It was Day 2 of the Mamba Cup and Los Angeles-based photographers Jineen Williams and Jajuan Tyler were waiting for Kobe Bryant to walk through the door at the Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, California.
Williams, Tyler and Brandon Green make up the photo and graphics company DAH – Design and Photography and had been covering Gianna Bryant and the Mambas for the past 18 months. DAH also has done freelance work with Ball Is Life, SLAM and Overtime and has taken photographs and videos of all the top talent coming up in Southern California, including Bronny James, Mikey Williams, Josh Christopher, Cassius Stanley and countless others.
This was just another weekend and another tournament. A text came through on Williams’ phone from Green around 11:20 a.m. “You gonna mic Kobe up?”
The plan was to mic up Bryant for the pregame talk to the team. Williams noticed the time. The Mambas’ game was at noon against Jason Terry’s Drive Nation team from Texas. Kobe was never late to a game.
In October 2018, Williams received a call from Josh Lozano who said his team, WeR1, was playing the Mambas and asked if DAH wanted to shoot the game.
“Back then, you couldn’t even look up the schedule and see the Mambas on there. It was to help with privacy and was super low-key stuff,” Williams told Yahoo Sports.
The three photographers arrived at the gym in Orange County, California, and the first person they saw was the five-time NBA champion, Kobe Bryant.
“We walked in with our cameras and thought, ‘Wow, that really is Kobe.’ We’re at a game and he’s coaching girls. You wouldn’t think he’d be coaching a bunch of 10-to-13-year-old girls,’ Williams remembered.
The three of them snapped away the whole game. They took pictures of everyone since they didn’t have a roster and were just trying to create content for Lozano. A few games later, some of the parents on the Mambas asked them for photos of their girls and an organic relationship between the three photographers and the Mambas began.
“We kept our distance and were respectful always. We hate the attention these athletes like Kobe get because we know they’re human and we see the lengths people will go through to get close to them,” Williams said.
That respect started to pay off after a couple months of showing up at the gym. Each photographer has their “Kobe moment” when Bryant finally acknowledged them. For Williams, it was a simple dap walking into the gym before a game and Kobe saying, “Yo, what’s up? I see you guys here working.”
“I was like, ‘Oh s***, he recognizes us!” Williams said, laughing.
From then on, Bryant would vouch for them at tournaments when organizers would shut them down at the door. Bryant would wave them through with a “they’re with us” sort of feel.
Kobe Bryant, the coach
Back in the early days, the Mambas were not good. Bryant made the girls play up a division, and they struggled during games. Everyone representers the infamous Instagram post by Bryant where he looked back at the Mambas’ fourth-place finish.
The Mambas practiced every single day. That was the time for the girls to get better and for Bryant to share his expertise. Bryant brought in other elite basketball players, like Sabrina Ionescu, Elena Delle Donne and the No. 1 high school basketball player in the country, Azzi Fudd.
“Gigi was a goofball,” Fudd told Yahoo Sports. “She was a great teammate and always laughing. But once it was time to work, she was locked in. When Kobe asked her to do something, she would look him in the eyes and say, ‘OK,’ and then do it.”
During games, Bryant was calm, usually never got up from the bench and hardly ever yelled at the girls on the court. He was the complete opposite of Kobe the player when he would beat his chest and taunt his opponents saying, “No one can guard me.” When a timeout was called, Bryant wouldn’t yell or direct orders, he would ask the girls questions and have them talk through different situations that had just happened on the court.
“He was teaching them to read the game for themselves at an early age. It was incredible to watch. You don’t see that from many coaches these days. He was so patient with the girls, and you could see it starting to click for them,” Williams remembered.
After every game, no matter if the Mambas won or lost, Bryant would always make his way over to the opposing team and high-five all of the girls. He took the time to give some encouraging words and tell them things they did well and things they needed to work on. Bryant always showed support to the other players.
At one of these games, Williams finally racked up the courage to ask Bryant — her favorite player of all time — for a photo.
