Before the Lakers’ game against the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday, Kobe Bryant made an unlikely recruiting pitch.
During warmups, he spotted University of Minnesota women’s basketball star Rachel Banham standing courtside, donning a purple jersey of his and a pair of white and gold Nike Kobe shoes.
“We made eye contact and he was like, ‘Hey!’” Banham said later that night. “He was like, ‘I gotta get you a jersey so you can come out and play. We kind of need you right now.’”
Indeed, what team wouldn’t want a player capable of dropping 60 points, like Banham did against Northwestern on Feb. 7? The historic night tied the NCAA Division I single-game scoring record and elicited a response from her favorite player, Bryant.
“From what I’ve seen I don’t think it will be be the last time you hit that mark,” he tweeted two days later.
“Oh, I was freaking out,” Banham said. “I didn’t think it was real. That’s seriously the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me.”
The Big Ten’s career scoring leader was just a fan in that moment, and her friends helped her soak it it.
“They were so jealous, like: ‘That’s the coolest thing ever!’” Banham said. “Everyone was super excited and happy for me because they knew how much I loved him.”
One week later, Banham hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to beat Iowa. Bryant took notice once again, sending a tweet that ended with “#mambablood.”
Bryant’s respect for Banham — who missed nearly the entirety of her previous season due to an ACL tear — continued to grow from there.
After she poured in 52 points against Michigan State two games later, he gave her a shoutout during his own postgame press conference.
“She can do it all,” Bryant said. “Like I said when I saw that she scored 60: It didn’t seem like much of a fluke to me. Until they figure out a way to solve her weapons, she’s gonna continue to do it.”
Six weeks later, Banham found herself in Los Angeles for the John R. Wooden Award ceremony, where the top player in women’s college basketball will be announced on Friday.
Naturally, this called for a trip to Staples Center to see her idol.
“I didn’t think he’d recognize me, honestly, because that’s Kobe Bryant,” she said.
But Bryant didn’t hesitate when he saw her. They briefly chatted before the five-time NBA champion invited her to meet with him after the game.
“When I hugged him, he said, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing and keep putting in work,’” Banham said. “It’s just so cool that someone like him believes in something that I can do.”
Hours later, Banham waited outside of the Lakers’ locker room for Bryant to finish his postgame media session. She chatted with former Pro Bowl linebacker Willie McGinest — also there to see Bryant — before the NBA’s third-leading scorer of all-time stepped out and captured everyone’s attention.
Upon seeing Banham, Bryant immediately turned to McGinest and smiled, “Have you seen her play?”
Bryant signed Banham’s jersey before introducing her to his wife, Vanessa, and daughters, Natalia and Gianna.
“I had no idea what to say,” Banham said. “I was so nervous and didn’t want to sound weird.”
There was no need for worrying, as Bryant expressed his mutual admiration for her. As she walked out of Staples Center a few minutes later, she learned what her hero had written inside the numbers of her jersey.
“To Rachel: Be the greatest — Kobe Bryant”