On April 13, 2016, Kobe Bryant played his final game in the NBA. The five-time league champion, perennial All Star, and undisputed Hall of Famer turned in a 60-point performance, capping off a 20-year career with a flourish befitting one of the best to ever play the game.
But as he stepped off the court for the last time, Kobe's thoughts were on a legacy of a different kind. He took the mic to thank fans, teammates and Lakers Nation for their support throughout the years, ending with a special message for his family -- wife Vanessa and their daughters.
"To my family, thank you guys for all your sacrifices," he said emotionally. "All the time I spent in the gym and training, Vanessa holding down the family like the way you have, I can't thank you enough. There is no way I can thank you enough for that. From the bottom of my heart, thank you."
In the final years of his career, Kobe made it no secret that he was looking forward to spending more time with his family, praising his wife for being the backbone of their household amid his rigorous training and travel schedule. The NBA legend got candid about not taking Vanessa for granted in a 2015 television documentary, Kobe Bryant's Muse, in which he opened up for the first time about the ups and downs of his marriage, including the effect his 2003 sexual assault charges had on his relationship with his wife.
"It would have been really easy for her to leave, actually," he said, growing emotional as he recalled Vanessa telling him that she wanted to fight for their relationship for the sake of daughter Natalia, who was just an infant at the time. "Especially during that time. It would have been much easier to leave. You leave, you take half the money, and you have your daughter… she's good. But she didn't do that."
Years later, Vanessa -- who, some would argue, bore the brunt of public scrutiny for the couple's ups and downs in the shadow of Kobe's celebrity -- did file for divorce. In late 2011, the Bryants announced that they were splitting, citing irreconcilable differences, only to once again quietly reconnect, calling off proceedings in January 2013. "We are pleased to announce that we have reconciled," Vanessa posted on Instagram at the time. "Our divorce action will be dismissed. We are looking forward to our future together."
The couple seemed to find real bliss in their "second era," welcoming their two youngest daughters as Kobe transitioned to a life after basketball. Vanessa recalled her husband as "doting" and "present" during these years. Instead of non-stop practice, he became a master of bath time. In place of running up and down the court, he would pace baby Capri down the hallway when she fussed -- he knew the exact number of trips it would take to quiet her back to sleep. And Kobe was full of praise for his wife, marveling that she was "the foundation of all that we hold dear."
"I couldn't have asked for a better mother and role model for our lil babies," he shared ahead of Valentine's Day 2014, praising Vanessa's work with My Friend's Place, an organization that supports mothers who have overcome homelessness and addiction.
On Jan. 26, 2020, less than four years after Kobe's final game, a helicopter crashed into the hills of Calabasas, California -- and the whole world felt the impact. Five families lost loved ones, the sporting universe lost a basketball legend, and Vanessa lost a daughter, 13-year-old Gianna, and a husband, the father of her four children and the man she'd loved since she was in high school.
"Each day is a struggle," Vanessa's friend, singer Monica, told ET of how her longtime confidant and support system was coping with the unthinkable heartbreak. "Whatever she is feeling each day is something we will never understand, that level of pain, that level of heartache."
"But she's been a strong one. She's been really strong," she added.
Vanessa made her first public appearance following Kobe and Gigi's deaths at the memorial service held at the Staples Center on Feb. 24, and surprised many by taking the stage to deliver tearful but composed tributes, first to her daughter -- "an amazingly sweet and gentle soul" -- and then to her husband, a larger-than-life figure who, to her, was simply "Papi Chulo."
"I couldn't see him as a celebrity, nor as an incredible basketball player," she said of Kobe. "He was my sweet husband and the beautiful father of our children. He was mine. He was my everything."
The pair first met on the set of a Snoop Dogg music video, where Vanessa was a 17-year-old dancer, and Kobe was 20, in his third year with the Lakers and beginning to show flashes of the NBA legend he would become. Though the world knew that their relationship had weathered some rough storms, at the memorial, Vanessa recalled nothing but happy memories. "I was his first girlfriend, his first love, his wife, his best friend, his confidant and his protector. He was the most amazing husband. Kobe loved me more than I could ever express or put into words."
A source told ET at the time that Vanessa was "overwhelmed" by the love and support she and her family received during the emotional memorial. "Vanessa knows the grieving process will be long and hard but [the] tribute helped her and her family during a rough time," the source said.
The praise was universal. “I could never find the strength to go on," The Talk host Adrienne Bailon marveled of Vanessa's memorial speeches. "I think so many of us were just in awe that she was able to get up there and speak about her children the way she did. Calling her a pillar of strength is definitely everyone’s sentiment."
