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An Appreciation

Kobe Bryant’s impact on youth sports: ‘He was a voice who opened up doors’

The loss of a basketball legend leaves a void for others to continue his legacy

When Lolana “Lane” Madrid caught wind that Roseville High School’s athletic department was facing a financial crisis last year as a high school freshman, she knew exactly what to do.

Reach out to Kobe Bryant.

It didn’t matter that she had met Bryant just once, while playing for the Cal Stars AAU team that had faced the Mamba Academy team featuring his daughter, Gianna. It didn’t make a difference that her school sits in a northern suburb of Sacramento, California, more than 400 miles from where Bryant spent his entire NBA career in Los Angeles. Lane just believed the basketball legend might want to help make a difference in her program.

She was right.

“I thought it might be a long shot that he would respond or help out, and he did both,” said Lane, who reached out via Instagram. “A few weeks later he sent our school a check for $5,000.”

Bryant, as a basketball player, was as fierce a competitor that the game has ever seen.

Bryant, as he transitioned into the next stage of his life, brought that same intensity as an advocate for youth sports and women’s sports. The impact he made in both areas — and the impact he planned to keep making — will be greatly missed with Bryant’s death Sunday in a helicopter accident that took nine lives, including that of Gianna, who was just 13.

“In terms of youth sports, Kobe treated it as something that we need to pay attention to,” said Tom Farrey, founder of Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program, which launched through Project Play the Don’t Retire, Kid campaign last year — with the help of Bryant — aimed at keeping youths connected with sports. “We launched the whole campaign through his Twitter account. With him having over 14 million followers, that really mattered.”

Bryant’s interest in women’s sports could be fully understood by the athletic events he attended regularly — from women’s college basketball games to women’s tennis to WNBA games.

After Bryant’s death, it was clear that many female athletes looked up to Bryant as if he were a big brother.

Tennis star Naomi Osaka, in words shared on social media after Bryant’s death, thanked him for his support, which included checking on her after her “hard losses.”

Sabrina Ionescu, the Oregon guard who’s considered the best women’s hoops player in the nation, communicated several days a week with Bryant and would also see him and his daughter Gianna courtside at her games. “Everything I do, I do for him,” Ionescu said, fighting through tears during a postgame television interview after Oregon’s game on Sunday night against Oregon State. “And this season’s for him.”

And Connecticut’s women’s basketball team, Gianna’s favorite team, would often see father and daughter at games. The school laid out a No. 2 UConn jersey on the team’s bench before Monday’s exhibition game against Team USA in honor of Gianna.

“The first time she was at a game, she was like a little kid looking up at our players,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said during a news session on Monday. “She was so excited. Imagine the absurdity of that. Your father is Kobe Bryant, and the most excited you’ve been in a long time is being around college women’s basketball players. But that’s what it meant to her. That’s what she aspired to be.”

Bryant explained his affinity for women’s sports during last year’s US Open, where he attended matches played by Coco Gauff and Osaka while promoting his children’s book Legacy and the Queen. He told the story of the frustration encountered by Gianna trying to find a UConn women’s game on television while seeing countless options to watch lesser men’s teams.

“This is one of the best women’s teams of all time, and we had to do research to find where to watch the game online,” Bryant said. “How can you make that change? With girls, it’s something that hits home. I don’t want them to feel as if they’re valued less.”

The appeal of Bryant to many of the young girls and opposing youth coaches was his gift to communicate with him as his basketball equals. That’s what led him to strike up a conversation with the 14-year-old Lane after she competed against Gianna and her Mamba Academy team last year. During the postgame handshake line, Bryant complimented Lane on her 3-point shooting. Lane, in return, asked Bryant for advice.

