Blackwell reflects on Kobe: "He was everything for me"
Like a lot of people, when Aijha Blackwell first heard the news, she thought it was fake. When it was confirmed just minutes before Missouri tipped off against Texas A&M Sunday afternoon, she broke down in tears. Even after the Tigers 72-53 loss, she remained so shaken that coaches and teammates felt compelled to check in on her. And when Missouri’s team bus pulled back in to Columbia Sunday night, as the world was only just beginning to grapple with the mortality of Kobe Bryant, Blackwell left the team and ventured to Columbia’s North 10th Street, where the Tigers’ freshman guard found her own way to grieve and honor her basketball hero sitting in a chair inside Iron Tiger Tattoo.
On Wednesday, the ink spelling out the phrase “Mamba Mentality”, along with the NBA legend’s iconic “Mamba” logo was still fresh on Blackwell’s right arm, as were the emotions Missouri’s 19-year old star felt as she became choked up trying to explain what Bryant and his legacy meant to her.
“He was everything for me,” Blackwell said. “Everything from throwing trash in the garbage can to me on the court. He just meant everything. He was an inspiration. The passion he had. I don’t think a lot of girls play with that much passion. I tried to be different. He was just so different. I just tried to mimic that in every way.
"On Sunday, I was just trying to think of what I could do that would mean something to me and what could connect me to him forever.”
Bryant, 41, and his 13-year old daughter Gianna, died alongside seven others in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California Sunday morning. The tragic accident left behind several families and left the world stunned as one of its brightest celebrities was cut down with so much left to give. As Blackwell put it Wednesday, and as many have in the days since the NBA lost one of its most influential stars, it was surreal.
For Blackwell, a St. Louis native who grew up in a city without an NBA team, Bryant was a constant on her TV growing up. While she developed her game, she latched on to the five-time NBA champion early, emulating his game and his drive and his intensity on the court. No one played as hard as he did. She wanted to be the same.
Blackwell remembers watching Bryant win his back-to-back NBA titles in 2009 and 2010. She remembers watching him score 81 points on the Toronto Raptors in 2006 and watching the man they called “Black Mamba” in countless NBA All-Star games, too.
But her favorite memory of Bryant wasn’t something she saw live. It’s a video — she doesn’t know from when — of Bryant taking on Michael Jordan and seeing the fearlessness in his eyes and in the way he challenged the NBA legend. That’s what she wanted to do on the basketball court, too.
“As a kid, I watched him and the way he moved, the way he played, the passion he played with. It was unmatched and like no other,” Blackwell said. “He wasn’t scared of anyone even if it was Michael Jordan. He wasn’t scared. That’s what I wanted to be.”
A piece of the legacy Bryant left behind was his commitment to and support of the game of women’s basketball. Emerging as a pseudo-ambassador, he attended women’s college basketball and WNBA events, helping broaden each sport’s scope and visibility. Following his playing career, Bryant trained and worked out with WNBA stars such as Candace Parker, Napheesa Collier and Liz Cambage.
Nowhere, though, did Bryant’s admiration and commitment to the women’s game shine more than through his passion for the budding basketball career of Gianna, his 13-year old daughter who had already emerged as a coveted recruit across college basketball before even entering high school. It was on the way to a youth basketball tournament, the sort that Bryant adored attending with his daughter, that he and Gianna were killed Sunday.
Bryant’s commitment to women’s basketball resonated deeply with Blackwell and empowered her as she rose up the ranks to become the top-recruit in the state of Missouri and No. 9 nationally a year ago. In Bryant, Blackwell saw an advocate; someone who was there for her and other young women like her. To her, he was an inspiration.
“It just made me realize that we do mean something,” Blackwell said. “He let me know that the women’s game means something to people. He’s such a big name and for him to advocate and support women’s hoops meant so much. It made us feel like we were equal.”
Blackwell hoped that one day she might eventually meet her hero. Maybe she’d be in the WNBA at an event and Bryant would be there too. She’d be able to tell him how much he meant to her growing up, the way so many current NBA and WNBA players have, and she’d be able to thank him for the influence he had on her.
That day, now, will never come. But in the tattoo on her right arm, Blackwell will always have a reminder of the basketball player she admired and the mantra he passed along to the world that will live with her forever.
“It just means don’t be scared,” she said. “Go out on the floor and no matter who you’re playing against, play how you play. Never be scared of anyone.”