Amani Free’s growth, 11 years after her ‘Lady Kobe’ mixtape: How her admiration for the ‘Mamba Mentality’ guided her


Toyloy Brown III, Managing Editor

To understand who senior guard Amani Free is, one has to start with her favorite basketball player: Kobe Bryant.

Bryant’s the reason she ever stepped on the court. He’s the reason she dons the jersey number 24. He’s the person she’s emulated since at least the fifth grade.

“There’s something about this man I just have to be like,” Free said, reminiscing on the early years she watched Bryant play. “I just wanted to be like him in every aspect, whether it be on the court or off the court.”

Free’s dad made a basketball mixtape of her when she was 11 and at the start of it, flashes the nickname “Lady Kobe Bryant.” Free’s adoration for Bryant is not purely based on his poetry on the basketball court. She appreciated and studied his legendary “Mamba Mentality,” even reading the book “Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable” by Tim Grover, Bryant’s trainer, multiple times since she was 16 years old so she could better understand Bryant’s overall mindset.

So when Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven other people died tragically in a helicopter crash Jan. 26, 2020, Free was heartbroken. This also just so happened to be the day she planned on celebrating her 20th birthday, which was the previous day.

“My heart dropped,” Free said, remembering how she felt when she confirmed Bryant’s death. “Probably about two minutes later, my dad calls me. He’s like, ‘Are you OK?’ I said, ‘Dad, I can’t breathe, I’m literally frozen in my bed right now.’ Hysterically crying. My heart just shattered that day, it was the biggest loss.”

Free and her teammates still went to Cheesecake Factory that day, but they cried throughout their time in the restaurant.

“I didn’t even meet the guy, and that was probably my top bucket-list thing to do … so I could pick his brain, you know, get all the knowledge I can,” Free said.

Free’s mom, Nadirah, told her daughter that to feel better, she must open up.

“She kind of shut down for a couple of days,” Nadirah said. “And I had to explain to her that shutting down is not really something that you should do. That when pain or hurt occurs, it’s something that you need to talk about.”

What helped Free get better was the presence of her parents and brothers, who are all at least 12 years older than her.

“Just being able to talk, communicate and share different experiences, everything with the rest of our close family, it’s pretty much natural for her and all of us,” said Jai Echols, Free’s second-oldest brother.

The 22-year-old Free still uses the lessons she’s learned from watching Bryant today to help her this season with the basketball team.

In her COVID-19-shortened junior season last year, Free started in 15 of the 21 games played. She approached games thinking she had to do it all — something that Bryant often did for his Lakers teams.

“Last year, I really just focused on like, ‘I have to score, I have to do everything, it’s all on me now,’” Free said. “But this year, I have to take that breath and realize it’s not always on me.”

Free is aware that she has to trust her teammates, especially her underclassmen, to do more out there so the team can be better for the future. Contrary to popular belief, she also learned that from Bryant.

“I got that a little bit from Kobe Bryant because although he did lead his teams a lot, he also groomed his teammates,” Free said.

Now as a more mature person than when she started at Quinnipiac, Free is willing to accept her role as the sixth player in the rotation. She also plays in the frontcourt even though she has been a guard most of her life. However, the defining trait of Free’s game is her versatility, which is important for power forwards in head coach Tricia Fabbri’s system.

“She’s vital to our rotation in the style that we play,” Fabbri said. “So whether she’s starting or not is almost (unimportant) because she’s helping us get the result (we want).

“Her ability to go in and play post up back to the basket, shoot the 3-ball, handle the ball against pressure. She is multi-dimensional, not a one-trick pony by any stretch of the imagination.”

On Jan. 17, Free displayed this versatility in a bigger role after replacing junior forward Cur’Tiera Haywood in the starting lineup due to an injury.

“My heart dropped,” Free said, remembering how she felt when she confirmed Bryant’s death. “Probably about two minutes later, my dad calls me. He’s like, ‘Are you OK?’ I said, ‘Dad, I can’t breathe, I’m literally frozen in my bed right now.’ Hysterically crying. My heart just shattered that day, it was the biggest loss.”

— Amani Free

Against Saint Peter’s, Free scored a season-high 19 points and grabbed a career-high 16 rebounds along with five assists and four steals. In the following game on Jan. 22, versus Manhattan, she put up a new season-high in points with 21 and had eight rebounds. For this outburst in play, Free was awarded MAAC Player of the Week for the first time in her career.

Free thanked God and appreciated the recognition. She did not expect to start but was thankful that her teammates and coaches entrusted her with filling. During this period of personal success, she also sensed a connection with Bryant.

“I think spiritually, I felt it,” Free said. “I always like to believe that (Bryant is) watching over me in the basketball community, so I think just during that time, he was watching me.”

Away from the hardwood, Free has grown tremendously after a rocky first year at Quinnipiac. The Syracuse, New York, native was living away from home for the first time and didn’t think she could adapt to college life.

“I really didn’t think I could do it my freshman year,” Free said. “I really thought I was going to quit … I even had my parents have to come up a whole weekend, because I was just bawling my eyes out.”

Free was reserved back then, staying in the back of the classroom and not socializing with too many people outside of her close friends, who were generally older players on the basketball team. Her biggest leaps socially happened this year once her best friend and former teammate Vanessa Udoji graduated. Without her, Free gradually opened up and has become more outgoing, willing to strike up a conversation with practically anyone.

“Amani has got incredible personality, and she’s really the sweetest person,” Fabbri said. “I remember her being actually pretty quiet, and now that is not Amani Free.”

Free’s delightfulness and communication skills are going to be necessary once she finishes her time in Hamden and her professional basketball career. She wants to use her journalism degree to become a sports broadcaster in the vein of WNBA player Candace Parker.

“I think it’s always been my calling,” Free said. “Whenever I talk to people … they’re like ‘I can tell, you have that persona to you, you have the face for it.’”

Before Free brings her Mamba Mentality to the broadcast booth, she wants to help Quinnipiac (12-7, 7-3 MAAC) accomplish something the Bobcats haven’t done since her first year: win a MAAC championship.

“I’m excited to see where we end up,” Free said. “I’m very confident in us.”