How Vanessa Bryant became 'Queen Mamba'

ecranley@businessinsider.com (Ellen Cranley)
·16 min read
vanessa kobe bryant
Kobe Bryant's wife, Vanessa.

Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images

  • Vanessa Bryant was the "Queen Mamba" to Kobe's "Black Mamba," and they were married for nearly 20 years.

  • When Kobe and the couple's 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, were killed in a helicopter crash last month, fans, athletes, and journalists shared their memories of Kobe as a devoted husband and father.

  • He and Vanessa met when she was in high school and he was a young NBA star.

  • The couple weathered infidelity and teetered on divorce, but ultimately they stayed together until Kobe's untimely death in late January.

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The basketball icon Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, on January 26.

In the days after the crash, fans and athletes remembered not only Kobe's incredible legacy as a basketball player but also his reputation as a loving family man who was devoted to his wife, Vanessa, and their four daughters.

At a public memorial service held at the Staples Center a month after their deaths, Vanessa offered a heartbreaking tribute to her daughter and her "soulmate" Kobe. "God knew they couldn't be on this Earth without each other," she said.

Vanessa and Kobe Bryant were married for 19 years before the basketball star's sudden death.

The couple met when Vanessa was a senior in high school. Her classmates were stunned when she caught the eye of then-20-year-old Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant.

Though many know the Black Mamba as one of the greatest players of all time, not as many know the woman who was by his side since the first years of his career.

This is how the Bryants weathered drama on and off the court while growing their family and cementing themselves as one of the most well-known couples in basketball.

Vanessa Urbieta Cornejo Laine was born on May 5, 1982, in Los Angeles.

vanessa bryant
vanessa bryant

Vanessa Bryant on May 22, 2000.

Mark J. Terrill/AP

Her parents were protective and didn't let her date much, the Los Angeles Times reported.

During the summer before her senior year of high school in 1999, Vanessa was spotted at a concert and asked to appear in a music video.

vanessa bryant
vanessa bryant

Screenshot via YouTube

Vanessa was called to appear in a music video alongside rappers Snoop Dogg and Tha Eastsidaz for their song "G'd Up" and wore a metallic bikini for her debut as a music-video model.

Shortly after the shoot, the 17-year-old was called to appear in another music video. That's when she met 20-year-old Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant.

Disneyland Sleeping Beauty Castle Park Disney
Disneyland Sleeping Beauty Castle Park Disney

Disney

The basketball phenom later wrote on Instagram that he asked Vanessa for her number on November 28, 1999, and the pair went to Disneyland on their first date. Bodyguards trailed them at the park.

Vanessa soon became widely known as Kobe's other half, and their relationship caused a stir while she was attending her senior year at Marina High School in Huntington Beach, California.

vanessa bryant
vanessa bryant

Media at Marina High School in Huntington Beach, California, trying to find out more about Vanessa Bryant when she was in high school.

Robert Lachman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

"She'd bring pictures of Kobe to school, and we'd all be like 'Omygod!' " Vanessa's former classmate Monica Squadrilli told the Los Angeles Times. "I remember there was one of him playing with her puppies, and she would only let us look at it, we couldn't touch it."

Other classmates told the LA Times they remembered Kobe sending roses to the school office and picking her up from class in his Mercedes.

Vanessa became a fixture at Kobe's side in appearances at games and on red carpets before the Lakers star proposed at her 18th birthday party six months after they met.

vanessa kobe bryant
vanessa kobe bryant

Kobe and Vanessa Bryant in 2000.

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc

The couple famously did not sign a prenuptial agreement. Vanessa's stepfather, Stephen Laine, later told the Los Angeles Times that "she just came home one day and said something to the effect that Kobe didn't want a prenup — that he loved her too much."

The young couple got married in April 2001, but the wedding was at the center of family drama.

kobe vanessa bryant
kobe vanessa bryant

Kobe and Vanessa Bryant in 2001.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Fewer than two years after they first met, the couple got married at St. Edward the Confessor Catholic Church in Southern California's Dana Point.

The ceremony was intimate and had only about 12 attendants, partially because neither Kobe's parents nor his sisters went because they disapproved of him getting married so young and to someone who was not African American, the LA Times reported.

Kobe later told the Orlando Sentinel that his relationship with Vanessa had sparked a large rift between him and his father. His father, Joe, denied holding any hostility toward his daughter-in-law, saying they were "cool." He acknowledged a rift with his son but said he respected Kobe's life.

"It's his life, we've got nothing to do with it," he told the paper. "We've done our job."

As Kobe's star continued to rise, Vanessa was by his side. The couple thrilled fans when they announced in September 2002 that they were expecting a daughter.

vanessa kobe bryant
vanessa kobe bryant

Kobe and Vanessa Bryant in June 2002.

LEE CELANO/AFP via Getty Images

When they went out in public, bodyguards went too.

The couple's first child, Natalia Diamante Bryant, was born on January 19, 2003.

vanessa kobe bryant
vanessa kobe bryant

Kobe, Vanessa, and Natalia Bryant on July 23, 2005.

