02/14/2020 16:41 EST

Kobe Bryant's Death Was A Wake-Up Call For Girl Dads Like Me

His skills made him a legend, but Kobe Bryant's approach to fatherhood cemented his legacy.

“I’m a girl dad,” said Kobe Bryant to ESPN anchor Elle Duncan, who had just revealed she was eight months pregnant with a girl on the way. Bryant already had three girls of his own at the time and glowed as he talked them up. “Girls are the best!”

The conversation held for the next half hour as Bryant expressed his want for more children and dispensed advice on having girls. “Just enjoy the blessing,” he told her.

Allen Berezovsky via Getty Images
Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna Bryant attend a basketball game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Atlanta Hawks in Los Angeles on Nov. 17, 2019.

Duncan fought through tears as she recounted the meeting on live television, just days after Bryant and his daughter Gianna were killed in a helicopter crash. They were laid to rest on Wednesday. The segment and Bryant’s death struck a chord with viewers, and especially guys like me — the father of a 16-year-old daughter, and a fellow proud girl dad. 

Dads everywhere began sharing photos of themselves with their daughters, tagged #GirlDad. We must have seen a bit of ourselves in Bryant’s post-retirement persona of a dedicated family man and excited father of four girls — so distant from the basketball player who had settled a sexual assault allegation 17 years prior.

As a girl dad, I struggled to reconcile this past with his accomplishments as an athlete, but when set against his evolution as a family man, it was easier if still not entirely possible. In the end, did his good outweigh his bad? Absolutely.

Girl dads: a delicate balance

If you’re a father, you might imagine Bryant looking at Gianna and seeing her terror in those final seconds. That is an image that haunts me more than anything. The helplessness and the horror. It’s why I stood over the beds of my children the night of the tragedy, and why I tossed in my sleep, and why I woke up the next morning and hugged them again, even as they wondered what had come over me.

As I embraced my daughter, I found myself wondering if I had spent enough quality time with her, if I had been present enough in her defining moments. Was I as supportive as she wanted me to be, needed me to be? Had I empowered her, or had I drawn limits? The answers were as hard as the questions.

As fathers, we have all seen the limiting effects of the prejudices against women.

I strived to empower my daughter to be a responsible do-it-yourselfer, an independent agent in a world of dangerous men. She was street-proofed in ways her brother wasn’t. She took the bus less often than her brother, at my insistence. I was her protector more so than my son’s, and I employed him to watch over her when I could not. Admittedly, part of it was the old chauvinism my generation was raised on. As girl dads we can be guilty of overprotection and, in excess, it can box our girls into tired social expectations.

I also realized I had put off many of her requests over the years, from camping trips to a family movie night. I always told myself that I’d “get to it later,” but looking at the aware and confident teenager before me, later has suddenly become today.

As fathers, we have all seen the limiting effects of the prejudices against women, either by our own ignorances or by the failure to act as witnesses. Instead of standing guard and shielding our daughters from trouble we can do better by being an active partner with them in removing the obstacles that sit in their way.

Ronald Martinez via Getty Images
Kobe Bryant and Gianna at Game Five of the 2009 NBA Finals on June 14, 2009.

Can anybody say that in the end Bryant didn’t do just that? Bryant’s life served as an example of what being a girl dad can look like. Celebrating, appreciating, equalizing — showing the way to a more inclusive future, not by preaching, but by working for it.

He had become extremely supportive of women in sports, and the WNBA in particular. When Bryant commented that WNBAers Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore and Elena Della Donne could play in the NBA, it was met with a collective scoff. But he was serious. That type of promotion coming from a legend was huge for a league and its players struggling to be put in the same conversations as their male counterparts.

Bryant admitted that he had stopped watching basketball after retirement, and that it was Gianna’s love of the game that brought him back. Showing his girls that ability to inspire was an introduction to a power many dads possess, but so few of us are taught or are encouraged to use. That power was seen most obviously through the Vanessa and Kobe Bryant Foundation and the recently renamed Mamba and Mambacita Sports Foundation, which provided scholarships, mentorship programs and sports leagues all centred around giving back to communities, at-risk youth and cultural education.

Because of Bryant, the field, particularly in basketball, is a little more level today. It is a future he will never get to see, and one Gianna will never get to experience, but for the daughters he left behind — and the millions of young girls with big dreams, like mine — this equality is their future.

Bryant wasn’t a perfect man, player or father. What he reminded me of was the choice we all have to either regress into the hollows of our imperfections or leap from them spectacularly into something more focussed and selfless. To not sacrifice the moments, but rather sacrifice for the moments. To be there for movie night or to pitch a tent under the stars on a camping trip that’s long overdue. I’ve reminded myself of this a few times since he died and I suspect I’m not alone.

Through this tragedy I’ve been reminded of the unique bond that exists between fathers and daughters, and all the opportunities that are out there for our girls. We hang on, we adore them, we see Gianna in them. We hold them close to remind them that there is a loving embrace to return to should they lose their way — but, at the same time, we must also be prepared to let them take on the world on their own terms.

There is a delicate balance to be found there, and Bryant seemed to have discovered it. His 20-year NBA career may have made him a legend, but it was his approach to fatherhood that cemented Bryant’s legacy.

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