Extracted 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.
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Written by Kate Fagan, curated by Seimone Augustus and illustrated by Sophia Chang
THE HOODIE THAT TURNED MILLIONS OF HEADS/ORIGIN OF THE WNBA’S BEST-SELLING PIECE OF GEAR
The seeds of the phenomenon were planted during a routine exchange in 2019. Kobe Bryant had visited the WNBA offices in New York City, and as he was leaving, Eb Jones presented the legend with three W gear bags, including an orange hoodie with the silhouette of the WNBA.
At the time, Jones oversaw the league’s content and influencer strategy. Handing the team over to Kobe was a Hail Mary: There was no way Kobe was wearing the orange hoodie, Jones guessed. Jones had hand-selected the sweatshirt to become the league’s signature garment, though he hesitated because the W plays in the summer. No one would want a hoodie during the summer, he reasoned. But then again, the piece was bold and simple. She kept coming back to it. “The hoodie had a simple design that looks good on everyone and was gender neutral,” Jones told Sports Illustrated.
In partnership with ESPN, Jones and the W sent hundreds of orange hoodies to players in the W and NBA, as well as influencers (and women’s sports advocates) 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 hoodie on the sidelines while she was injured. “And that was the first thing that 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 nothing more. Then three things happened, one uplifting, the next two tragic. In late December 2019, Kobe sat courtside at Staples Center with his daughter Gianna. She was wearing a Philadelphia Eagles hat and… the orange sweatshirt. “It was just a fan thing before she 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, that photo of Kobe in the WNBA sweatshirt was used in thousands of media reports. It was one of the last photos they took of him with his daughter. And suddenly, the hoodie meant so much more: it became a symbol of supporting women, investing in them, and honoring Kobe’s connection to her daughter, as well as women’s soccer.
Six weeks after the devastating helicopter crash, the world has been affected by the COVID pandemic. The NBA season stopped. As the summer approached, both the NBA and WNBA planned to play their seasons in unique locations that eventually became known as “the bubble” and “the wubble”, meaning the women’s bubble. Jones, with the help of ESPN, sent out 150 hoodies to male players, as well as influencers, ahead of the WNBA season. On opening day of the season, the #orangehood 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 the entire Fanatics website, as well as the best-selling WNBA item in history. “It’s a lie that the W doesn’t sell,” Jones told Yahoo! Sports. “The W does sell.”
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The scene is both universal and iconic: a father sitting courtside, coaching his young daughter in the game they both love. This interaction has happened a million times over the years, between fathers and daughters around the world. But what made this so unique was the father: eighteen-time NBA 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 in the WNBA.
Kobe and Gianna were a duo: he, one of the coaches for his AAU team at the Mamba Sports Academy that he helped launch in 2018; she, the heir apparent to his legacy. He was on the sidelines for his games, and they were on the sidelines together to watch the best thing in the world: the WNBA. “There’s no better way to learn than to watch 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 images taken of them together was on the court of an NBA game, Kobe wearing the bright orange WNBA hoodie. He was pointing out the strategy of the game to his daughter, his arm around her shoulder. A month later, the two of them, along with seven others, would die in a helicopter crash while traveling to a game at Mamba Academy.
That day, much was lost. And part of the pain was for a future that now would never exist: Gianna Bryant, growing up with the game, excelling on different levels. Alongside her, of course, would have been Kobe, highlighting women’s soccer. In fact, they were already doing it. 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, up-and-coming high school and college stars like Hailey Van Lith worked out at the Mamba Academy. And when the Oregon Ducks arrived in Los Angeles to play in Southern California, Kobe and Gigi were sitting courtside watching Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu, the best college player in the country. From that day on, Ionescu considered Kobe a mentor. “We became very, very close friends,” Ionescu said on the Sports Uncovered podcast. “We talk a couple times a week. We really talked about everything, whether it was basketball, his family, my basketball. The conversation really got us where we really wanted to go.”
After their deaths, former Cal player Talia Caldwell wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times. Here are his last two paragraphs from that piece:
What Kobe did, consciously or not, was pique the curiosity of male sports fans as to why an all-time NBA great found so much joy and pleasure in women’s basketball. He spent time with WNBA players, who were his teammates. He casually mentioned his names in interviews, tweets and Instagram posts, leading people to learn about world-class athletes they were slow 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.