Just one day after Kobe Bryant‘s shocking death in a helicopter crash alongside his daughter Gianna and seven others, the world was still reeling.
Countless tributes poured in about the man best known for his dominance on the basketball court. But one story broke through, quickly going viral and inspiring a heartwarming movement of fathers celebrating their daughters.
On Jan. 27, SportsCenter anchor Elle Duncan recounted meeting Bryant, 41, backstage at an ESPN event while eight months pregnant with her daughter two years prior.
Bryant, a dad of four girls — Gianna, Natalia, 17, Bianka, 3, and Capri, 7 months — commented on Duncan’s baby bump, she told SportsCenter viewers.
“I asked him for advice on raising girls, seeing as though he quite famously had three at the time, and he said, ‘Just be grateful that you’ve been given that gift because girls are amazing,’ ” she recounted, noting that later in the conversation he said, “I would have five more girls if I could. I’m a girl dad.”
Said Duncan through tears during the segment, “I suppose that the only small source of comfort for me is knowing that he died doing what he loved the most: being a dad; being a girl dad.”
Duncan’s story — and Bryant’s words — kicked off the “Girl Dad” movement, with celebrity and regular dads around the world sharing their experiences as a father of girls.
“I think girl dad has obviously turned into a really positive moment and something I certainly didn’t expect,” Duncan tells PEOPLE one day after the emotional celebration of life for Bryant and his daughter at the Staples Center.
Duncan says the decision to share the anecdote came about “really organically.” She was discussing the memory with a producer when he encouraged the anchor to tell it on-air.
“At first, I was very hesitant because I was like, ‘It’s not about me, it’s about Kobe,’ ” says Duncan. “I don’t know Kobe, I met him that one time. I feel like people probably want to hear from people that knew him intimately.”
Duncan’s producer encouraged that “if Kobe was willing to open up to this complete stranger about his daughters and his love for his daughters, that was probably a great indicator of who he was.”
Duncan, 36, was also still dealing with the recent death of her grandfather, which she says amplified her emotions about the tragic accident.
“[My grandfather] had done everything he ever wanted to do in life, and we put him in the ground and it was sad, but we could feel good about that,” she explains. “And I guess the swing of emotions that very mixed day to thinking about all of these families losing children with life left to live.”
For her, that interaction with Bryant was beyond special. Duncan — now the proud mother of daughter Eva — says the athlete was the first person to help her truly get excited about having a girl.
“He was the first person to make me feel like it was the best thing in the world,” she says. “He really poured cold water all over this notion or this stereotype that men only feel complete if they have boys.”
Duncan says she was worried about the family’s reaction to the “Girl Dad” movement at first, but then when Bryant’s widow called out the term in her own eulogy on Monday she was happy to see it embraced by his loved ones.
In the speech, Vanessa called her late husband “the MVP of girl dads, or MVD.”
Of course, Ducan says she never expected the huge response her words generated.
“I’ve been asking people and, from what I can glean, most people feel like [the story] made Kobe incredibly relatable and humanize him a bit — because Kobe had always been this mythical figure for most of us,” she tells PEOPLE. “He was almost like a superhero. … And while he was always such a big advocate for women in sports, and I think it was well-documented, how much he loved his daughters, I suppose that it puts people in his shoes and it made Kobe feel relatable to them.”
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