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How Kobe continues to inspire WNBA star Arike Ogunbowale

The Dallas Wings guard is having a season that would make Mamba proud

Arike Ogunbowale likes to say it was fate.

When Ogunbowale was a third grader growing up in Wisconsin, she and her best friend signed up to join their first AAU basketball team. As the two newest additions to the team, they had few options when it came to picking which number they’d wear on their jersey.

No. 8, which at the time was worn by Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, her favorite player, wasn’t available.

“24 and 25 were left,” Ogunbowale said.

Ogunbowale chose No. 24. Soon after, Bryant would as well.

“He switched to 24 and just, like, everything about 24 just became so much more important,” Ogunbowale said.

For years, that would be Ogunbowale’s only connection to Bryant as she became one of the best high school players in the country, and later a star for Notre Dame.

Their paths would finally cross in 2018 after Ogunbowale became immortalized in college basketball history for hitting two game-winning shots during the Final Four. One shot eliminated the 36-0 UConn Huskies (the favorite team of the Bryants). The other shot took down Mississippi State in the title game, earning Notre Dame its first national championship in 17 years.

A series of exchanges on Twitter, initiated by Bryant, would mark the start of a mentor-mentee relationship.

Their bond continued to grow last year during Ogunbowale’s rookie season with the Dallas Wings. But then, in January, Bryant tragically died in a helicopter crash along with his daughter, Gianna, and seven others.

Ogunbowale was playing overseas in Turkey when she learned of Bryant’s death via a phone call from an old trainer.

“I was just shook,” Ogunbowale recalled. “It was so insane to me. I couldn’t even wrap my head around it.”

As Bryant’s birthday approaches on Sunday, Ogunbowale, who has become one of the WNBA’s most electrifying scorers, has spent time reflecting on the moments she had with the late star.

“For somebody that you look up to to give you advice about your game and tell you things that they see – a lot of people don’t get that chance,” she said. “It’s very special that I was able to have those encounters.”

Ogunbowale’s first in-person encounter with Bryant came when she appeared on The Ellen Degeneres Show shortly after her heroics in the 2018 title game. Bryant showed up and surprised Ogunbowale with two autographed jerseys – one for her and one for her dog, aptly named Kobe.

While seated next to Ogunbowale, Bryant raved about her national championship game winner, called Ogunbowale a champ and mentioned that Gianna had been practicing Ogunbowale’s shot that eliminated Connecticut in the Final Four.

“She loves great players making great moves,” Bryant said of Gianna.

The following year, when Ogunbowale was in Los Angeles, Bryant invited her to come watch him record an episode of the ESPN+ show Detail. In a small studio room, with a computer lodged on top of a box, Ogunbowale watched as Bryant exquisitely broke down the game of Kyrie Irving.

“IQ out of this world,” Ogunbowale said of Bryant, “like he’s just saying this stuff by watching it the first time and then that’s the show.”

Following the taping, Ogunbowale said, she talked with Bryant in his office for two hours about his life and career.

Bryant would continue to follow Ogunbowale’s career, texting her after games or generally about the WNBA season.

Last season during a home game against the Los Angeles Sparks, Ogunbowale erupted for a career-high 35 points. After she sifted through numerous messages from supportive friends and family, there was one message that stuck out. It was from Bryant.

“Scored 35 once, score it again,” he wrote.

Ogubowale replied that her best WNBA performance to date was no small task.

But Bryant kept challenging her: “Well, at least 20 every game.”

For Ogunbowale, the exchange was short but meaningful. Her favorite aspect of Bryant’s game was his work ethic and approach, and this was a personalized window into that mindset.

Ogunbowale went on to score at least 20 points for the remaining nine games of the 2019 season, one of which was another 35-point showing.

“Him saying, ‘Hey, you did this once, why not do it every single time?’ – that’s a lot of confidence,” said Ogunbowale, who finished second in last season’s rookie of the year voting. “But that’s the type of confidence I want to have as well. That’s pretty special to me.”

The influence of her mentor is apparent in Ogunbowale’s game. At her best on the court, she is one of the most explosive and exciting players in the WNBA, with the ability to score from anywhere, against anyone.

Ogunbowale’s scoring versatility is punctuated by one of the best midrange games in basketball. Give her space on the open floor and she becomes one of the most unstoppable playmakers.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Ogunbowale is currently the only WNBA player to be ranked within the top-five in midrange field goals, above-the-break 3s and shots in the paint (non-restricted area). That versatility was on full display Aug. 16 in a matchup against the Phoenix Mercury, when Ogunbowale scored a season-high 33 points, including a career-high six 3-pointers.

“I think that’s the best game I’ve seen her play in a long time,” said Mercury coach Sandy Brondello. “I didn’t know how to stop her.

“She’s letting the game come to her a little bit more.”

Arike Ogunbowale of the Dallas Wings celebrates during a game against the Phoenix Mercury on Aug. 16 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida.

Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Last year, the knock on Ogunbowale’s game was that she forced the action too much, resulting in poor shooting efficiency and inconsistency. As a rookie, it was understandable, especially given her circumstances.

Ogunbowale was immediately placed in a difficult role of being Dallas’ go-to scorer as a point guard, a position she hadn’t played before. She had the green light on every possession and rarely passed up her shot. Thus, despite putting up the third-most points for a rookie in WNBA history, she also recorded the fourth-lowest shooting percentage by a rookie in league history.

In her second season, Ogunbowale has shown signs of growth as she’s focused on trying to be more poised on the court. She said she has learned how to adapt to opposing teams making her the focal point of their defensive strategy and can read defenses accordingly. She’s also improved at picking up defensive traps early and finding increased success in moving without the ball, both challenges a season ago.

“The defense threw a lot at me last year. And as a rookie, it’s my first time in the league, you don’t really know the ins and outs and you’re still trying to get comfortable,” Ogunbowale said. “But now I pretty much have an understanding of what’s going to happen. I’m more prepared.”

Since Dallas loaded up on point guards during the offseason, acquiring Marina Mabrey from the Sparks, drafting rookie Tyasha Harris and welcoming the return of Moriah Jefferson (who has since been sidelined with a knee injury), Ogunbowale has been able to play in a more natural role off the ball, too. The additional scoring presence of rookie Satou Sabally and veteran Allisha Gray, who is having her best season since she was named rookie of the year in 2017, has also relieved the pressure on her.

Last season, Ogunbowale averaged 19.1 points while shooting 38.8%. This season, while leading the league in scoring at 21.4 points per game, her shooting percentage is up to 42.3%.

According to Dallas head coach Brian Agler, the next step in her development will be how she can use her game to elevate those around her.

“There’s a lot of players that have been great statistically that couldn’t elevate a team to a championship contender,” said Agler, who has won two WNBA championships during his career for two different teams.

As he continues to rebuild a Dallas franchise that has finished with a winning record in just one of the last 10 seasons, he’s leaning on Ogunbowale to help push the team forward.

“It’s just understanding to achieve success in basketball, it’s a team game at the bottom line,” he said. “How she can play within that setting, which she can do very well, as you’re starting to see, that’s just the maturation of a professional basketball player.”

It’s a testament to Ogunbowale’s work ethic, says Agler.

A work ethic that would make Bryant proud.

On Sunday, on what would have been Bryant’s 42nd birthday, Ogunbowale plans to lace up a pair of Kobes in honor of the late star. She’ll put on her No. 24 jersey, and, fittingly, play against Los Angeles.

And, she kidded, “Maybe get 81.”

Sean Hurd is a writer for Andscape who primarily covers women’s basketball. His athletic peak came at the age of 10 when he was named camper of the week at a Josh Childress basketball camp.