‘Forever one of us’: Kobe Bryant mourned in Italy where NBA great first learned to play

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Bryant plays with a ball during a sponsor's event in Milan during 2011: AP
Bryant plays with a ball during a sponsor's event in Milan during 2011: AP

As Italians heard the news of Kobe Bryant’s death, a deluge of messages and social media posts mourned more than just the basketball star – they mourned the neighbour and the friend.

The NBA legend died on Sunday in a helicopter crash in southern California, together with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others. He was 41.

“Forever one of us,” Reggiana basketball club in Reggio Emilia tweeted, while the town's mayor Luca Vecchi said: “Kobe Bryant grew up among us and was a Reggiano.’

“We’ve lost a friend,” read a front-page headline in the Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy’s leading sports newspaper.

The Italian basketball federation ordered a minute’s silence to be observed for all games in every category fort this week, "a small but heartfelt and deserved gesture" to honour “an absolute champion who always had Italy in his heart”.

The outpouring of emotion is a testament to how deep Bryant’s Italian connection ran. The American spoke fluent Italian and often said it would be a “dream” to play in the country.

“My story began here,” Bryant told the newspaper Il Resto del Carlino in 2016. “My dream began in Reggio Emilia.”

“Italy was Kobe’s second home,” Stefano Salerno, a journalist covering the NBA for Sky Sport Italy and a basketball fan “because of Kobe”, told The Independent. “Or rather, his ex-aequo first home.”

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Bryant moved to Italy when he was six and spent seven years in the country following his father Joe’s basketball career.

Bryant plays with a ball during a sponsor’s event in Milan during 2011 (AP)
Bryant plays with a ball during a sponsor’s event in Milan during 2011 (AP)

He mastered the local language quickly after his family moved to their first Italian home in Rieti, near Rome.

“The closest American school was in Rome, two hours away from Rieti,” explains Salerno. So Bryant attended local instead of international schools, forcing him to learn Italian grammar “like all of us”. He learned Italian so quickly that “after a couple of months, Kobe started translating Italian for his parents, who didn’t speak the language,” Salerno says.

When Bryant took his first steps on a basketball court in Italy, he was small and thin – far from the 6’6” man he grew into. He often got picked late in scrimmages by players who underestimated him – but were quickly forced to recognise their mistake.

“We were young and at the time your father was the star. None of us knew we were playing with someone who would become one of the greatest basketball players of all time,” tweeted a man who claimed to have played with Bryant as a child in Reggio Calabria, the second Italian city the Bryants lived in.

Byrant also liked football and became an AC Milan fan – a passion he kept for the rest of his life.

“After football games, he liked to talk about football and about Italy, where he often went for his summer holidays,” says Zeno Pisani, an Italian talent manager in Hollywood and a personal friend of Bryant’s since the late star moved to Los Angeles to begin his NBA career. He told The Independent getting to know Bryant was “when your hero becomes your friend”.

The Italian language stayed with him for the rest of his life. Bryant kept speaking the language even during his time in the NBA, deploying it to motivate teammates or trash-talk on the court. His daughters Gianna Maria - who, tragically, died alongside him in a helicopter crash at the age of just 13 - and Natalia Diamante were given Italian names.

Bryant once told Italian sports channel Sportitalia that his time in the country left him with a “passion for life, for basketball, for doing the thing you love with all your heart.”

“Italy will always have a place in my heart,” he added.

And Italians, too, grew to love Kobe Bryant. He made them connect with US basketball, Salerno says, and believe that a local had made it.

“Many saw him as an Italian in the NBA. They saw him as one of them – as someone they raised," he says.

“He felt Italian, and he often said that he learned how to play in Italy and would have liked to help Italian children,” adds Pisani, the talent manager.

Giovanni Petrucci, president of the Italian basketball federation, said Byrant “had a lot of Italian qualities”.

Most of Bryant’s fondest memories of Italy were born in Reggio Emilia, where his family spent their last three years before returning to the US.

“I used to cycle around here with my friends, so many memories. It’s special,” he recalled in Italian, his hands moving frantically, as he spoke to local media during a visit in 2016.

Speaking from a street court, with paint flaking off yellow homes in the background, he said: “When we drove here, would you ever think that one of the best players in the NBA grew up here? It’s as far as you can get from Los Angeles.

“It means that every dream is possible.”

Additional reporting by AP

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