Sometimes Isabella Escribano cries when she’s in the gym, but only for a few moments. She knows that it’s not what her late teammates and coach would want.
“I’m not just gonna sit around and just start crying,” Isabella, 11, said. “I’m just gonna get in the gym, you know, keep working because that’s what he would have wanted all of us to do just keep on just doing your thing.”
Isabella, a Canyon Country resident, is a member of the Mamba Academy basketball program. On Jan. 26, her coach and former NBA star, Kobe Bryant, along with three of her teammates died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas.
Isabella and her older brother, Marco, were on their way to a game at the Mamba Academy Thousand Oaks facility when they heard the news of the crash. When they arrived at the facility, all games had stopped and all players, fans and spectators were seated. Tissues were scattered around the floor.
“It was just a sad room,” Isabella said. “It was painful to see my teammates like that. We were praying, it was just horrible.”
She was slated to start the upcoming season with the Mamba Academy sixth-grade team and had spent the majority of the current season learning the systems, including the Lakers’ triangle offense.
Isabella was originally picked up for the team shortly after she began training with Phil Handy, an assistant coach for the Lakers. A video surfaced of Isabella working out with JR Smith under Handy, and Bryant saw it. He reached out to Handy to make sure the video was legitimate, then offered Isabella a spot on his sixth grade Mamba Academy team.
“Like, oh my god he wants me to play on his team,” Isabella said of her reaction. “I’m like, so hyper, I’m jumping up and down. It’s my dream to be coached by like the greatest of all time because if I want to be the greatest of all time, I need to be coached by the greatest of all time.”
She spent game after game on the bench alongside Bryant and practiced alongside his daughter, Gianna. She began learning the triangle offense and consulted Bryant on scouting reports ahead of games.
Bryant encouraged Isabella to work on her shot. One day, Marco and Isabella asked how many shots she should take per day.
“He was like, ‘shoot until your arms fall off,’” Marco said. “And we’re waiting for like, an actual response, so we’re laughing. He’s like no, shoot until your arms fall off.”
So Isabella stayed after practice every day, shooting until her arms felt like they would fall off. Also in the gym was Bryant and Gianna, who were determined not to be outworked by the two. No matter what, Bryant and Gianna were the last ones to leave the gym.
As much as Isabella competed with Gianna, they were friends as well. Gianna sent funny or basketball-themed videos to Isabella and was always encouraging of her basketball endeavors.
“When Gigi smiled, it lit up the room,” Marco said. “That’s something I’m gonna remember about Gigi forever. Her big smile like her dad. The same smile, they’re the same everything. Their game was similar, the way they walk, too, a similar way. They bit their jerseys. She wanted to be just like her dad.”
Isabella sat with her teammates on Friday night, but instead of being courtside for their own game, they were courtside for the Lakers’ game against the Trail Blazers.
Just like when she’s in the gym, Isabella cried a little, but smiled at the memory of Bryant and Gianna’s dedication and at the next moves she’s going to make in their honor.
“He believed in me so much that it’s like, maybe I’m, like, something,” she said. “He believed in me, and 11-year-old girl and it just shocks me that he died and I’m just making him proud. Just working out every day with my brother because that’s what he wanted, he would have wanted for all of us.”
Mamba Academy players gather around to celebrate with the late Kobe and Gianna Bryant. / Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Bui.
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