Serious Strength: Inside Vanessa Bryant’s World Since the Deaths of Kobe and Gianna

Vanessa Bryant has been sharing memories of her late husband and daughter, doting on her three girls at home and taking it one day at a time.

Vanessa Bryant is in the fight of her life.

Not because of her ongoing legal battles, a wrongful death lawsuit against the company that operated the helicopter that went down on Jan. 25 with husband Kobe Bryant, daughter Gianna and seven others onboard, in addition to a complaint alleging invasion of privacy and negligence against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department after the LA Times reported that at least eight deputies had snapped and shared photos from the crash site.

And not as she deals with absolutely the last controversy she needed, her own mother going on TV to accuse Vanessa of leaving her high and dry.

No, Vanessa is simply fighting to get by, one day at a time, her world having imploded when she lost her 13-year-old daughter and the man she’d loved since she was 17.

“I’m mad I didn’t go first. I always wanted to go first so that I selfishly didn’t have to feel this heartache. You were supposed to miss me. Gigi was supposed to be here with her sisters. It should’ve been me,” the 38-year-old wrote in a tribute to Kobe on Aug. 23.

On what would have been his 42nd birthday, the historically private Vanessa—whose Instagram account was always set to request-only despite her being the first lady of Lakers basketball for so many years—was sharing another intimate, honest glimpse into her pain.

At the same time, though, every remembrance of Kobe and her Gigi, the family’s next budding hoops star who would have turned 14 in May, is also testament to Vanessa’s strength as she faces down the unfathomable, all while knowing that she has to be strong for daughters Natalia, 17, Bianka, 3, and 15-month-old Capri—and that staying down isn’t the Bryant way.

Ironically, mourning has since coincided with one of the more trying years in recent memory for far more than devastated Lakers fans and a reeling sports world.

What was already going to be a surreal period of time for Vanessa, devoted mother and now keeper of her husband’s legacy, became even more insular than perhaps it would’ve been due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down businesses, schools, sports and the entertainment industry just a few weeks after a host of luminaries gathered to pay tribute to Kobe and Gianna at Staples Center, the house the Lakers legend built over the course of 20 seasons and five NBA Championships.

The Feb. 24 celebration of life marked Vanessa’s first appearance in public since the crash, the widow—who met Kobe at 17 when she was an extra in Tha Eastsidaz’ “G’d Up” video and the aspiring rapper was working on his debut album—blowing the crowd away with her poise during a eulogy that was by turns humorous and heartbreaking, sweet and relentlessly sad, the tears threatening to come but remarkably held at bay.

In the meantime, Vanessa and Kobe’s closest friends and loved ones had been visiting her and the kids at their home in Newport Beach, where vigil-keeping fans, many decked out in No. 24 or No. 8 Bryant jerseys, immediately started to gather outside their gated community in the hours following the crash.

Lakers owner Jeannie Buss, who’d known Kobe since he was a teenager and Gianna her whole life, and team executive Rob Pelinka, Kobe’s longtime best friend and former agent, as well as Gianna’s godfather, were among her first visitors. It’s hard to say whether Vanessa would have since attended a game at Staples Center or made any other more prominent appearances, but the suspension of the NBA season from March 11 until July, when teams resumed play in the Orlando bubble, answered that question.

COVID also put a halt to routine they were starting to get back to in the wake of their loss. Vanessa’s Instagram started to resemble a lot of other moms’ accounts in the pandemic age as Natalia’s adventures in online schooling, TikTok dance routines and other attempts to stay busy took center stage.

They added a dog to the family over the summer, a gray French bulldog named Bobby, “Aka Bobby ganoush, bobbyrooni, bobbooshka. J/k he’s named after iceman from x-men (blue eyes),” Vanessa shared in June, also noting, “Love seeing my girls smile.”

