Breanna Stewart was sitting in the hallway of her hotel, looking at her phone, completely shocked. “This can’t be true. This can’t be true,” she repeated. The best women’s basketball player in the world was getting blown up with texts from family and friends: “Did you see what happened with Kobe?” She hadn’t. Then she checked Twitter.
“We just got hit with a bomb,” Stewart says. “I can’t believe it.”
Kobe Bryant was killed in Calabasas, Calif., on Sunday morning when the helicopter he was in crashed and caught on fire. The Los Angeles Lakers legend was 41 years old. His 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, a basketball superstar in the making, was also killed along with seven other people.
Bryant’s death has stunned the world. The news hit Stewart on Sunday afternoon while she was in the middle of interviews. She’s here in Hartford, Conn., with the U.S. national team preparing to play her alma mater, UConn, in an exhibition game. The matchup is a highly anticipated one, given that it’s also Stewart’s big return to the hardwood. The 2018 WNBA MVP missed all of the 2019 season after rupturing her right Achilles tendon last April during the EuroLeague championship game. She’s spent the past nine months rehabbing, and now, as she sits slumped in a chair in a Marriott hallway, unexpectedly thinks about Bryant and how he impacted her life.
Bryant was one of Stewart’s greatest supporters during her lengthy and often frustrating rehab process. He could empathize with her, having gone through it himself in 2013. Fresh off winning the 2018 WNBA title with the Seattle Storm, Stewart spent the following offseason with the Dynamo Kursk of Russia. While playing in the league final in Sopron, Hungary, she landed wrong on fellow WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was defending her for Russia’s UMMC Ekaterinburg. Stewart grabbed her ankle and fell to the ground—she knew immediately it was her Achilles. She took a plane home the next day for evaluation and surgery, and the moment she landed from a 14-and-a-half-hour flight from Vienna to LAX, she had a text waiting from Bryant.
“He was like, ‘Hey, this is Kobe. I just wanted to reach out to you and let you know if you need anything, I’m here,’” Stewart recalls the message saying. “It was a weird time. I wasn’t in the greatest of moods, but I appreciated that. The thing with the Achilles is it stays with you forever. So now, I’m invested in every person I come across who has an Achilles injury. I think he’s the same. He wants to help people. He reached out to me. I’m sure he reached out to [Kevin Durant].”
Stewart had surgery four days after her injury and used the same surgeon, Neal ElAttrache of the Kerlan-Jobe clinic in L.A., as Bryant had six years prior. “When you see someone did Kobe’s surgery, I’m like, OK, of course I’m going to do that, too,” Stewart says.
While Stewart never caught one of Bryant’s NBA games live, she grew up watching. She says she respects him for what he’s done for the game and even more for how involved he’s been on the women’s side. Stewart remembers first meeting him at the 2018 Women’s Final Four, when UConn lost to Notre Dame in the semifinal. Bryant and his family sat behind the Huskies bench. Gigi had aspirations of playing in college, maybe one day for UConn, and was on her way to achieving her goals with her father as her coach. Team USA basketball staffers can also recollect how at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, Bryant came to the women’s games when he could and supported them throughout those gold medal runs.
“He has a lot of respect for the women’s game,” Stewart says. “He’s just always interested and paying attention. I mean, he’s one of the best to ever do it. I’m feeling terrible for his family and supporting them.”
Stewart says Bryant checked in with her often after that initial text last spring. He wasn’t one of those stars who told her to reach out and didn’t actually mean it. “He’s super genuine,” Stewart says, taking a deep breath. “He cares about people. I saw him last summer at [the WNBA] All-Star game, and he asked how I was doing. Knowing that he felt for me and he wanted to be there for me [was special].”
Stewart couldn’t stop shaking her head, still hoping that the news wasn’t real. She knows it will eventually hit her hard. “I’m shocked right now,” she says. “Some things don’t hit you right away, and you don’t believe they’re true. This is one of them. LeBron just passed Kobe yesterday on the all-time leading scoring list! To see all the stuff coming out on the respect between the two of them and then to hear this news today. … Life is unpredictable and you never know.”
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