I can’t say I ever liked Kobe Bryant as a player. After all, he was the brash young kid who came out of high school and went straight into the NBA, only to spurn the Charlotte Hornets so that he could play for the Los Angeles Lakers. Those same Lakers that I detested throughout the 80s when I was a big Celtics fan. When the sexual assault charges were brought against him in 2003, my disdain for him grew. I expect that people will think about this inexplicable mistake for years after his death as a question of his legacy and that’s probably fair (though those who bring it up within 24 hours really do so in poor taste).
But it’s really the years since that incident that came to mind when I heard the news on Sunday about his untimely death. I prefer his days wearing number 24 than number 8, and his post-playing tracksuits and business suits even more. You see, Kobe and I had something very important in common: we were the father of only girls–and we both took the responsibility very seriously. In fact, Kobe’s love for his daughters inspired the hashtag #GirlDad. But while I’ve seen a lot of the posts about #GirlDad, most show pictures of men doting on their cute daughters. That’s sweet and I love every one, but if that’s what you took away from Kobe Bryant’s role as a father, you miss one of the most important legacies is that he managed to leave.
You see, this ultra talented, ultra competitive gym-rat workaholic pretty much managed to put his girls above all else. In age of deadbeat dads and domestic violence from athletes (including one of the stars of today’s Super Bowl once being on record demanding that his child and his wife should both be scared of him), you had Kobe. He made a point of prioritizing those girls, but as they grew up, he didn’t infantilize them. No, he was focused on doing his part and turning his young daughters into strong, confident women. The man structured his schedule so that he could drive his kids to and from school just to get those 20 minutes to talk to them and listen to them–just like I’ve started to do with Iris. He didn’t force them to play basketball, but once his second daughter did show an interest, he gave her every opportunity (just like Robyn, who has turned into a pretty serious coder). Meanwhile, outside of his own girls, he worked to make the world a better place for women in general. I like to say that as I prepare Iris & Robyn for the world, I am also trying to prepare the world for Iris & Robyn. That’s what Kobe was doing. Great stories around his support for the WNBA, his support for women college players, and a special bond with the University of Connecticut basketball team (where his daughter Gianna dreamed of playing) and their legendary coach were examples of where he gave credibility ingredients to women in an industry dominated by men. In some ways, he was paying it forward–just as I try to do when I work with organizations like WAM or mentor young women in entrepreneurship and engineering. Of all the clips that I’ve been re-run that I hadn’t seen before, my favorite was when he was on Jimmy Kimmel and told people how everybody begged him to have a son to carry on the legend, and his daughter would interject with “no, I got this”. And most importantly, Kobe looked at her and said “yeah, that’s right, you got this”. It’s as if he was saying, you are not limited for being a girl. That’s no excuse and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise–just as I do when I remind Robyn that, if she chooses to go the entrepreneurial route, she’s gonna make a heck of a lot more money and be a whole lot more successful with her future company than her father ever could.
And that makes the loss of Gianna Bryant even more heartbreaking than that of Kobe, if that is at all possible. The fruits of that parenting would have been magnificent to watch come to life, just as I expect Iris & Robyn to be a lot of fun to watch and I’m really hopeful that I get a chance to see it all.
Last month, Cherise and I took care of our trust and our will, which includes a lot of language about what happens if something happens to us. There’s nothing more sobering than imagining your children without you around. I used to absolutely dread the thought ten years ago and it’s still the greatest fear of my mortality now. But in the last 14 years, I feel like I’ve forged together a body a work that will take the girls far. Still, I worry that they might someday lose the understanding of how much I cared for them. We’ve written 19 annual family letters, I’ve been writing this blog off and on for 14 years, and I post a lot on Facebook about the girls when something relatively major happens. A lot of people appreciate it and provide thoughtful comments in appreciation, while others undoubtedly think it’s some level of bragging. Frankly, I don’t care what anyone thinks. Because in case you didn’t know, the main reason I do most of those posts are because if anything happens to us, I never went there be a doubt that their father loved them, cared for them, and believed in them more than seems humanly possible–just like Kobe did with his stories on talk shows. His surviving daughters will miss their father more than can be put into words, but there will never be a doubt of how much he cared for them. And for that, every father can learn the real power of being a #GirlDad.