“I remember being so nervous and I just said to him, ‘I’m not even going to lie, I’ve been waiting months to ask you for a picture but I didn’t want to bug you,’” she said. “He just laughed and said, ‘Nah let’s do it after the game.’ It was crazy.”
The date of that photo … Jan. 26, 2019.
Jan. 26, 2020
In September 2019, the first Mamba Cup was announced. It was a showcase of 11 tournaments open to teams grades 2-8, running from September to March with games played across the greater Los Angeles area.
It was more than halfway through the tournament series when Williams found herself waiting for Bryant, Gigi, Payton Chester, Sarah Chester, Alyssa Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, John Altobelli and Christina Mauser to walk through the door on Jan. 26, 2020. There were games going on all five courts with various other teams in the gym either getting ready for a game or watching a future opponent. The gym was packed.
The rest of the Mambas were in the mezzanine area chatting, stretching and getting ready for the big game against Jason Terry’s Drive Nation.
Everything after 11:30 a.m. happened in a flash.
A parent from the Mambas walked by with tears in his eyes. When Williams asked if he was OK, all he could say was, “It’s bad,” and walked back to where the team was.
Williams received a call from her roommate telling her about the TMZ story and the helicopter crash.
Then, a wave of text messages hit her phone.
Everything started to add up. Kobe’s not here, the rest of the girls aren’t here. It had to be true. The reality started to hit, and Williams couldn’t stop crying.
When she caught her breath and looked up, the entire gym was silent. All games on the five courts had stopped. And there was nothing but silence. The silence was followed by crying and hugging and people wandering around not knowing what to do.
“Hearing all those people cry and stuff in the gym, that’s something that I’m going to have to live with forever,” Williams said. “We were there in the midst of everything grieving with everyone else. I’ve never had to deal with something like that.”
Someone organized a moment of silence and prayers were said. Players and parents started to filter out of the gym around 1 p.m. Williams, Green and Tyler left around 3 p.m. The entire Mambas team was the last to leave the gym.
When Williams got outside, a memorial was already being created on the side of the building by grief-stricken fans and the news trucks were showing up. It was hard for Williams to process what had happened during the two-hour drive back to Los Angeles.
How DAH’s photos honored the Mambas
In the days that followed, DAH’s photos and videos of Kobe, Gigi, Payton and Alyssa began to circulate around the world on every news outlet. Over the course of 18 months, Williams, Green and Tyler had amassed more than 2,000 photos and videos from games they had attended.
“That time from Jan. 26 to Feb. 24 was a blur. I don’t even like to talk about that time,” Williams recalled. “We had to get a bunch of photos to the families. We had to get as much as we could to the Bryant family.”
All three photographers went through their database filled with photos and videos and sent the best 50-100 images to the families. The Mamba Academy (now known as The Sports Academy) and the Bryant family asked Williams and Green to put together a 15-minute video of Gigi and her teammates to be played at the memorial service at Staples Center.
“I cried for three days going through all the footage,” Williams said. “My days were filled with constantly having to look over those photos, constantly having to relive that day. As hard as it was to edit that video, Brandon and I knew we were doing it to honor Kobe and Gigi and the rest of the team.”
The video played right before the service began. With fast-paced music and highlights, it’s a glowing tribute for the Mambas who managed to make an impact on the game at such a young age.
Williams moved to Los Angeles from Wisconsin in 2015 and was determined to see Kobe Bryant play in an NBA game. Williams played basketball her whole life and even played Division II basketball at Concordia College in Minnesota. Unfortunately, Williams never got to a game. The consolation prize? Having seen Bryant in retirement passing along his “Mamba Mentality” to his daughter and the next generation of players.
“Being able to meet him and get to hear that the most important part of his life had been these last three years of his retirement — being able to be there for his family, be present, spend time with Vanessa, raise his girls, coach Gigi, all that,” Williams said. “To be able to be there and witness that side of Kobe, means so much more to me.”
It’s long been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. We all were witnesses to the great moments of his 20-year career: the jumping on the scorer’s table after winning an NBA championship, the buzzer-beaters and the final game as a Laker when he scored 60 points.
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