Arike Ogunbowale knew something was up. The former Notre Dame star was answering a lot of pointed questions about her idol and dog’s namesake. And it was “The Ellen Degeneres Show,” after all. Surprises are standard.
“I had my hopes up, but I didn’t get them up too high,” Ogunbowale said.
She was “super surprised,” then, when Degeneres set up that on-camera meeting between Ogunbowale and Kobe Bryant in April 2018. The NCAA national champion who hit back-to-back game-winning buzzer-beaters in the Final Four is seen looking over, smiling broadly and finally shaking her head in disbelief.
“It was just a surreal feeling,” Ogunbowale told Yahoo Sports from Turkey, where the Dallas Wings guard is averaging 25.1 points per game for OGM Ormanspor. “Obviously I grew up watching him. He was the basketball player I admired the most. Seeing him walk out at that time, it’s definitely a feeling I won’t forget.”
Now barely two years later the questions she’s asked about Bryant are in remembrance days after the world shook in disbelief at losing a legend who showed up for not only Ogunbowale but women’s basketball in general. The Los Angeles Lakers star who once called her “the champ” on national television is gone, but his memories live on for young athletes everywhere, like Ogunbowale.
Ogunbowale, 22, laughed when asked her favorite Bryant memory. “Besides the Ellen one?” she asked. Really, she said, her favorite is the first time they ever interacted the night of March 30, 2018. It’s also emblematic of what she’ll miss about him.
After the Irish guard drained a 3-pointer against UConn in the 2018 Final Four with one second left, she said she tried to channel the “Mamba mentality” with the five-time NBA champion in the building watching. Bryant saw the quote on Twitter and quote-tweeted it, giving a shoutout even though he and his daughter were “massive” UConn fans. Gianna dreamed of playing for the Huskies in four short years.
“That was probably the most special moment because that’s someone you look up to your whole life and they’re watching your game — actually he was at the game. I think that was probably most special moment,” she said.
Ogunbowale did it again in the championship game against Mississippi State two days later, this game-winner deeper and with less time remaining. Her heroics gave the Irish their first national championship in 17 years and led to that meeting with Bryant, which began a relationship that included random texts, Twitter DMs and occasional meetings.
So many players — male or female, professional and amateur — have shared memories of Bryant dropping a line to check in. One of his last texts was a “You good fam?” to Shareef O’Neal, the son of his Lakers teammate Shaquille O’Neal. Seattle Storm star Breanna Stewart shared his voicemail to her following her Achilles injury.
As Ogunbowale went from becoming the Irish’s all-time leading scorer her senior year to averaging the third-most points (19.1) in the WNBA her rookie season with the Wings, Bryant kept in touch.
Ten days after she was selected fifth overall in the 2019 draft, Ogunbowale was in Los Angeles working out with her trainer, Breen Weeks, and they stopped in to Bryant’s office, she said. They stayed for a couple of hours and watched him do a “Detail” episode on Kyrie Irving, then of the Boston Celtics. They chatted a “lot about life,” she said, including his mindset, business, basketball and fatherhood since Weeks was expecting a child.
They also discussed the “Detail” episode Bryant did on Ogunbowale’s game against Stanford in the 2019 Elite Eight. Bryant is celebrated for what he did on the court for 20 years but also how he has championed the women’s game in retirement, using the platform he built to build up another. Herself now a linchpin of a professional team, Ogunbowale said she’ll miss everything about her idol but especially his advocacy for women’s basketball.
“I think just him having daughters, especially having a daughter that was really into basketball, he was going to do everything in his power to make that process for her better,” Ogunbowale said. “And bring more fans to the game. He obviously knows what all other NBA players know that on the women’s side there’s a lot of great athletes that are really good. Our games are super intense [and] competitive, but obviously to the outside there’s always talk about women’s basketball [vs.] men’s basketball, all that stuff.
“But I think his main thing was just showing that it’s just basketball. If you like basketball then you can watch women or men.”
Bryant spoke highly of the league and its players, mentioning them on Twitter and analyzing their games the same way he did the men’s. That mattered. Ogunbowale admitted Bryant shouting her out gave her moment more publicity. But he also showed up courtside, whether it was for Team USA during the Olympics, the Final Four or a random game in November with Gianna at his side. That mattered more.
“There’s a lot of people that talk in the NBA,” said Ogunbowale, who is the only rookie with at least 35 points in multiple games. “Those guys, yes, they support the WNBA, all that stuff. They support women’s basketball. But he was someone who somebody that really showed it and was actually about what he said and showed his action. Would go to college games, would go to WNBA games, tweet at people who played in college, all that. So his support was definitely genuine.”
In that first meeting on “Ellen,” Bryant gifted the rising star two signed jerseys: one for her and one for her puppy, Kobe. It’s signed “bark with force,” a “first and last,” Bryant said. The golden doodle, now 3, wore it once for Ogunbowale to show off, as any good dog mom does, on social media. But it was just that once.
“It was too special. He’s too dirty. He would have rolled around in the mud with it,” she said.
Those keepsakes from her idol, gifted after her own legendary moment, will now be framed and put on display.
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