Excerpted from HOOP MUSES: An Insider’s Guide to Pop Culture and the (Women’s) Game ©2023 Kate Fagan, Seimone Augustus and Sophia Chang. Reprinted with permission from Twelve Books/Hachette Book Group.
Written by Kate Fagan, curated by Seimone Augustus and illustrated by Sophia Chang
The hoodie that turned a million heads/ORIGIN OF THE WNBA’S BEST-SELLING GEAR
The seeds of the phenomenon were planted during a routine exchange in 2019. Kobe Bryant had visited the WNBA league offices in New York City, and when he left, Eb Jones presented the legend with three bags of W gear, including a statement orange hoodie with the WNBA silhouette.
At the time, Jones oversaw the league’s content and influencer strategy. Delivering the gear to Kobe was a Hail Mary — no way would Kobe wear the orange hoodie, Jones surmised. Jones had hand-picked the sweatshirt to be the league’s signature piece, though she wavered over the choice because the W’s play in the summer. No one wanted a hoodie during the summer, she reasoned. But then again, the piece was bold and simple. She kept coming back to it. “The hoodie was a simple design that looks good on everyone and was gender neutral,” Jones told Sports Illustrated.
Working with ESPN, Jones and W sent out hundreds of orange hoodies to W and NBA players, as well as influencers (and women’s sports champions) like Gabrielle Union and Robin Roberts. The first big moment for the hoodie came in August 2019 when Las Vegas Aces star and future WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson wore the orange sweatshirt on the sidelines while injured. “And that’s what first started the frenzy,” Jones told SI.
But at the time, the hoodie was still just a piece of gear. A popular piece of equipment, yes, but no more. Then three things happened, one uplifting, the next two tragic. In late December, in 2019, Kobe sat courtside at the Staples Center with his daughter Gianna. He wore a Philadelphia Eagles cap and … the orange hoodie. “It was just a fan thing before he wore it,” Jones said. “But when Kobe wore it, it became a fashion statement.”
When Kobe and Gianna died, along with seven others, in a helicopter crash less than a month later, the image of Kobe in the WNBA hoodie was used in thousands of media reports. It was one of the last pictures ever taken of him with his daughter. And suddenly, the hoodie came to mean so much more: It became a symbol of supporting women, investing in women, and honoring the connection Kobe had with his daughter, as well as with the women’s game.
Six weeks after the devastating helicopter crash, the world was hit by the COVID pandemic. The NBA season was put on hold. As summer approached, both the NBA and WNBA planned to play their seasons in individual locations that eventually became known as the “bubble” and the “wubble”—that is, the women’s bubble. Jones, with the help of ESPN, sent out 150 hoodies to men’s players as well as influencers ahead of the WNBA season. On the opening day of the season, the #orangehoodie was everywhere: on LeBron James, Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Jayson Tatum, Damian Lillard, rapper Lil Wayne and tennis star Naomi Osaka.
Over the next year, the hoodie became the best-selling item on Fanatic’s entire website, as well as the best-selling WNBA item in history. “It’s a lie that W isn’t selling,” Jones told Yahoo! Sport. “The W sells.”
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The scene is both universal and iconic: a father sitting by the farm coaching his young daughter in the game they both love. This interaction has played out a million times over the years between fathers and daughters all over the world. But what made this so unique was the father: eighteen-time NBA all-star and Los Angeles Lakers legend, Kobe Bryant; and daughter, Gianna Bryant, with her sights set on one day playing for Geno Auriemma at the University of Connecticut and then the WNBA afterward.
Kobe and Gianna were a duo: he, one of the coaches of her AAU team at the Mamba Sports Academy, which he helped launch in 2018; she, the heir apparent to his inheritance. He was on the sidelines for her games and they were on the sidelines together to watch the best in the world – the WNBA. “There’s no better way to learn than watching the pros do it,” Kobe told the New York Times after bringing Gianna and her Mamba AAU teammates to watch the Los Angeles Sparks play the Las Vegas Aces. “The WNBA is a beautiful game to watch.”
One of the last photos taken of them together was at an NBA game where Kobe was wearing the bright orange WNBA hoodie. He pointed out game strategy to his daughter, his arm draped over her shoulder. A month later, the two, along with seven others, would die in a helicopter crash while traveling to a game at the Mamba Academy.
So much was lost that day. And part of the sadness was for a future that now would never exist: Gianna Bryant, who grew with the game and excelled at various levels. Next to her, of course, would have been Kobe, who had focused on the women’s fight. In fact, they already did. In 2019, Kobe stopped by the W headquarters in New York to meet with the league office and discuss the future of the WNBA. In the offseason, upcoming high school and college stars like Hailey Van Lith would train at the Mamba Academy. And when the Oregon Ducks came to Los Angeles to play Southern California, Kobe and Gigi sat courtside to watch Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu, the best college player in the country. From that day forward, Ionescu considered Kobe a mentor. “We got to become really, really close friends,” Ionescu said on the Sports Uncovered podcast. “We talked a couple of times a week. We really talked about everything, whether it was basketball, his family, my basketball. The conversation really took us where we really wanted to go.”
After their deaths, former Cal player Talia Caldwell wrote an op-ed for the New York Times. Here are her last two paragraphs of that piece:
What Kobe did, knowingly or not, was give male sports fans a curiosity as to why a quintessential NBA great found so much joy and pleasure in women’s basketball. He spent time with WNBA players who were his age. He casually mentioned their names in interviews, tweets and Instagram posts, making people learn about the world-class athletes they were too late to discover.
Kobe Bryant, the scorer, the ultimate alpha, was ridiculed his entire career for not passing the ball enough. I hope he is remembered for passing the ball to women.