HARTFORD, Conn. – Kobe Bryant always had an interest in women's basketball, one that he shared with many in the sport even before his daughter Gianna started excelling at the game.
Whether it was mentoring players like Diana Taurasi, Jewell Loyd and Sabrina Ionescu or working out with Gabby Williams and Katie Lou Samuelson, Bryant routinely gave of himself to help them improve their games.
But he had only scratched the surface.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma believes that Bryant's biggest contributions to women's basketball were in front of him before the NBA great and his daughter were killed in a helicopter crash Sunday.
“I don’t think he got a chance to really establish (a legacy) in our game," Auriemma said. “The next 30 years, he might have. The next generation of kids who knew his daughter and played with Gigi. He gets involved at a whole another level. He was just getting started."
Taurasi was one of the first WNBA players that Bryant worked with, even dubbing her the White Mamba — a take on his nickname the Black Mamba.
“He came to L.A. when I was a freshman in high school and we grew up together in many ways," Taurasi said, “He worked with me and others because he wanted to see us succeed since we had similar obsessions to the game of basketball."
Once he retired from the NBA, Bryant became more of a presence at college games with Gianna, who was enamored with UConn. Bryant spent time coaching Gianna's youth team and Loyd was so impressed with what he had done with them.
“A lot of the resources are for men’s basketball and there was not a lot of access for a lot of females. Kobe wanted to change that," said Loyd. “They were so fundamentally sound and played so well together it was fun to watch."
Loyd remembered first meeting Bryant when she was in high school. She grew up in Chicago and went to one of his Lakers games. She started following him on Twitter and messaged him. He messaged back and answered her questions.
“Once a week, I’d hit him up and ask him questions about the game. Ever since that we’ve been really close. It was my senior year of high school," she said. “Officially meeting him when I went to the Wooden Awards in LA. They had a game the same day as the ceremony. We sat there and talked for the whole halftime. ... We’ve been texting back and forth after that."
Bryant was at the women's Final Four in Columbus, Ohio in 2018 and saw the thrilling game where Arike Ogunbowale hit a shot to beat UConn and eventually lift Notre Dame to the national championship.
Sue Bird got to know Bryant at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. She is well aware there are people who didn't believe Bryant should have been involved with the women's game, a sentiment that dates back to charges in 2003 of him with attacking a 19-year-old employee at a Colorado resort.
Bryant had said the two had consensual sex, and the charge was eventually dropped when the woman declined to testify in a trial. The woman later filed a civil suit against Bryant that was settled out of court.
“We live in a rough time where a lot of hard lines are drawn about a lot of things that make it tough to navigate. The thing with Kobe, I think, is that he truly respected the women's game.," Bird said. “Yes, his daughter started playing and he was able to teach her. That was really special, but he respected our game before that.
“I understand his past, he's gone out of his way to mentor people I know well. I know he's had a positive impact on them. It's the world we live in right now, it's difficult. He's made a lot of positive impact on a lot of people."
One of those people is Ionescu, the Oregon star guard.
Bryant struck up a friendship with Ionescu, who worked out with him in the summer and fall. After an invitation from Bryant, last spring she sat on the bench during one of Gianna's AAU tournaments after Ionescu had been in Los Angeles for the Wooden Award.
The Ducks star honored Bryant on her sneakers before the Ducks win over rival Oregon State on Sunday. She dedicated the rest of the season to him in a postgame TV interview.
When he wasn't at college games, Bryant would make appearances at WNBA contests and took Gianna with him to the All-Star Game in Las Vegas last summer. He was always imparting wisdom to players and had great relationships with many of them.
Over the last two years he was seen at games in Los Angeles, Oregon and Connecticut, always with Gianna.
“You could just see the look in her eyes. She was so excited," Auriemma said. “The absurdity of that. Your father is Kobe Bryant and the most excited you’ve been is being around college women’s basketball players. That’s what it meant to her."
Georgia women's coach Joni Taylor said Bryant's support for women's hoops went much further than Gianna's aspirations:
“He was a fan" of the women's game, Taylor said. “He was at the Final Four. ... He supported college basketball, the WNBA, all levels.
“He was a champion for us.”
AP Sports Writer Charles Odum in Athens, Georgia contributed to this report
Follow Doug Feinberg on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/dougfeinberg