The last time Napheesa Collier saw Gigi Bryant they played a little one-on-one at Gigi’s dad’s Mamba Academy.
Kobe Bryant’s Mamba Academy.
“She was just like him,’’ Collier, the Lynx star and reigning WNBA rookie of the year, said over the phone Monday. “She was more competitive than anyone, even people I play against in the WNBA. Such a fireball, the energy she brought to the game, and to life in general. She was just like him. They were like twins.’’
The news of Bryant and his daughter being among the victims in a helicopter crash that claimed nine lives in California on Sunday was jarring to everyone. Collier was among those who felt the shock of losing someone they knew.
Collier’s fiancé is Alex Bazzell, a skills coach who works with NBA and WNBA players. He also regularly worked with Gigi and her team at the academy. Collier, who works out there during the offseason, got to know the Byrant family well. She first met Kobe when she was in college at Connecticut, when he brought his daughter to the NCAA Women’s Final Four. She got to know him better while working out before her senior year, when he invited her to work out with his girls; team and asked Bazzell to help with the team.
Collier heard the news while on a plane traveling back from China.
“Just extreme sadness,’’ she said. “Every time, after you finished talking with him, you’d think, ‘What an amazing person.’ You see it these last couple days, the stories people are telling. He made you feel special when you talked to him. He made you feel better about yourself. This is so sad. Unthinkable, really. It doesn’t feel real yet.’’
Collier recalled that last one-one-one game. It had been a while, and Gigi had grown. “She was going at me with everything, not backing down at all. She was not scared to go against someone twice her age.’’