“He just inspires you,” Kobe more than a basketball player for some Valley students

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FRESNO, California (KSEE) – Many continue to mourn the loss of the famed basketball player, Kobe Bryant.

He had several connections to people in the Central Valley. Many have to do with students knowing Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, who also died in the crash.

The stories we are hearing lately are not just about Kobe the megastar but about Kobe the father.

After his retirement in 2016, he committed to not only his daughter Gianna’s passion for basketball but to other little girls like her, like Athena Tomlinson.

Tomlinson, an eighth-grader at Kastner Middle School, a Clovis Unified school, the love of basketball came at an early age.

“I started playing in like first, first or second grade, I just fell in love with the pace of the game and how it could change at any time,” she explained.

And of course, her favorite basketball player, the global superstar, simply known as Kobe.

“I watched Kobe play all the time, it was like he hit every shot,” she said.

While many marveled at Kobe’s game as a Laker from a distance, Tomlinson was getting to know the legend on a personal level.

RELATED: Fresno basketball team meets Kobe less than 24 hours before he died

“When you meet him and you get to know him, it’s so wonderful just talking to him, he just inspires you,” Tomlinson recalled.

Tomlinson plays for a traveling team based in Los Angeles – their main practice spot, the Mamba Academy.

There the teen and her father became fast friends with Kobe and Gianna.

“I felt like it was a privilege that he would want to take time out of his life to come and mentor me and make sure I was okay, and stuff like that and Gigi she was just so competitive and hustled all the time,” she expressed.

The five-time NBA champ even nick-naming Tomlinson, “Shifty Lefty”.

“Cause I’m left-handed so that really meant a lot to me and we would always see him at the gyms on the weekends and we would always talk about basketball and the future and how to have passion and play the game the right way,” Tomlinson explained.

RELATED: Fresno remembers Kobe Bryant through art

Tomlinson just saw and talked to Kobe and Gianna on Saturday.

So, when she heard the news on Sunday, like most of us, it didn’t seem real.

“It was really hard to even believe and fathom that that would happen, it was so surreal,” she said.

Tomlinson had a first-row seat to how the father-daughter duo was looking to take the women’s game to the next level.

The teen says she hopes to play Division-one basketball someday in honor of Kobe.

“We just want to carry out that legacy and help elative women’s sports,” she said.

Tomlinson says she’s thankful for the bond she and her father were able to share with Kobe and Gianna.

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