For two decades, Kobe Bryant bedeviled the Portland Trail Blazers, averaging 25 points per game and once racking up 60 in a single night.
Along with Los Angeles Lakers teammate Shaquille O'Neal, it was Bryant who led "the comeback" in 2000, when the Lakers rallied from a 16-point deficit to stun Portland in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals.
And it was Bryant whom the Blazers and Lakers honored when they met Friday, Jan. 31, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. It was the first game played there since Bryant died Jan. 26 in a helicopter crash, which claimed the lives of eight others as well, including his daughter Gianna. The Blazers won the game, but the night belonged to Bryant and his countless admirers.
Particularly in his early years, Bryant was not one of the most-liked NBA stars. But when he retired in 2016, he was one of the most respected.
That reputation only grew, despite facing sexual assault charges 16 years ago. Bryant admitted he'd had sex with his accuser, but he insisted that he believed the encounter was consensual. The case was dismissed after an out-of-court settlement and a public apology by Bryant.
The public rehabilitation of Bryant's image was aided, in part, because he seemed to mature after the highly publicized allegations and focus on his growing family. And in recent years, he found a particular cause. As a father, he wanted his four daughters to have the same opportunities that he had. And so he became a powerful supporter of women's sports, and women's basketball in particular.
At 13, Gianna Bryant was a budding basketball star in her own right, and she would often take in college and professional games with her father. Kobe Bryant encouraged women basketball players of all ages, and he befriended Oregon Ducks star Sabrina Ionescu, among others.
"His death leaves an especially deep hole and ache for fans of women's basketball, in Corvallis and Eugene and everywhere," wrote Steve Brandon for the Portland Tribune, The Times' sister paper, reacting to the news of Kobe Bryant's death.
A void left by someone with Bryant's star power is hard to fill, but the Portland Trail Blazers — as a business organization and collection of players — are in a position to help.
There are only two major women's professional sports leagues in this country, and Portland is home to the most successful franchise in the National Women's Soccer League.
The Portland Thorns have had winning records in six of their seven seasons, were crowned champions twice and, most important, annually crush the league's attendance records, drawing an average of more than 20,000 fans to home matches last season. (The Utah Royals were second in attendance, averaging just under 11,000 fans.)
So, why aren't women in Portland lacing up their Nikes in the Women's National Basketball Association?
Well, for an all-too-brief period, they were.
The Portland Fire joined the WNBA in 2000 but lasted just three seasons, failing to post a winning record or average more than 8,700 fans.
NBA teams basically choose whether to "field" a women's team, and Blazers owner Paul Allen never showed the same passion for the WNBA that he had for the men's side. He doused the Fire after the 2002 season.
Many have been baffled why Allen, who died in 2018, never reconsidered that decision, given that the Fire, in their short life, were drawing more than most WNBA teams.
It may be as simple as math.
The WNBA hasn't had tremendous success. Exposure, coverage, attendance, TV rights, franchise values have all been relatively flat. And the league's players, like their counterparts on the soccer pitch, are being more vocal about the pay gap between male and female athletes.
But Bryant, who proved to be a savvy businessman after leaving the NBA, was a believer. As recently as last week he was making headlines by claiming that WNBA All-Stars Maya Moore, Diana Taurasi and Elena Delle Donne are good enough to be on an NBA roster.
And, while struggling, the WNBA has managed to survive the past decade with 12 teams.
Maybe it's time for the WNBA to make a move. The timing could be right, as Oregon currently boasts two of the best women's college basketball teams in the country.
But the WNBA can't grow without the NBA's support — and the support of teams like the Blazers, which have stayed out of the women's game.
Any move for Portland to rejoin the WNBA must start with Jody Allen, Paul Allen's sister, or maybe Larry Ellison, if and when the team is sold to him. We'd encourage them to talk with Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson, who also now owns the Thorns, and see what he's learned.
After all, it took professional women's soccer a couple of tries to stick in Portland. The Portland Rain competed at roughly the same time, from 2001-03, as the Portland Fire, with the same dismal results.
The Thorns now are the envy of the NWSL. Paulson can take some of the credit, but so can some of the Timbers' players and coaches, who have been outspoken in their support for the women who share their home pitch.
Current and former stars such as Diego Valeri, Darlington Nagbe and Jack Jewsbury have regularly attended Thorns home matches. It is likely not a coincidence that often, like Bryant, they attended these professional women's competitions with their young daughters.
As for the Thorns' players and coaches themselves, they've more than proven that all they needed was a chance and a place to play the game. They're a perennial NWSL powerhouse and a major draw in their own right.
Last week, we celebrated National Girls and Women in Sports Day. It's a fitting time to think about women's sports and what can be done to give them a brighter spotlight and greater success. That was something Kobe Bryant cared about. That was something Gianna Bryant dreamed about.
So, if the Trail Blazers' ownership and current roster want to continue honoring Kobe and Gianna, there's a clear lane to the goal: Lend your support, your money and celebrity status, to bringing women's basketball back to Portland. You won't just be doing it for a fallen rival. You'll be doing it for Sabrina Ionescu, her teammates, her opponents and every girl who wants to be just like them. You'll be doing it for the good of the game.
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