Kirby Lee/WireImage

Her middle name was a nod to Vanessa's love of diamonds, according to the LA Times.

Later that year, a 19-year-old woman accused Kobe of sexually assaulting her on a June 2003 trip to Denver.

vanessa kobe bryant
vanessa kobe bryant

Kirby Lee/WireImage

In a statement released after the allegation surfaced, Vanessa stood by Kobe and said she trusted he would make amends in their marriage.

"I know that my husband has made a mistake, the mistake of adultery," she said in the statement. "He and I will have to deal with that within our marriage, and we will do so. He is not a criminal."

The Lakers guard held a July 2003 press conference in the Staples Center, where he acknowledged his infidelity but said the sexual encounter was consensual. As he spoke, Vanessa was at his side holding his hand.

"I sit here in front of you guys furious at myself, disgusted at myself for making the mistake of adultery," he said. "I love my wife with all my heart. She's my backbone."

The accuser didn't testify, and prosecutors dropped the case in September 2004. The two parties settled a civil suit out of court for an undisclosed amount on March 2, 2005.

The couple's appearance during the scandal became an iconic image, even sparking a mocking nod from "Saturday Night Live."

kobe vanessa bryant
kobe vanessa bryant

Maya Rudolph as Vanessa Bryant and Finesse Mitchell as Kobe Bryant during a "Saturday Night Live" skit on October 18, 2003.

Mary Ellen Matthews/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

Maya Rudolph played Vanessa.

In the months after the scandal, all eyes were on Vanessa's hand. An opulent ring was rumored to be Kobe's penance.

vanessa bryant ring
vanessa bryant ring

Vanessa Bryant's ring on August 2, 2003.

E.J. Flynn/AP

It was initially rumored that the couple was headed for divorce after the scandal, but a $4 million 8-carat purple diamond ring was rumored to be a token of apology from the basketball star to his wife.

The star also showed off a fresh tattoo he got to honor her.

kobe bryant tattoo
kobe bryant tattoo

Kobe Bryant's tattoo tribute to his wife on October 6, 2003.

Douglas C. Pizac/AP

It included her name and angel wings on his right bicep.

Kobe later said in a 2015 documentary that it was around this time Vanessa had a miscarriage, which he blamed on himself.

vanessa kobe bryant
vanessa kobe bryant

Kobe and Vanessa Bryant at the press conference where he addressed his infidelity in July 2003.

ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

Kobe said in the 2015 Showtime documentary "Muse" that Vanessa had a miscarriage while expecting the couple's second child.

He said he blamed himself and had wondered if the stress she experienced during his cheating scandal and sexual-assault charge led to the miscarriage.

"It's something I have a real hard time dealing with that because I felt like it was just my fault," Kobe said in the documentary. "The reality is it happened because of me. That's something I have to deal with. Something I gotta carry forever."

Three years after the birth of their first child, Gianna Bryant was born on May 1, 2006.

gigi vanessa bryant
gigi vanessa bryant

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

"The arrival of our daughter early this morning is an incredible blessing for me and my family," Kobe said in a statement. "We are all full of beautiful emotions after what has been such an incredible day."

As Kobe continued to dominate the court, the couple turned to philanthropic efforts to give back to Los Angeles.

vanessa kobe bryant
vanessa kobe bryant

Vanessa Bryant.

Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images

In 2007, the couple expanded their philanthropic reach when they established the Vivo Foundation, which would later become known as the Kobe and Vanessa Bryant Foundation.

The organization's mission statement says it is dedicated to helping children and families in need with financial and educational resources and "encouraging young people to stay active through sports."

The Bryants would later double their efforts in 2011 by founding a charitable organization that sought to fight homelessness and support homeless youth in Los Angeles.

In addition to their groups, the Bryants supported various other charities, including Stand Up to Cancer and the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

The couple appeared to be on the rocks again in December 2011, when after 10 years together, Vanessa filed for divorce in Orange County Superior Court.

vanessa kobe bryant
vanessa kobe bryant

Kobe and Vanessa Bryant at a Make-A-Wish Foundation event on December 4, 2013.

Jason Merritt/Getty Images for Make-A-Wish Greater Los Angeles

But after the filing, which cited "irreconcilable differences," rumors swirled for months that the couple wouldn't go through with it.

In January 2013, the couple posted on social media to make their reconciliation official, the LA Times reported.

"We are looking forward to our future together," Vanessa said on Instagram. And Kobe wrote on Facebook that "when the show ends and the music stops, the journey is made beautiful by having that someone to share it with."

After their reconciliation, Vanessa and the couple's daughters were a fixture in the audience at Kobe's games.

vanessa kobe bryant
vanessa kobe bryant

Kobe, Natalia, Gianna, and Vanessa Bryant at a Los Angeles Lakers game on November 29, 2015.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Sitting courtside was one of the many perks the family had access to when Kobe was the highest-paid player in the NBA.

