Gabby Williams: My Friendship With Kobe And Gianna Bryant

Gabrielle Lisa “Gabby” Williams was an All-American who played in four NCAA Women’s Final Fours and won two national championships at the University of Connecticut before embarking on a professional career with the WNBA’s Chicago Sky in 2018. She has also played professionally overseas in France, Italy and Spain, winning the Spanish League Championship with Spar Citylift Uni Girona in 2019. She is currently playing in Hungary with Sopron Basket.

She knew both Kobe Bryant and Gianna — or “Gigi,” as Bryant called his daughter — from having spent time and working out with both of them at the Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, CA (now known as the Sports Academy).

She was in France last year when she learned of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe, 41, Gianna, 13, academy teammates Alyssa Altobelli, Payton Chester, Christina Mauser (a basketball coach at the Harbor Day School in Newport Beach that Gianna attended), and four others. But she speaks of her memories about the father and daughter duo, one which became a legend and another who was on her way.

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I first met them when they came to a game Connecticut played at UCLA my senior year, in 2017. I’ve heard I was her favorite player. I don’t know if I was always her favorite player; I’m sure she also looked up to a lot of WNBA players.

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I went out to California in 2018 to help work with the girls at the Mamba Academy. I thought Kobe were just going to watch, but he ended up hopping right in and we did it all together — me, Kobe and (LA Sparks center) Candace Parker, getting in some reps, working on some moves.

RELATED: Mamba And Mambacita: Remembering Kobe And Gianna ‘Gigi’ Bryant’s Beautiful Father-Daughter Bond

Father and Daughter

Kobe and Gigi were just the most down-to-earth people. They say, “never meet your heroes,” so I was nervous that my perception of him would change when I met him. But the “perception” just got 100 times better once we had an interaction. He was always so warm. He treated me like I’d known him forever. That’s just how he treated everybody.

And I was always excited when I got to see Gigi and the rest of the girls (on the team at the academy). It [felt] weird that they were looking up to me and I’m thinking, “Kobe is right here.” But they were always excited when we got to work out. And it made it really fun when I got to work out with him.

There were moves Kobe showed me in that first workout that I still use when I play now. But I think the best piece of advice he ever gave me was last year, when (Chicago Sky Coach) James Wade moved me from forward to backup point guard. I was having a difficult time because that’s one hell of a jump to make, never having played point guard in my collegiate or professional career. And I kept having all these excuses — “Why did he do it, I can’t do this” — and Kobe was like “(expletive) it, why can’t you? Just go do it all.” It was so simple, but it stuck with me. I don’t think he knew it would resonate with me the way it did. But I realized why can’t I do it all?

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Gigi definitely had her mom’s smile. And the whole family are just warm people. They treat you so kindly when you meet them. They have to know you may have been intimidated a bit by Kobe the first time you met him — [but] they made that easy to do. But when it was time to get down to [working out or playing] they were so focused. I asked Gigi one time when Kobe wasn’t around, “Are you cool with playing for your dad?” I asked that because there are kids who struggle with that and it can ruin a relationship when you see parents pushing their kids. She was like, “I love it.” And you could see they genuinely loved just spending time together. Kobe loved that he had a passion he could share with her.

Becoming A Phenom On Her Own

She was naturally gifted and athletic. But Gigi also worked hard. One practice I thought I was just going to be playing “dummy” defense with the team. And then I’m out of breath and wondering “how are these kids so disciplined at 12-years-old?” That was the coolest thing for me to see — they were genuinely pushing themselves. I didn’t have it then. And Gigi had it even though she was naturally gifted. She was working to be the best player.

RELATED: Kobe Bryant’s Daughter’s Basketball Skills Have Folks Calling Her ‘Black Mambacita’

For all of them who played at the academy, that [work ethic] was something Kobe instilled in them. I was just blown away. But they were still 12- and 13-year-old girls. It was fun seeing their seriousness on the court, and then off the court they were all giggling, and taking pictures and stuff.

My strongest memory? I would say, other than the advice from Kobe, what sticks with me the most was when I saw them at the WNBA All-Star game in 2019. Every time I saw them he was so warm, offering hugs. But at the game just seeing her being so excited to be there….Sometimes you forget the realm that you’re in, then you see a kid so impressed with what you’re doing and the atmosphere she’s in. It was special. I was happy she got to experience that with her dad there.

I had just gotten back from practice {when I found out about the accident); I was in my living room, eating dinner, when people started calling me and asking if it was true. My first thought was wondering if Gigi was on the helicopter, too, and that was confirmed 20 minutes later. There are still a lot of times where it feels like it hasn’t sunk in. I’ll get memories of being out there (in California) with them and it gets weird. But I know it’s not gonna happen this year.

RELATED: Kobe Bryant Says His Baller Daughter Gigi Got Him To Watch NBA Games Again

Moving Forward

We should honor their memory. I’m for changing the NBA logo (from Jerry West to) Kobe. I hope they also continue with the academy and I’m for keeping the “Mamba” name for those girls that played with Alyssa, Payton and Gigi. For me, my heart breaks the most for them. I’ve only had a few conversations with the parents but, they were so invested in them. It [felt like] a big family.

For the [other] girls, that’s got to be such a hard thing to go through at that age, to lose your best friends so tragically.  So we support them and watch them grow, because they’re playing for Gigi and Kobe and Alyssa and Peyton. They’ll be the ones who carry that torch.

— as told to Mike Terry

(Photo Credit: Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images)

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