NBA Legend Kobe Bryant Knows It’s ‘Her Time To Play’
NEWBURY PARK, Calif. -- On a balmy evening in late March, about 150 girls from the ages of seven to 14 stand in lines across the courts of the Mamba Sports Academy. They’re stretching and warming up, giggling with anticipation as they go through the motions of each drill.
Moments later, two basketball titans enter: Kobe Bryant and two-time WNBA champion Cappie Pondexter. The girls are ecstatic, their shrills and screams filling the 100,000-square-foot facility—which includes five basketball courts, a sand volleyball court, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu studio, a huge weight room and training area, and recovery accommodations for cryotherapy, massage, NormaTec sessions and more.
“Kobe’s a big public figure and a lot of people look up to him, not just young ladies,” Cappie tells CloseUp360. “For him to come and spend two hours with these young ladies, I think is making their whole world complete today. I’m excited to be a part of it, and we’re just trying to change lives and make this day special.”
The two hoops greats close out Women’s History Month with a bang by hosting a girls-only clinic at Kobe’s recently rebranded, state-of-the-art training facility in Thousand Oaks, California. Girls from Los Angeles and Ventura County are gathered here for an event held by the NBA and WNBA as part of their recently established initiative, “Her Time To Play,” which aims to inspire and encourage the next generation of female athletes.
“I have a house full of women. So when you say ‘Every day is Women’s Day,’ it truly is in my house,” Kobe says with a smile. “That’s just how it is.”
Kobe Bryant coaches girls at the "Her Time To Play" event at the Mamba Sports Academy. (NBAE/Will Navarro)
Launched in October 2018, Her Time To Play’s ambassadors include Cappie and other stars from the WNBA (Skylar Diggins-Smith and former three-time champion Swin Cash) and the NBA (Kobe, Victor Oladipo and Gordon Hayward, who has a twin sister and three daughters). The leagues combined to create the program after learning that most girls who play childhood sports usually quit by the time they turn 14. The idea is to encourage them at a young age in not only their sports endeavors, but also their career aspirations whether they’re sports-related or not.
Still, the programming revolves around basketball. This particular event begins with a series of drills focused on passing, dribbling, shooting and defense. While the girls disperse across three courts, Kobe and Cappie visit each group as they rotate through different exercises, encouraging and critiquing them. Cappie is hands-on, using her own experiences of training at a young age to coach the girls.
“I enjoyed the process of getting better every single day,” she says. “I was dedicated to getting better every single day. No matter if I fell in a particular drill or I turned the ball over or I didn’t make a jump shot, I still continued to celebrate in my mind, and remind myself that it's a process and I'm working to be great.
“My dream was to play in the WNBA and I just constantly reminded myself that every single day.”
In her youth, Cappie had to decide between volleyball, cross country and basketball.
“I think at this age, this is when you really decide if this is what you want to do for an extended period of your life. I think they find out how serious they are,” Cappie says. “Obviously you want to learn as much as you can, but you want to have fun and make friends, too, ‘cause that’s what it’s all about.”
Kobe and Cappie Pondexter co-hosted the NBA and WNBA’s "Her Time To Play" event at the Mamba Sports Academy just outside of Los Angeles. (NBAE/Will Navarro)
Kobe makes his rounds to each group of girls, overseeing them through the drills and giving constructive criticism. He preaches how it’s critical for athletes to put in the time in order to achieve their goals and dreams. Chipping away at the dream every day is part of his Mamba Mentality, much of which he credits to his mother, Pam.
“She would teach me that you can be anything you want to be in this world, as long as you put the work in and the time in,” he says. “And [she] truly had me believe that and invested the time to make sure I believed that. She's the reason why I can have big dreams and hopes and ambitions.”
The Los Angeles Lakers legend shares that same message with the girls at the Mamba Sports Academy, just as he has while coaching the Mambas, his 12-year-old daughter Gianna’s AAU team in Orange County.
“You're not just going to show up and practice three days a week and think you're gonna play at [UConn, Stanford, Oregon and Notre Dame]. It's not going to work that way. You gotta put the time in,” he says. “So we work every day on fundamentals and basics, and understanding that it's a five-year plan.”
With Gianna—or Gigi, as she’s called—heavy into basketball, Kobe has done his part to expose her to strong examples of female players, like those from the most dominant team in women’s college basketball: the UConn Huskies. He and Gigi have taken trips to Storrs, Connecticut, to watch the hoops powerhouse that will compete in a record 12th straight NCAA Women’s Final Four.
“[Gianna] is the one that goes up to people, like, ‘Yeah, my dad was alright, but I'ma be better,’” Kobe says. “I think it's important for [girls] because they'd see their heroes play on TV and have this mythical appearance. So it's important to see them up close and say, ‘Okay, no. They're like us. They can do it. We can do it, too,’ as a form of inspiration to encourage them to get that fuel to continue to work, continue to believe in their dream.”
Here, the focus is as much on training as it is on reaffirming the girls mentally and emotionally in all aspects of their lives, not just sports. The event closes with the girls sitting on a court, crowded together for a panel discussion featuring Kobe and Cappie alongside ESPN’s Michelle Beadle; Danita Johnson, president and COO of the LA Sparks; and Kiesha Nix, executive director of the Lakers Youth Foundation. As Kobe explains, basketball can be an outlet for coping with the stress of everyday life.
“Sometimes we think about the game as a process-related thing. You play. You get better. You play. You get better. It's also an emotional thing,” he says. “If you have a tough day, whether it's at school or you had a long day, basketball is your escape. It's your ability to go and escape the realities of what's going on around you. You can dream about being Cappie and hitting the game-winning shot. You know what I mean?
“You can escape that reality and use those emotions in a very positive way.”
More importantly, the four panelists make it clear to the girls that they can find roles within sports—a male-dominated industry—even if not as athletes. Kobe, for one, is eager to see women in prominent positions, from the media to front offices and management, with Kiesha as a prime example.
“I may not play sports like Cappie, but I do a lot for the Lakers in making them champions off the court,” Kiesha says. “That's important, too. So for some of the girls in the audience that aren't as active in sports, there are women for sports teams that make some major decisions, and you're just as important off the court as some of the players are on the court.”
From left to right: Michelle Beadle, Danita Johnson, Kobe, Cappie and Kiesha Nix. (NBAE/Will Navarro)
Though most of these girls won’t likely become professional athletes, they can channel that same work ethic, dedication and devotion from the court into whatever they aspire to do with their lives.
“Don't be afraid of the challenge in front of you,” Danita tells the girls. “A lot of times you will find that the challenge led you to your success. So for us as women in this space, we will face challenges, we will face differences, but you can not be afraid to continue to push through.”
Though much of Kobe’s connection to women’s basketball now lies with his daughter’s budding career, his most lasting impact for these girls may well be the constant drive for improvement that constitutes the crux of his signature mindset.
“That’s what the Mamba Mentality is,” Kobe says. “Just an insatiable thirst to get better.”