Meanwhile, it’s one thing to deal with a loss privately, and quite another when seemingly the whole world has been weighing in and the reminders are nonstop—a circumstance Vanessa knew would be the case. And she hasn’t shied away from her husband’s ubiquity, whether she was touting the posthumous release of Kobe’s first YA novel, Geese Are Never Swans, in July or marking Kobe Bryant Day on Aug. 24 or, just this past Friday, sharing a photo of a well installed in Uganda by the Orange Catholic Foundation in Kobe and Gianna’s name.

While shops were still closed, Vanessa had tattoo artist Nikko Hurtado come to the house to ink messages in Kobe and Gianna’s handwriting on her neck and wrist.

“It takes a village,” she wrote on Instagram on Mamba Day, posting a shot of herself with Bianka (or BB, as she’s familiarly known), Capri (whose moniker is Koko) and pal Ciara. “Thank you to all my loving family, amazing friends and wonderful fans for your love and support. One day at a time.”

It was a surprise to find out recently that “loving family” didn’t necessarily include Vanessa’s own mother, Sofía Urbieta, who in an interview on Univision’s El Gordo Y La Flaca claimed that her daughter had ordered her to vacate the home where Urbieta had been living in nearby Irvine by March 2021 and took away her car (both assets provided for her by her late son-in-law).

In a statement obtained by E! News, Vanessa said, “My husband and daughter passed away unexpectedly and yet my mom has the audacity to do an interview on TV talking negatively about me while shedding tears about a car and home that wasn’t in her name. She has removed all her diamond jewelry, emptied her apartment that I provide, and put the furniture in storage to appear as though she is without support.”

She continued, “My husband and I have financially supported her over the past 20 years, and I continue to do so, in addition to her monthly alimony. Contrary to previous reports, she has not been physically present or emotionally supportive for my daughters and me after my husband and daughter passed away. Going forward, I see what is most important to my mom and it is beyond hurtful. I hope this public airing of our personal relations will stop here.”

So it’s no surprise as to why Vanessa prizes her privacy to such a degree, having had enough of strangers’ opinions to last a lifetime back when she first married Kobe and again when she chose to stay with him when their marriage was on rockier footing. These days, the commenting function on her Instagram account is turned off, the O.C. mom content to post her pictures without other people’s input.

As COVID restrictions eased over the summer, the Bryant ladies started to venture out a little more, enjoying a trip to the Bay Area last month for boating and good times with former Laker Pau Gasol, who won two rings with Kobe, and his wife, Cat. The honorary family members said it all a couple weeks ago when they welcomed their first child and named her Elisabet Gianna Gasol.

Speaking of namesakes, when they celebrated Capri’s first birthday on June 20, one of the seemingly never-ending list of bittersweet milestones they’ve been marking in the days since losing Kobe and Gianna, Vanessa wrote of the dolled-up baby of the family, “God Bless you sweet princess. Capri Kobe Bryant a.k.a. ‘Koko-Bean’ named after her dearly missed daddy, Kobe Bean Bryant. We miss you SO much Gigi and Daddy.”

Though it was a smaller affair than the one they might have had in non-COVID times, Vanessa went all out decorating, and the cake from Sweet Lady Jane in the shape of the Tokyo Disney Castle was bigger than the birthday girl herself.

Auntie Sophie (Vanessa’s older sister) and Uncle Serg gave Capri a pink mini bumper car that’s navigable by joystick, one of countless gifts that have poured into the house over the summer, whether for a special occasion or just because. Among the tokens of affection, Khloe Kardashian and celebrity florist Jeff Leatham have sent flowers (Khloe of course sending a Leatham arrangement), while On Air With Ryan Seacrest producer Patty Rodriguez sent dolls for the little ones. Beach volleyball champion Kerri Walsh Jennings sent a “Mamba Forever” sweatshirt, which Vanessa showed off on a trip to the park with Bianka. Russell Wilson and Ciara gifted BB with a hot pink, kid-size Range Rover (because Koko couldn’t be the only one with a sweet ride).

