How Kobe Bryant helped propel the WNBA orange hoodie's iconic rise

Cassandra Negley
·Writer
·8 min read

The bright orange pullover with the white logo kept calling her name.

Eb Jones, the WNBA’s former lead for content and influencer strategy, pored through pages of league apparel on the Fanatics website. The hoodie kept beckoning. It was a simple pop of color. It came in youth, women’s and men’s sizes. And it clearly advertised her message.

Jones didn’t expect millions more would feel the same call she did that day in 2019. And she certainly never believed it would be because Kobe Bryant wore it, his hoops-loving daughter Gianna beaming by his side. Or that he did so in the last public photo before his death.

“Everybody in the world respected Kobe, and that image of him with his daughter being the last one — I don’t believe in coincidences. I feel like things happen for a reason,” Jones told Yahoo Sports. “It’s so extremely unfortunate that we lost him because of all the wonderful things he wanted to do for the league. But if God felt it was time for him to go and his time from here was gone, he made sure that he even made a statement going out.”

Bryant’s legacy will always begin on a basketball court. When the Los Angeles Lakers legend stepped off the court for the final time, he began building an additional one. And when he died one year ago, his impact on the women’s game went into overdrive through a hoodie that Jones was able to get into his hands.

Kobe Bryant in an orange sweatshirt with the WNBA logo and his daughter, Gianna.
Kobe Bryant wore the WNBA sweatshirt the league gave him during a Los Angeles Lakers game at Staples Center on Dec. 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Michael Owen Baker)

WNBA orange hoodie campaign began before Kobe

For years, apparel for women’s sports and female fans was almost always glittery and pinked out. When Jones took on her new role for the WNBA, she was hoping to overhaul that given all the fan complaints. But her job didn’t cover merch designs — license holders do all of that — so instead she worked out side deals for players.

Pieces like the WNBA fanny pack at the 2019 All-Star weekend were popular. The problem was fans and even ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo, who mentioned fanny packs on broadcasts the rest of the season, were irritated they couldn’t purchase them. That created an issue for Jones, who decided she’d have to pick a piece she liked from Fanatics.

It came down to the now-iconic hoodie, a long-sleeve crewneck and a T-shirt.

“I literally went back and forth with myself about it because we’re a summer sport,” said Jones, who left the league in August to pursue other opportunities. “Who the heck is going to wear a hoodie? But I was like, something about this hoodie is just calling me. It just spoke to me.”

A'ja Wilson, Jackie Young, Kayla McBride, Jaime Nared and Carolyn Swords react on the bench after teammate Sugar Rodgers (not pictured) hit a 3-pointer.
Las Vegas Aces forward A'ja Wilson wears the orange WNBA hoodie while rehabbing an ankle injury during the 2019 season. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images )

She first sent the hoodies to players. A’ja Wilson, the 2020 WNBA MVP, was the first to wear it while on the bench in a boot rehabbing an ankle sprain. With the players on board, Jones got it in the hands of influencers who were already supportive of the WNBA.

People like Shea Serrano, Jemele Hill, Gabrielle Union and Charlamagne Tha God were on the hoodie train early. Some who received it didn’t wear it or weren’t interested, and for a while, it was a “W thing.”

“It didn’t transcend unto the world until Kobe wore it,” Jones said.

How Kobe got the orange hoodie

Bryant’s post-playing legacy was starting to grow as an avid supporter of the women’s game. If it weren’t for his desire to take that advocacy to another level, the hoodie might never have landed in his hands.

A week after the Washington Mystics won their first championship in October 2019, Bryant visited WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert, three months into her new job, at the New York City offices. The one-hour meeting turned into a passionate two.

“He was really interested in hearing on how we’re going to transform the league [and] what he was doing on youth and girls basketball,” Engelbert said at The 2020 Makers Conference in February. “So this was real advocacy for our league. [He] wanted to help us invest. Help advocate.”

Anyone who visits the office gets gear and Jones put together three bags worth for the Bryant family. The hoodie was in a bag for the five-time NBA champion. Another bag had clothing for Gigi, a budding basketball star who dreamed of playing in the league. And a third had just-in baby gear like a “Future GOAT” onesie for his youngest daughter, Capri, born four months prior.

“I never in a million years thought he would wear anything in there,” Jones said. “I thought for sure [that] Gigi would probably love this stuff I put in there for her. I know she’ll rock it. But I never in a million years thought he would rock anything that was in that bag.”

While Jones was halfway around the world on vacation, her phone gave her a wake-up call. Bryant was courtside at Staples Center in an orange WNBA hoodie, his arm wrapped around 13-year-old Gigi and a bright smile on both their faces.

“That man could have worn anything in the world to that game,” Jones said. “He has every designer, I’m sure, at his beck and call. And he chose to show up, knowing he would be center of attention, in a $60 hoodie with the WNBA symbol on it. That’s not a mistake in my eyes.”

The Dec. 29 photo is the last public one of Bryant and Gigi at an NBA game. They were en route to a girls basketball game at Mamba Academy when their helicopter crashed into a hillside in Calabasas, California, on Jan. 26, 2020.

That’s when Jones was inundated with requests from celebrities for the hoodie.

Hoodie takes over 2020 as best-selling WNBA item

The first bump was for Super Bowl LIV in Miami the following week. In February, it was NBA All-Star weekend in chilly Chicago and Jones became the “bag lady” with a hotel room full of 100 hoodies. Everywhere she went, someone asked if she would hook them up. She spotted them around the fan activities and one man told her he bought it because of Bryant.

For Women’s History Month in March, influencers clamored for the apparel. The New York Knicks were among the groups to request hoodies so they could wear them into Madison Square Garden on International Women’s Day.

Bryant’s post-basketball legacy, which includes an Oscar for his animated short “Dear Basketball,” was still forming when he died. That’s why Jones thinks players opted for that specific sweatshirt to honor him.

“I feel like it really blew up because people respect Kobe so much that they wanted to respect the thing that he was honoring in those final months that he was here. Just keep his legacy going,” she said.

It’s steamrolled ever since.

Bryant’s legacy post-basketball carries on in sweatshirt

The hoodie took off again in July and made its biggest mark in fan sales. ESPN started the “In It For Good” marketing campaign and sent hoodies to NBA teams, professional athletes, celebrities and in-house talent so they’d wear it during opening weekend. Fanatics said it was the top-selling item across all sports the last week of July.

As the holidays approached, sales shot back up during Thanksgiving week to reach the top 50, Fanatics said. By year’s end, it was the site’s best-selling WNBA item ever and was named Best Fashion Statement of the Year by Sports Business Journal. Jones said overall WNBA merchandise sales more than doubled in 2020 and the sweatshirt “put everybody on notice” by “debunking that notion that the W doesn’t sell.”

For a league that has historically had a marketing problem over its 25 years, it could lead to revolutionary change as the WNBA takes its next steps.

“It’s a lie that the W doesn’t sell. The W does sell,” Jones said. “And that also made other people take notice. I hope it will have a trickle effect and now maybe we can have a player that will have their own shoe.

“I hope that the success of the orange hoodie and people seeing that it does sell if you make dope s*** people actually want to buy, that it will make more brands invest in the W.”

Bryant and Gigi would likely have been a part of the 25th anniversary of the WNBA in some way this year. Bryant’s influence on the game was limitless given his platform and status.

Yet even in death, his impact is felt through an orange hoodie lacking any glitter but that sparkled in a marketing manager’s eye long before it got to Kobe.

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