The license plate on Vanessa's Mercedes-Benz said "ICE QN," according to the LA Times.

In 2016, Kobe and Vanessa welcomed their third daughter, Bianka Bryant, shortly before the basketball star announced his retirement.

vanessa kobe bryant
vanessa kobe bryant

Kobe, Vanessa, Gianna, Natalia, and Bianka Bryant at Kobe's jersey-retirement ceremony on December 18, 2017.

Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images

Three years later, the couple welcomed their fourth daughter in 2019, Capri Kobe Bryant.

Vanessa is famously a private person and rarely grants interviews.

vanessa bryant
vanessa bryant

Vanessa Bryant on February 26, 2018.

Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

She did release a statement after her husband's retirement: "I'm so excited to see what God has in store for us as a family now that one chapter is closing and new ones are opening."

Vanessa and her daughters were a focal point of Kobe's growing image as a family man as the retired player focused on working with charities and women's sports.

kobe bryant family
kobe bryant family

Kobe, Gianna, Vanessa, and Natalia Bryant on November 21, 2017.

Reed Saxon/AP

The new chapter of Kobe's career expanded on the family's existing efforts to encourage young athletes, and the father of four initially pulled away from basketball but became more involved in it as his daughter Gianna showed a flourishing interest in the sport.

Kobe coached his daughter's team, the Mambas, and established the Mamba Sports Academy, which hosts a wide variety of athletes for holistic training, practices, and tournaments alongside NBA and WNBA players.

The Bryant family was thrust into the spotlight again when Kobe and 13-year-old Gianna were killed in a shocking helicopter crash on January 26.

bryant family mourning
bryant family mourning

A makeshift memorial in front of the Staples Center in Los Angeles on January 27, 2020.

ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

Kobe and Gianna were among the nine victims who were traveling to the Thousand Oaks, California, Mamba training facility when their helicopter crashed.

Fans, athletes, and sports journalists mourned the losses of one of basketball's greatest icons and one of its most promising future athletes.

The singer Jessica Simpson shared an Instagram post after the accident that included a photo of the area where the helicopter crashed and a touching caption that paid tribute to Vanessa and Kobe's relationship.

"My heart is completely broken for all the families and loved ones left behind trying to make sense of things in this tragic moment," Simpson wrote. "Vanessa, you are the woman and wife that championed your husband to greatness."

The Wednesday after the crash, Vanessa changed her Instagram profile picture to a photo of Kobe and Gianna hugging and smiling.

vanessa bryant
vanessa bryant

Vanessa Bryant with Natalia and Gianna, right, on November 3, 2006.

Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

It was her first public social-media activity since their deaths on Sunday.

A few hours later, Vanessa posted a tribute to Gianna and Kobe, from herself and their three surviving daughters.

gigi bryant kobe bryant
gigi bryant kobe bryant

Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Vanessa said that she and her family were "devastated" by the sudden loss of Kobe and Gianna.

She described them as "our beautiful blessings taken from us too soon."

Vanessa vowed they would continue despite their pain. She said: "But we wake up each day, trying to keep pushing because Kobe, and our baby girl, Gigi, are shining on us to light the way."

As part of the tribute, she announced a fund to support the families of the other seven people killed in the helicopter crash.

Vanessa was at the center of a public memorial service held to honor her husband and daughter, where she made a heartbreaking speech.

Vanessa Bryant Kobe Gianna memorial
Vanessa Bryant Kobe Gianna memorial

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Kobe and Gianna were buried in a private funeral service two weeks after their death, but the public was given a chance to honor them in a memorial service held at the Staples Center on February 24.

Vanessa spoke through tears as she lamented both Gianna and Kobe's passing.

"We will not be able to see Gigi go to high school," she said. "We didn't have the chance to teach her how to drive a car. I won't be able to tell her how gorgeous she looks on her wedding day or see her walk down the aisle. She won't have a father-daughter dance with her daddy or dance on the dance floor with me or have babies of her own."

Vanessa said the 13-year-old could have become "the best player in the WNBA," setting off cheers from the crowd that included athletes and celebrities like Michael Jordan, Jennifer Lopez, and Snoop Dogg.

Speaking about her "soulmate" Kobe, Vanessa described a doting dad and devoted husband who went above and beyond the basketball legend the public admired.

vanessa bryant
vanessa bryant

Kobe Bryant's wife Vanessa Bryant speaks during the "Celebration of Life for Kobe and Gianna Bryant" service at Staples Center in Downtown Los Angeles on February 24, 2020.

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

"He was my sweet husband and the beautiful father of our children," Vanessa said. "He was mine. He was my everything. Kobe loved me more than I could ever put into words. We balanced each other out. I have no idea how I deserved a man that loved and wanted me more than Kobe."

Vanessa said that "God knew they couldn't be on this Earth without each other."

"He had to bring them home to have them together. Babe, you take care of our Gigi. I got Nani, BB, and Coco. We are still the best team."

Read the original article on Business Insider