Kobe Bryant kisses his daughter Gianna
Kobe Bryant kisses his daughter Gianna Image Credit: AP

Los Angeles: The WNBA honoured Gianna Bryant, Payton Chester and Alyssa Altobelli, who were among the nine killed in a January helicopter crash that also claimed the life of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, by selecting the three girls as honorary draft picks to open Friday’s WNBA draft.

Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, sitting in front of a book case in her home during the virtual draft, announced each girl’s name individually, beginning with the phrase “The WNBA selects.” As ESPN showed shots of honorary jerseys, Engelbert announced the selections of Altobelli, a guard from Newport Beach; Bryant, a guard from Newport Beach; and Chester, a forward from San Juan Capistrano.

“They represented the next generation of stars in our league,” Engelbert said, “what might have been called as the Mambacita generation.”

Each girl, 13 years old at the time of the crash, was a promising basketball prospect with dreams of playing in college and eventually in the WNBA. While Bryant was set on attending Connecticut, Altobelli and Chester were fervent Oregon fans. In a pre-recorded message from Altobelli’s siblings, her brother JJ, an Oregon baseball player, wore a green Oregon sweatshirt, saying he was sure his younger sister would have gone onto the WNBA after her college career with the Ducks.

Vanessa Bryant, wearing an orange WNBA hoodie that belonged to her late husband, recorded a tearful message, saying being drafted into the WNBA “would have been a dream come true for (Gianna)”.

“She wanted to be one of the greatest athletes of all time,” Vanessa said, “just like her daddy.”

The oversized orange sweatshirt Vanessa wore was a personal gift to Kobe from Engelbert, who gave the item to the NBA Hall of Famer after they met at the WNBA league offices last summer. Engelbert said Kobe was the only NBA player to meet with her when she became commissioner last year. He grew into a visible and vocal supporter for women’s basketball as Gianna took to the sport.

“His passion for the WNBA and girls basketball was unparalleled by anyone I had ever met,” Engelbert said of her takeaway from meeting Bryant.

After the tribute that opened the two-hour draft show, Sabrina Ionescu was the first official pick of the WNBA draft, going to the New York Liberty. The former Oregon star called Kobe a “mentor” and became a role model for the three young players by helping with their practices and workouts.

“I think it was a very beautiful thing that the WNBA did to be able to draft those three girls,” Ionescu said. “They deserved it and I know they’re looking down and smiling and really excited about it.”