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Sometime ago Kobe told Jim Gray that when he was 15 he made a promise to himself at the end of his career that he wanted people to think of him as a talented over achiever. Blessed with talent but worked as if he had none. He will definitely be known as that and more. He was more than just an athlete. He had a kind heart and touched the lives of many people. He gave me hope for my future in basketball through his advice and the example he set every night he stepped foot on the floor. I had the honor of meeting Kobe and his daughter Gigi last summer and created a friendship with him. They were both great talented individuals that got taken away way too soon. To some people basketball is more than just a game, to others it’s a way of life and for Kobe Bryant it was not only a way of life but a way of mentality. A mentality that expected perfection and only led to greatness. I will never forget the advice and kindness you showed me. Thank you for inspiring me to be more. You are and will forever be a true legend. 🕊#mambamentalityforever

A post shared by Lane Madrid (@lane.madrid) on

“I want to be where you’re at as a player,” Lane said. “He told me it was all about repetition. And then we starting talking basketball.”

Lane was already following Bryant via her Instagram basketball page. Bryant followed her back, to the envy of her classmates and friends. “My friends were saying, ‘That’s not real,’ ” Lane said.

Which was exactly the thought of her high school coach, Allen Darte, when Lane told him that Bryant had promised to help the program.

“I’ll admit there was some doubt, and I was a little hesitant,” Darte said. “It wasn’t until we got the check that it struck me. Here we were, a little school in Roseville, receiving financial support from an NBA legend. We used a major portion of the funds to travel to a tournament in the Bay Area. It was a huge blessing.”

It was also a blessing for George Rodriguez last month when the AAU team that he coaches, Hoop Dreams, played Bryant’s Mamba team at a tournament in Anaheim, California. After the game, in which Rodriguez’s team lost, Bryant went out of his way to compliment the girls.

”My girls play hard, and Kobe acknowledged their grit and was really appreciative of the way they played the game,” said Rodriguez. “He told us, ‘You are welcome to play in our series anytime.’ ”

Which is how his team wound up in California over the weekend to play in the tournament at the Mamba Academy.

“I was talking to him on Saturday, and he told me to bring my girls over to his game on Sunday because he wanted to know how they were enjoying themselves on the circuit,” Rodriguez said. “We had just finished our game on Sunday and were headed over to the court to see his team when the news hit.”

In a gym filled with the noise of basketball action, balls began to drop. Shoes stopped squeaking. Whistles stopped blowing.

“There were no PA announcements, the gym just stopped and what emerged was an eerie silence,” Rodriguez said. “After the quiet, everybody broke down. …

”He was a guy that had a knack of getting the best out of people, and he was such a great influence on all sports, and I appreciate what he was doing with women’s sports.”

For Farrey, Bryant’s blessing came when he got on board with the Aspen Institute’s Project Play initiative.

“Project Play launched in 2013 and Kobe was the first big athlete to come to one of our events, which was televised by ESPN,” Farrey said. “That event doesn’t get televised if Kobe isn’t there.”

When Bryant retired in 2016, Farrey made his pitch to get Bryant on board.

“From the moment he sat down with me, he was in,” Farrey said. “I think he was just really kind of of kicking the tires to make sure I wasn’t going to be difficult to work with.”

Once Bryant was on board, other professional athletes quickly got involved in Don’t Retire, Kid campaign, including Clayton Kershaw and Albert Pujols.

“The call was, ‘We’re doing this campaign and Kobe’s behind it,’ ” Farrey said. “My elevator speech was, ‘He’s doing some taped material for us, can you do the same?’ And they said yes.”

They partnered with Project Play because one of the greatest athletes of all time was all in.

And now Bryant is gone.

”With his passion and intellect, he was laying the groundwork for some really big things aimed at speaking to the needs and interests of young people,” Farrey said. “He was a voice who opened up doors, and was credible. I’m just sad we’re no longer going to have that.”

For Lane, she was getting comfortable seeking basketball advice from a superstar.

Now the days of reaching out to Bryant have come to an abrupt and tragic end.

“You could just tell that he and Gigi were really ready to make an impact on women’s sports, and it’s sad that he’s gone,” Lane said. “I just hope someone will step up and continue his legacy.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.