HARTFORD, Conn. -- UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma fondly recalled speaking Italian with Kobe Bryant and joking with the NBA legend about asking for defensive strategy. He also remembered Bryant's daughter Gianna being so smitten with the Huskies program that she hoped to play for one day that she wanted to stick around campus after a visit. She was just 13 but considered UConn her dream college.
UConn and USA Basketball honored both father and daughter at the start of an exhibition game Monday at XL Center. The Huskies placed a No. 2 UConn jersey with flowers on their bench in tribute to Gigi and on social media referred to her as "forever a Husky." Bryant and Gigi died in a helicopter crash with seven others on Sunday in Calabasas, California.
"You can't react to something like that and say, 'Well, this is what you do when this happens,'" Auriemma said in addressing Bryant's and Gigi's deaths after his Huskies fell 79-65 to the U.S. squad. "You don't know what to do or what to say."
Mambacita is forever a Husky 💙 pic.twitter.com/3wdAbdK0Ye— UConn Women's Hoops (@UConnWBB) January 27, 2020
The XL Center jumbotron featured a photo of Bryant and Gigi together at a game. Auriemma and members of both teams and coaching staffs were visibly moved by a 24-second moment of silence that was observed in honor of Bryant's No. 24.
The game started with two more tributes to Bryant, as Team USA held the ball for an eight-second backcourt violation in honor of Bryant's first jersey number in the NBA. Then the Huskies held the ball and ran out the 24-second shot clock as a tribute to his second number.
The Huskies had back members of their 2009 and 2010 national championship teams, along with several USA Basketball players from UConn. All of that, plus preparing for the game, kept Auriemma busy, but then his thoughts would drift back to Kobe and Gianna.
"You've all these kids back with their families," he said. "You've gotta put on a happy face, and you've gotta do what you've gotta do. That wasn't easy."
Auriemma said he met Gigi a few years ago, when she came with her father to a UConn basketball game.
"You could just see the look in her eyes. She was so excited," Auriemma said of Gigi's excitement to meet the Huskies, who in turn were starstruck by her father. "That's what she aspired to be.
"When she came up here on campus, if she could have stayed, I think she would have stayed."
Auriemma is originally from Italy but grew up in the Philadelphia area. Bryant was born in Philadelphia but spent part of his youth in Italy, where his father played professional basketball. Like Auriemma, Bryant was fluent in Italian.
Asked for one of his fondest memories of Bryant, Auriemma said, "Probably when we were talking in Italian at one of the [Olympic] competitions. It was really kind of a neat conversation. We talked about his dad, who was my age. We played against each other in high school."
Auriemma also remembered watching Bryant work out by himself on off days at the Olympics, which he competed in with the 2008 and 2012 teams, and seeing him make "shot after shot after shot after shot after shot. I just shook my head and said, 'That's why he is who he is. This is their off day, and he's in there killing it.'"
He also said Bryant, while coaching his daughter, once sought a bit of advice.
"We talked about what defensive drills to do," Auriemma said. "I said, 'What? Didn't you pay attention all those years at practice?' He said, 'I've got to teach my team man-to-man defense tonight.' All right. Nobody could score on him for 20 years, and he's asking me about defensive drills."
Auriemma said he thought Bryant was just getting started with what he could have contributed to women's basketball, with his daughter's involvement. Auriemma said Bryant left his mark in many other ways.
"He had a big impact on the world of sports," Auriemma said. "Introducing the NBA to a whole part of the world that didn't know about it. And his businesses, all the stuff that he's done, those are things that will last forever. He probably would have had a bigger impact on his kids, more than anything."