna Bryant, Payton Chester and Alyssa Altobelli
| Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images; Courtesy Chester Family; Facebook

“We talked for two hours about his commitment to the WNBA, the women, the players and obviously his commitment to his team that he was coaching,” Engelbert continued. “[It’s] just really a loss and a loss of a big advocate.”

According to Engelbert, the orange hoodie Bryant, 41, was photographed wearing to a Lakers game with Gianna in December was a sweatshirt the WBNA had previously given him as a gift.

“We never thought he would actually wear it and he was wearing it at that game,” she said. “It’s one of our last pictured photos of he and Gianna together.”

Kobe Bryant
Gianna and Kobe Bryant
| Credit: Allen Berezovsky/Getty

Engelbert added that the WBNA sends “our sympathies to all of the families involved.”

Bryant and Gianna — nicknamed “Gigi” — were on their way to a youth basketball game with parents and players from the Mamba Sports Academy girls’ team on Jan. 26 when their helicopter crashed amid foggy conditions on a hill in Calabasas, Calif. The two died alongside pilot Ara Zobayan, Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton, Christina Mauser, John Altobelli, his wife Keri Altobelli and their daughter, Alyssa.

A source told PEOPLE last month that Bryant shared his passion for basketball with his daughter and Gianna had started to emulate her dad’s iconic style on the court prior to her untimely death.

“His focus on kids’ books and reaching out to kids about basketball was definitely because of his daughters and more specifically Gigi,” a former business associate of Bryant’s said at the time. “He didn’t obviously have boys, but he saw that you didn’t have to be a boy or a girl for him to still have them be a part of the sport and love it.”

Kobe Bryant
Gianna and Kobe Bryant
| Credit: Harry How/Getty

“Having kids to get to play the sport was huge for him,” the source added. “He always said he’d continue the game rather he had a son or a daughter. He was blessed enough to have four daughters and Gigi, God bless her soul, loved the sport.”

“She was actually playing just like him. I just saw video of her playing a couple weeks ago, and she literally did the same exact fade away. Everyone was like ‘That’s Kobe’s girl,'” the source continued.

In a resurfaced interview Bryant did in 2018 on Jimmy Kimmel Live, the former basketball star opened about how Gianna “for sure” wanted to pursue a career in basketball, just like him.

“The best thing that happens is when we go out and fans come up to me, and she’ll be standing next to me, and they’ll be like, ‘You gotta have a boy, you and [wife Vanessa] gotta have a boy, somebody else to carry on the tradition, the legacy,'” Bryant said. “She’s like, ‘Oh, I got this. You don’t need a boy for that. I got this.’ I’m like, ‘That’s right, yes you do. You got this.'”

If you would like to help the families of the victims of the crash, consider donating to the MambaOnThree Fund. Donations to the Mamba Sports Foundation will help support youth sports.