“Kobe Bryant grew up here and he was, for all of us, a ‘Reggiano,’ ” said the town’s mayor, Luca Vecchi, in a tribute on Facebook. “Today, he left us. A basketball legend that all of our town will forever fondly and gratefully remember."
“Forever one of us,” the Italian basketball team Pallacanestro Reggiana wrote on Facebook, above images of Bryant with his father and in his uniform as a young player. Bryant’s father, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, an eight-year NBA veteran, played for the team for two seasons, while Kobe played on the youth team.
Bryant was one of nine people, including his daughter Gianna, who died in the helicopter crash Sunday while traveling from Orange County to a youth basketball tournament northwest of Los Angeles. He was 41. Tributes poured in from all over the world to honor the late NBA champion — but perhaps no country outside the United States had a closer personal connection than Italy.
For Bryant, his experience overseas would come to shape his upbringing on and off the court in ways that set him apart from his opponents in years to come. He returned to Philadelphia before starting high school, struggling to understand English slang or to fit in — except on a basketball court.
Just several years later, he would be wearing a Los Angeles Lakers jersey, hurtling toward the Hall of Fame.
In a 2016 interview with il Resto del Carlino, speaking fluent Italian, Bryant said, “My story began in this town.”
“Why am I so attached to Reggio? Because I have so many special memories,” he said during a visit. “As we were getting here, I was [just saying], ‘Would you have ever thought that one of the NBA’s best players could have grown up here?’ There’s nothing farther from Los Angeles. It means that every dream is achievable.”
Bryant moved to Italy with his family in 1984, when he was 6 years old. He started out playing for a kids’ Minibasket team, the Italian name for kid-basketball. The rims were shorter and the court was smaller, Bryant told the online basketball publication SLAM just last September. And at practice, there were no scrimmages, “ever,” Bryant said.
They learned only the fundamentals.
“Passing, screening, moving off the ball, shooting. All the basics,” he said. “And if we did scrimmage, we’d scrimmage full court, no dribbles allowed. So that set the foundation for me for how I came to understand the game, and how I now teach the game.”
One Italian Twitter user, identifying himself as a former teammate of Bryant’s in Italy, posted a photo of what appears to be young Kobe standing at the free throw line in short shorts and knee-high white socks, looking up at the hoop and miniature backboard.
“We were kids, and way back then your father was the star,” the man wrote. “And none of us realized that they were playing with someone who’d later go on to become one basketball’s greatest players ever. RIP #Kobe.”
Qui eri a #Palmi mentre tiravi dalla lunetta. Giocavi nella #ViolaRC. Eravamo piccini e la star in quel periodo era tuo padre. E nessuno di noi sapeva che stava giocando con quello che sarebbe diventato uno dei più grandi cestisti di sempre. RIP #Kobe— DarGal (@dargal75) January 26, 2020
The experience of moving to a foreign land from Philadelphia was intimidating at first, Bryant said in a short documentary by Spike Lee, called “Italian Imports.” He didn’t know the language, at least not right away, and never saw many people who looked like him.
“There weren’t too many black kids running around in Italy at the time,” Bryant said in the film, one episode in a series called “Spike Lee’s Lil’ Joints.”
But as it happened, another future pro basketball star would move to Italy as a child with her family, too. She was Tamika Catchings, and Bryant found a friend in her.
Catchings, the WNBA star who played 15 seasons on the Indiana Fever and was just named a finalist for the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, moved to Italy for one year so her father, former NBA player Harvey Catchings, could also play Italian basketball. The two dads were friends, bringing their families together on trips to see Roman ruins like the Colosseum, which Bryant said allowed them to grow up with a “broader perspective on life … thinking anything’s possible.”
“I’m telling you, it was something in the pasta,” Bryant said of the unlikely odds that both childhood friends would one day become all-stars.
“Or the pizza,” Catchings said. “Remember the big old pizzas?”
During the summer, Bryant would travel back to Philadelphia for a chance to play against American kids — but at first, he didn’t do so well, as he said in one ESPN interview.
“I didn’t score a point the whole summer. Not one point. Not a free throw, not a layup. Nothing, zero points the whole summer,” Bryant said. “My father came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Son, don’t worry about it. We’re going to love you if you score zero or 50.’ ”
He would go on, of course, to score much more than that.
Brian Shaw, who played against Bryant’s father on an Italian team and would later play on the Lakers with Bryant, remembered in 2016 that “Kobe was obsessed with the game even back then.” Once he got a little older, he would warm up before games in the layup line with Italian men twice his size, once even challenging Shaw to a game of H-O-R-S-E, Shaw told the Players’ Tribune after Bryant retired.
Shaw wouldn’t see Bryant again until he was a junior in high school in the Philadelphia area, when Bryant’s father took him to an Orlando Magic game to see Shaw play.
“We had a nice chat,” Shaw recalled, “and as I’m turning to leave, Kobe says, ‘I’ll see you after my senior year. I’ll be playing against you.’ ”
Not only that — the two would win three championships together with the Lakers, before Shaw went on to coach him once retiring as a player.
On Sunday, Shaw offered an emotional tribute on NBA TV. He remembered Bryant as a player “often misunderstood,” sometimes isolating himself “in his relentless pursuit to be the best who ever played the game.” But it was that discipline, Shaw said, that set him apart from so many.
“I knew him from playing against his father when he was 9 or 10 years old, and then I had the opportunity to play against him, to play with him, to win championships, and also coach him for a couple years,” Shaw said. “This is the worst kind of news you could hear. You don’t want it to be true.”
Bryant returned to Italy numerous times after his career took off, whether for a family vacation or to surprise youth basketball teams with a visit in his adopted hometown. He used to call Italy “my home,” while saying it was always his dream to return there to play.
“Kobe Bryant is gone,” Stefano Bonaccini, governor of Emilia Romagna, wrote on Facebook on Sunday. He was “a great champion and a great person, attached to our land, just like our land was attached to him.”
Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.