The late Gianna Bryant, Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester were named honorary draft picks by the WNBA on Friday. The three teenage teammates died in a helicopter crash in January, along with Bryant's dad, basketball legend .
The WNBA draft event — which was held virtually this year due to the coronavirus pandemic — began with a tribute to , who was killed on January 26 along with Gianna, Alyssa, Payton, Sarah Chester, John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, Christina Mauser and pilot Ara Zobayan. They were heading to the girls' basketball game at Bryant's Mamba Sports Academy at the time of the crash.
"Kobe was not only a legendary basketball star but a devoted youth coach and had a tremendous impact on countless young players," commissioner Cathy Engelbert said from her home, noting Mr. Bryant's "unparalleled" passion for women's basketball.
"These athletes represented the future of the WNBA," Engelbert said of the three girls. "They represented the next generation of stars in our league, maybe what would have been called the 'Mambacita' generation."
Payton's father, Chris Chester, Alyssa's siblings, J.J. and Lexi Altobelli, and Gianna's mother, Vanessa Bryant, were all featured in the draft announcement video to thank the WNBA for the tribute.
"Thank you so much for honoring my Gigi and selecting her to be an honorary draft pick this year," Vanessa said. "It would've been a dream come true for her. She worked tirelessly every single day. She wanted to be one of the greatest athletes of all time, just like her daddy. So thank you, thank you for honoring my little girl."
"Work hard. Never settle. Use that Mamba Mentality," she said as words of advice to this year's draft picks.
The league also announced the creation of the "Kobe and Gigi Bryant WNBA Advocacy Award," to honor a player who makes outstanding contributions to the advancement of girl's and women's basketball. Vanessa will play a role in helping to select the recipient of the award and present it each year at NBA All-Star.
"Kobe was an incredible champion of women's basketball and Gianna shared his passion and dedication to our game," Engelbert said in a statement announcing the award. "The Kobe & Gigi Bryant WNBA Advocacy Award will honor their legacy and reflect Kobe's commitment to mentoring the next generation of players, promoting the game and giving back to the community."
Gianna, also known as Gigi, Alyssa and Payton played alongside each other on the Mamba team, coached by Kobe, and dreamed of playing basketball in college and beyond. Gianna was featured heavily in tributes by the basketball community to her father.
Gianna had dreamed of playing for the University of Connecticut before going pro. Days after the crash, the UConn women's basketball teamthe lives lost with an empty section of courtside seats, draping a jersey featuring Gianna's number two over one of the seats. "Mambacita is forever a Husky," the team said.