CARRYING ON A LEGACY
In the months following the tragic crash, Vanessa was, in some ways, more visible than ever before, while still, understandably, fiercely protective of her private life. As the world mourned her husband -- the sports legend they'd revered from behind a TV screen -- the widow and mother was behind the scenes juggling the reality of losing Kobe and Gianna, taking on added responsibility as the new figurehead of the Bryant family, and keeping things together for the sake of her three surviving daughters.
"My husband worked his a** off for 20 years. Gave it his all," Vanessa wrote in honor of Kobe on "Mamba Day" in April. "All he wanted was to spend time with our girls and me to make up for lost time. He wanted to be there for every single milestone and special moment in our girls' lives. He only got to enjoy 3 years and 9 months of retirement."
"We had 2 more daughters, he won an Oscar, he opened Granity studios, he became a 5x best selling author and coached Gianna’s basketball team in that time," she continued. "She worked hard and gave her all 7 days a week just like her daddy. I wish I could [go] back to that morning, every day. I wish they had a normal local game on 1/26. Life truly isn’t fair. This is just senseless."
The legacy Vanessa now carries is as dynamic and impressive as Kobe was himself. She's put herself into the narrative by necessity, shouldering the weight of the dreams her husband won't get to realize, and doing it all for her family.
She's spoken out in support of LeBron James and other NBA players who made headlines with their activism amid the Black Lives Matter protests, been active in overseeing the posthumous publication of Kobe's book projects -- including his first YA novel, a story that highlights the healing power of sports -- and continuing his philanthropic work through the renamed Mamba & Mambacita Sports Foundation. She's also made sure Kobe's Granity Studios lives on, active in its goal to "inspire young minds to dream, achieve, and excel."
Additionally, Vanessa has been motivated to take legal action by Kobe and Gigi's tragic accident, filing a wrongful death suit, urging Congress this summer to pass the "Kobe Bryant and Gianna Bryant Helicopter Safety Act" -- which would require "all helicopters certified to carry six or more people to be equipped with a Terrain Awareness and Warning System, a flight data recorder and a cockpit voice recorder" -- and inspiring a new California law banning law enforcement from sharing graphic crime scene photos off the job.
HEALING A FAMILY
First and foremost, as always, Vanessa is committed to her family -- to being there for her daughters and trying to bring some normalcy back to their lives, through holiday celebrations, birthdays and all-important family time.
"I love being your mama @nataliabryant, Gianna, Bianka and Capri. #MyWorld ❤️❤️❤️❤️" Vanessa wrote on Mother's Day 2020, her first as a single mom, telling her daughters, "You are all the very best of mommy and daddy. ❤️"
Vanessa's friend, Lala Anthony, spoke with ET this summer about supporting her friend as she continues to heal, whether that means a shoulder to cry on or a partner for a silly TikTok challenge.
“To see her smile and laugh to me is the greatest feeling, just for her to have those moments. Whether they are quick moments or not, for her to be able to have that. So, I’ll continue to bring the fun and the laughter," Anthony shared.
"She’s going through something that is unimaginable, that I can’t even fathom what that feels like," she added. "So, just to be a friend and be there to make her laugh when she needs to, cry when she needs to, is a beautiful thing. That’s what friends do for each other.”
On Oct. 11, the Lakers won the franchise's 17th NBA championship -- their first since Kobe's final title in 2010. Many players, including MVP LeBron James, spoke throughout the final weeks of the season about how much it meant to them to bring the Larry O'Brien trophy back to Los Angeles this year, a special way to honor Kobe just months after his death.
Kobe and Vanessa Bryant and their daughters Natalia, Gianna and Bianka at Kobe's jersey retirement ceremony in Dec. 2017.
Vanessa was among the first to speak out following the team's Game 6 win, which clinched the championship. She shared a photo of Kobe and Lakers GM Rob Pelinka, a longtime family friend, on her now-private Instagram page, with a proud message of congratulations for "Uncle P" and the team.
"Kobe was right, RP! 'Stay the course, block out the noise,'" she wrote. "Wish Kobe and Gigi were here to see this."
When her husband and daughter were honored during the "In Memoriam" segment of Time's Person of the Year presentation at the end of the year, Vanessa was a fortifying presence once again, giving a pre-taped statement in which she mourned the loss of her own family members and also spoke on behalf of the world, addressing the collective sense of tragedy that has loomed over 2020.
"Words cannot do justice to the grief we felt this year. At every level of human connection from across the world to across the table, we experienced profound loss," she said. "We said goodbye to husbands, daughters, wives, sons, grandparents, friends and national heroes."
"We continue to count the lives surrendered to this cruel pandemic, which has claimed well over a million souls, worldwide," she continued. "Tonight, we mourn the people we all knew and the many we never will. May our collective grief unite us on the path forward."