On Kobe Bryant Day, Ciara also posted the shot of her with Vanessa, BB and Koko, writing, “Seeing you and the girls smile makes my heart smile. You’re the toughest mama I know. Seeing you put one foot forward each day is admirable. It ain’t easy, but if I know one thing, Mamba Queen’s capable of it all.” She added, “Love you V. @VanessaBryant. #MambaDay.”

WNBA rookie Sabrina Ionescu, who considered Kobe a mentor and Gigi a protégée while she climbed the national ranks at the University of Oregon, has been over for movie night—Kill Bill, starring Uma Thurman as the other “Black Mamba,” naturally. Also last month, Kobe’s sister Shaya Bryant-Tabb and her kids Autumn and Logan cuddled up on the couch for a sweet snap with Capri, who’s now old enough for swimming lessons, and Vanessa recently spent time with her other sister-in-law, Sharia Washington, as well.

Monica told Entertainment Tonight in August that she and Vanessa’s other close friends were quick to rally for her.

“Each day is a struggle and I think one of the greatest aspects of our friendship, which has spanned now for almost 11 years, almost 12, it’s been really, really important to just simply be there,” the singer said. “Whatever she is feeling each day is something we will never understand, that level of pain, that level of heartache, also respecting her privacy. People have been reaching out for a very long time, but she’s always been a private person.”

Capri is “the happiest baby I have ever come in contact with,” Monica continued. “BB, the dancing machine, is just pure joy,” she shares. “And you can see, even in the heartache, they are the greatest blessing. They are the greatest gift that they left. But as a mom, I have never seen the pain of losing a child. We try to keep her covered. She has an amazing village, her sister is amazing, La La’s always been there. She has a great group of friends, the Gasol family. People have really stepped up and really been giving an outpouring of love.”

As Monica said, also in Vanessa’s inner circle is La La Anthony, who as wife of NBA star Carmelo Anthony knows firsthand that being married to a basketball player is not always the easiest life, and she’s been by her friend’s side throughout the aftermath of her loss.

“Well, you know, I’m a real friend, that’s what friends do,” Anthony told Entertainment Tonight earlier this month about being there for Vanessa. “You know, you don’t dip out on your friends when it gets really hard. And she’s going through something that is unimaginable, that, you know, I can’t even fathom what that feels like.”

The designer and mother of son Kiyan continued, “So, just to be a friend and be there to make her laugh when she needs to, cry when she needs to, is a beautiful thing. But that’s what friends do for each other, you know, so I’m always going to be there for her and the girls and just, you know, want to see her just continue to be strong and amazing.”

Calling Vanessa “the strongest woman I know,” Anthony said, “To see her smile and laugh to me is the greatest feeling. You know, to just have those moments whether they’re quick moments or not, you know, for her to be able to have that, so, I’ll continue to bring the fun and the laughter.”

Namechecking more besties, she added, “But Monica has been great, Ciara’s been great, and we’re just going to continue to support her in anything that she needs. This is not a one-week journey, a one-month journey. These friendships are lifelong bonds, so I’ve known Vanessa, what, maybe 13, 14, 15 years now?”

In the meantime, “normal” is still a far-off dream, and not least because Natalia kicked off her senior year of high school from home and her volleyball season is postponed till at least December. Despite their best efforts—and those efforts truly do seem super-human at times—many more tough days are ahead as the family continues to press on without Kobe and Gianna, inevitable grief and sorrow mixed in with the happy.

As Vanessa wrote on Kobe’s birthday, “Our lives feel so empty without you and Gigi. I’ve been completely broken inside. As much as I want to cry, I put a smile on my face to make our daughters days shine a little brighter. I’m not the strong one, they are. They’re strong and resilient. I’m sure you’re proud of them. They put a smile on my face everyday. I wish I could wake up from this horrible nightmare. I wish I could surprise our girls and welcome you and Gigi home to us.”

One thing is clear, however, and it’s that there is a village’s worth of people invested in making sure that Vanessa and her daughters keep smiling. When so little is sure, that is a given.