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The memories of Kobe and Gianna Bryant haven’t faded

From NBA stars to musicians like Drake, Kobe and Gigi’s legacy continues

A symbolic birthday, a lyrical homage and the world’s most talked about documentary. That’s all it took for the spirits of Kobe and Gianna Bryant to hold court this past weekend.

Gianna would’ve turned 14 on May 1. And across social media, thousands wished the young hooper known as “Mambacita” happy birthday posthumously and wore red wristbands in honor of her favorite color, including LeBron James, Carmelo and La La Anthony, Kim and Khloe Kardashian, Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez, Robin Roberts, Ciara and Russell Wilson, Misty Copeland and others.

Her birthday isn’t the first time Gianna’s spirit has loomed large in recent weeks, either. Last month, Gianna and her teammates Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester (both of whom also died in the crash) were named honorary picks in the 2020 WNBA draft. On the same day, the WNBA announced its newest honor, the Kobe & Gigi Bryant WNBA Advocacy Award, which recognizes an individual who made significant contributions to advancing women’s basketball. Even in death, she continues to change how the game is viewed, understood and appreciated.

In life, she was dubbed the heir apparent to her father’s massive basketball treasure chest. The way she chewed her jersey was a spitting image of her dad. Her scowl and fadeaway, too. What could’ve been of Gianna’s basketball legacy is, at best, poetic injustice. A subject that will always be raw to address. “You are part of MY SOUL forever,” wrote Vanessa Bryant on her Instagram page, which has been transformed into a makeshift memorial for Bryant and Gianna. “I miss you so much everyday. … I miss your smile, your hugs and your giggles. I miss EVERYTHING about YOU, Gigi.”

As the clock struck midnight on Gianna’s birthday, so came the arrival of Drake’s newest project, Dark Lane Demo Tapes, where he’d wax of his own personal connection to Gianna’s celebrated 18-time All-Star father.

Weezy played that s— for me and Kobe on the bus,” Drake rapped, referencing Lil Wayne’s Billboard chart-topping hit “Lollipop.” “We ain’t even get to reminiscin’ what it was,” the Toronto-born megastar shared on his song “From Florida With Love” on his first time meeting the Los Angeles Lakers legend.

On a recent episode of Lil Wayne’s Young Money Radio, Drake spoke of that 2008 tour bus moment with Bryant. Bryant was coming to get an iPod from Lil Wayne so he could hear Tha Carter III early. “I’m already floored that I’m sitting here talking to Lil Wayne as he’s bleeding out getting this angel wing [tattoo] on his side,” Drake said. “And then the next thing I know Kobe Bryant walks on the bus.”

The moment proved significant for all parties. Bryant was nearing the end of what would become his lone MVP season in 2007-08. Though his Lakers would lose to the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals, Bryant would be a vital part of Team USA’s international revival in the Beijing Games, headlined by a virtuoso gold-medal game performance. Lil Wayne was in the midst of a peerlessly prolific run, releasing a litany of legendary mixtapes, albums and features from 2004 to 2009. Tha Carter III would eventually sell a million copies in its first week and would cement him, at the time, as the greatest rapper alive. Meanwhile, Drake hadn’t yet become the superstar we see today, but he was on the cusp. A year later, thanks to his genre-bending So Far Gone mixtape, he’d take home rap’s rookie of the year award — something not even Bryant did. But that moment with Lil Wayne and Bryant, both at the top of their respective crafts then, holds a significant level of emotional real estate with Drake.

A Drake co-sign in the sports world is big business. “From Florida With Love” is far from Drake’s first foray using athletes as a creative muse. On the new project, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Scottie Pippen all receive lyrical kites from rap’s supreme hit-maker. But it’s one directed to the late four-time All-Star Game MVP that tugs at the heartstrings differently. History lives in the reference, and at times it wasn’t always comfortable. Drake’s infamously instigating “Stay Schemin” verse, in particular its “shooting in the gym” bar, drew the understandable ire from Vanessa Bryant in 2013. Drake would later apologize via text message.

Three years later, during Bryant’s last All-Star Game in Toronto, Drake donned a “Farewell Mamba” jacket while sitting courtside. On 2016’s “Views,” he boasted, “Me and Niko used to plot on how to make a change/ Now me and Kobe doin’ shots the night before the game.” And in his “Toosie Slide” video this year, Bryant’s No. 8 and No. 24 jerseys are on display in his Toronto mansion.

Capping off an already active weekend came Bryant’s brief but moving appearance in the fifth episode of The Last Dance, which was dedicated to the soon-to-be Hall of Famer. According to the Los Angeles Times’ Arash Markazi, the interview was filmed at Bryant’s Costa Mesa, California, office last summer, and was edited a week before his death. Most conversations around Bryant — “that little Laker boy,” as Michael Jordan called him ahead of the 1998 All-Star Game — normally always come with the disclaimer that his death feels more like a grotesque nightmare than inescapable reality.

Vanessa Bryant touched on that reality when she celebrated the anniversary of his final game on April 13, citing on Instagram, “I wish I could go back to that morning, every day. … Life truly isn’t fair. This is just senseless.” Just days later came her 19th wedding anniversary. And she’s already dealt with her first Valentine’s Day — Bryants favorite holiday — without him.

But there was a rhythm in his mannerisms that felt familiar Sunday night. A vibration in his emotions and vocal inflections that, even the most ardent Bryant critics had to admit, felt so peaceful. He was a basketball savant who, surprising to most of us, didn’t need his past triumphs to fulfill his future happiness. But it was still spiritually nourishing to hear him talk basketball.

He wasn’t as integral to the story of Jordan and the Chicago Bulls as, say, Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons or John Stockton, Karl Malone and the Utah Jazz. But he mattered. Sunday night was a reminder of what a gift Bryant was, but a sharp reminder that most sports fans will live our lives without Bryant longer than we had with him. And, for some, that makes for a lifelong process with no clear resolution that acceptance lies in the distance.

As days become weeks, weeks become months, months become years and years become decades, we’ll be reminded of Kobe and Gianna Bryant in various facets, just like this past weekend. For instance, this year’s NBA All-Star Game was a tribute to Bryant, with both teams wearing his and Gianna’s jersey numbers.

Speaking about one without the other is much like coming to grips with what happened Jan. 26, inconceivable. That’s what Vanessa Bryant meant in February when she said, “God knew.” The world was robbed of Kobe Bryant, the basketball elder statesman like Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Jerry West. Or Gianna Bryant, the future UConn Huskie, potential WNBA champion and MVP. Those who knew them best were robbed of Kobe, the life partner, the future grandfather, the “I give this woman” patriarch at weddings and friend. Or Gigi, the daughter, the sister, somebody’s soulmate. Referring to Kobe and Gianna Bryant in the past tense feels wrong.

But to leave a legacy means to live forever. Three months later already feels like a lifetime. But it’s fair to say both father and daughter left just that.

Justin Tinsley is a culture and sports writer for The Undefeated. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single-most impactful statement of his generation.