WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert: It’s more than just a weight room
The WNBA commissioner speaks out on the NCAA weight room and what it represents.
Editor’s note: This piece was originally published on January 29th, three days after Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven other victims perished in a helicopter crash on January 26th, 2020.
NOW, CHAMPIONSHIPS COME AND GO. THERE’S GOING TO BE ANOTHER TEAM THAT WINS ANOTHER CHAMPIONSHIP, ANOTHER PLAYER THAT WINS ANOTHER MVP AWARD. BUT IF YOU REALLY WANT TO CREATE SOMETHING THAT LAST GENERATIONS, YOU HAVE TO HELP INSPIRE THE NEXT GENERATION... THAT’S WHEN YOU CREATE SOMETHING FOREVER. AND THAT’S WHAT’S MOST BEAUTIFUL. — KOBE BRYANT (1978-2020) ”
The last few days have been unlike any I can recall in my time as a sports fan. Like many, I’ve now spent hours staring at the internet in a state of shock, pouring over every highlight and tribute I can find, and I still find it hard to believe that Kobe Bryant is gone. Seeing “1978-2020” next to his name just doesn’t make any sense. I doubt it ever will.
To be honest, words seem painfully cheap at the moment. But as someone from Los Angeles who grew up cheering for Kobe and the Lakers, I feel compelled to try and articulate what he meant to my hometown, how he inspired LA, myself, and so many other fans and athletes around the world.
I was 3 years old when Kobe was drafted. For the next 20 years, I had the privilege of growing up in the audience of an athlete mastering his craft, night in and night out. I can still remember crowding around the TV with the rest of my family during his 81-point game. I remember watching him sink two free throws with a ruptured achilles as though it were only a blister. There were so many nights when I threw my homework aside to catch the 4th quarter of a game, knowing it was Mamba time. And I can’t tell you how many times I watched the replay of Kobe refusing to flinch when Matt Barnes pump-faked in his face.
Even in a sport full of larger-than-life personalities, and in a city overcrowded with celebrities, Kobe stood apart. His commitment to basketball was both incomparable and utterly infectious. It didn’t matter that I was a young girl playing soccer. He was still a role model, someone who taught me and many others that if you want to be great, there’s no such thing as doing too much.
As the tributes have begun to pour in over the last few days, it’s been astonishing to note the extent of Kobe’s influence. First there were the NBA games that followed on Sunday. For someone whose unapologetic competitiveness famously alienated so many of his teammates, Kobe was idolized by his peers in a way few athletes have ever been. He wasn’t just an inspiration, but a mentor to many, in and beyond the basketball world.
I’ve frankly never seen an athlete with a platform like Kobe’s give as much as he did to women’s sports. He cheered for the USWNT, he cheered for the WNBA, he cheered for women’s tennis, he cheered for women’s college basketball. And he didn’t just use his celebrity to bring these sports attention. He made real, lasting relationships with numerous female athletes, from Sabrina Ionescu to Naomi Osaka, Sydney Leroux to Elena Delle Donne. He built facilities where he invited them to train and learn from him. He coached his daughter’s basketball team. He believed in these athletes, and he made sure that they knew it. The outpouring of collective grief from the women’s sports world these last few days is entirely unprecedented. There’s no other athlete that meant this much to other athletes.
Kobe’s fanatic obsession with greatness slowly transformed into a drive to spread success as far as he could. Nowhere was this more evident than in his relationship with his daughter, Gianna. I’m gutted just thinking about the fact that they were on their way to play and coach together. My heart aches for the Bryant family and for every other family involved in the crash.
Gianna, or Gigi, was supposed to grow up, go to UConn, and carry the Bryant legacy into the WNBA. Only 13 years old, she already had the Mamba mentality. And of all of Kobe’s retirement endeavors, none, not even the Oscar, came close to matching the incredible joy he showed in coaching his daughter. It was beyond powerful to watch an all-time great, in real time, pass along his confidence, strength, and self-belief to his proclaimed Mambacita. The fact that the helicopter was on its way to a basketball game, and was carrying multiple players and their parents, only underlines the deep tragedy of the accident.
Inevitably, you can’t tell Kobe’s story without mentioning his rape accusation. Like so many, I find it nearly impossible to reconcile the Kobe of 2003 with the Kobe of 2020, father to four girls and mentor to countless female athletes. Being a fan of Kobe has always meant trying (and usually failing) to reconcile these seemingly disparate characters. In this matter, his death provides little to no clarity.
Ultimately, I think we have to be willing to hold complicated views of complicated people. No accomplishment on or off the court will make the details of Kobe’s case any less sickening. In the same vain, it’s impossible to stand witness to the endless stream of grief and tribute that’s engulfed the sports world over these last few days and not feel awed by the transformative impact one person can have on so many others.
Kobe’s death is a painful reminder of just how emotionally invested we are in sports — more so than most of us even understand. But our grief gives us away. And while on the surface it might seem almost silly to see so many grown adults, myself included, mourning the loss of an athlete we never personally knew, the reality is that we don’t need to meet our heroes for them to have an impact on our lives. We just need to see a glimmer of our own struggles embodied and magnified in theirs. We just need to be reminded as often as possible of the heights that human audacity can achieve.
And in the case of Kobe, his impact on our lives will continue through the profound influence he had on his fellow athletes, male and female, across all sports. More than the trophies, or the records, or his place on any “all-time” list, Kobe’s legacy will be defined by those athletes who continue to channel his spirit in their own pursuits of greatness.
Kobe first gained notoriety for his unapologetic obsession with being historically significant. But as he grew older, he clearly began to realize that it was his relationships rather than his records that would allow him to continue to change the game well after his playing days were through. Kobe still had so much more to give, and Gigi still had her entire life to turn his gifts into her own.
In memory of all those who were lost in the accident: Kobe and Gianna Bryant; John and Keri Altobelli, and their daughter Alyssa; Sarah Chester and her daughter, Payton; Christina Mauser; and Ara Zobayan.
Our many condolences to their friends and families.
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