Rachel Banham kept the same gameday ritual throughout her illustrious Gophers basketball career. She’d wear a Kobe Bryant T-shirt under her practice uniform during walk-through, then keep it on the rest of the day as she attended class.
“It helped me stay in that Mamba mentality,” she said.
It wasn’t the same shirt every time. She has 20 or so Kobe shirts in her wardrobe, so she rotated them. She also has three Kobe game jerseys and is planning on buying another one.
Banham wasn’t just a fan. She and Kobe became friends, which still seems surreal to her, but their connection has made this week especially emotional as she processes the death of her basketball idol.
The helicopter crash that killed Bryant and eight others, including his 13-year-old daughter Gigi, reverberated shock and sorrow across the entire world. Banham finds herself alternating between denial and sadness. She needed a few days before sharing her thoughts.
“I’m kind of all over the place,” she said. “It’s hard to believe. I try to tell myself it’s not real. It’s just really sad.”
Banham belongs to the Kobe generation. He was her guy, just as Michael Jordan was the previous generation’s guy, and Magic Johnson was another age group’s guy. The current crop of NBA players felt that attachment to Kobe. They wore his number as kids.
“He was the person you looked up to,” Banham said.
Banham watched Kobe’s highlights on YouTube for hours, studying his moves. She practiced last-second shots with a countdown: “3-2-1 Kobe!!” She joined kids everywhere in yelling “Kobe” as she shot wads of paper into a trash can or empty water bottles into the recycling bin. Apparently, that act — yelling “Kobe” while shooting any object — remains a cultural phenomenon that I had no idea was a thing.
“You were living under a rock,” Banham said with a laugh.
Banham caught Kobe’s attention when she scored 60 points against Northwestern in her senior season in 2016. He tweeted congratulations to her.
“I was freaking out,” she recalled. “I was about to start crying.”
Bryant tweeted at her again after she made a winning three-pointer at the buzzer against Iowa a week later. He included a hashtag: #mambablood.
Banham traveled to Los Angeles later that season for the Wooden Award ceremony. She got Lakers tickets and was able to snag a pass to stand courtside during warmups. She wore a Kobe jersey, of course.
Bryant spotted her and yelled “Hey, Banham.” He ran over and hugged her. They talked for a few minutes, and he invited her to meet his family after the game.
“I was like, What is happening?” she said. “I can’t stop thinking about how awkward I was. I was so nervous.”
She met Kobe and his wife and two daughters outside the locker room. They chatted and took pictures.
“I didn’t know how to speak English all of a sudden,” she said. “I couldn’t put two words together because I was so scared. I just couldn’t believe this was happening and that he wanted to introduce me to his family.”
They didn’t go their separate ways after that day. Kobe sent Banham a direct message after she got drafted in the WNBA. He checked in to see how things were going. He started his messages with “Hey sis …”
“Trust me, I lost my mind,” she said.
He treated her like his younger sister, encouraging and supportive. He also would “like” tweets that she posted.
“I always knew he was paying attention,” she said.
Bryant became an ambassador for all of women’s basketball. He coached his daughter’s youth team and was a champion for the WNBA. Banham, from Lakeville, has played four seasons with the Connecticut Sun.
“I feel like women’s basketball and just women in general get so much grief when it comes to sports,” Banham said. “He was always standing up for us. He was another spokesperson. And being Kobe, that’s a big deal. People are going to listen.”
His voice is gone now, and that leaves an emptiness inside his fans. Banham was so devastated that she had a hard time getting out of bed Monday. She slowly felt motivated enough to resume her basketball workouts by the end of the week. She knows her friend would want that.