John Calipari thanked Vanessa Bryant and her daughter, Natalia, after the family sent the Kentucky coach a package to honor Gigi Bryant on what would have been her 17th birthday on Monday.
In a video he posted on Twitter, Calipari said he will frame Gigi’s jersey and hang it in his office. Gigi and Kobe Bryant both tragically died in a helicopter crash along with seven others in 2020.
The package, via the Mamba and Mambacita Sports Foundation, included a plaque commemorating Gigi’s birthday, a program from her and her father’s memorial service that was held at the Staples Center, a pair of shoes and other gifts for the longtime coach.
I just received the most incredible gift from Vanessa and Natalia Bryant.
Happy 17th birthday, Gigi!!
Thinking today of Gigi and all of the lives she touched and continues to touch!!#PlayGigisWay pic.twitter.com/mruCZIFaop
— John Calipari (@UKCoachCalipari) May 1, 2023
“Vanessa, thank you. Natalia, thank you. I can’t wait to see you guys,” Calipari said in the video. “You know I appreciate you both. For Gigi’s birthday, to do all this, 17th birthday, you know my heart goes out to both of you at this time. For you to do this for me, thank you.”
Kobe and Calipari are forever linked because of the 1996 NBA draft. At the time, Calipari was a first-year head coach with the New Jersey Nets and Kobe was a promising high school star.
The Nets had the 8th pick in the NBA draft. They selected former Villanova star Kerry Kittles and Bryant went to the Los Angeles Lakers with the 13th pick. Calipari said he’d pushed for the team to pick Kobe but he couldn’t get the other powerbrokers within the franchise to back him. Calipari said Kobe would later joke with him that he’d “still be in the NBA” if the Nets had selected him.
The Nets fired Calipari in the strike-shortened 1999 NBA season following a 3-17 start.
“Everybody thought I was nuts,” Calipari said on his radio show three years ago after Kobe’s and Gigi’s death. “High school kid, he was 17 years old.”
Calipari said the response he got from the organization was that “you don’t know what you’re doing” because he was so new to the NBA. Other reports have said Bryant and his team had told the Nets he would choose to play overseas if the franchise had decided to pick him.
Last year, Calipari and Kentucky men’s basketball partnered with the Mamba and Mambacita Sports Foundation to create a skills camp for underserved youth in Kentucky.