Bryant was a basketball superstar for his entire adult life. He entered the NBA draft straight out of high school in 1996 after a childhood spent partly in Italy, where his father, former NBA player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, played professionally.
Fans across Europe honored Bryant on Sunday.
“All of the NBA players are important, because they’re legends, but he’s particularly important to us because he knew Italy so well, having lived in several cities here,” Italian basketball federation president Giovanni Petrucci told The Associated Press. “He had a lot of Italian qualities.”
He added that Bryant “spoke Italian very well. He even knew the local slang.”
Bryant, the 18-time NBA All-Star who won five championships and became one of the greatest basketball players of his generation during a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, died Sunday in a helicopter crash near Calabasas, California. He was 41.
Bryant lived in Italy between the ages of 6 and 13 while his father, Joe, played for several teams in the country before returning to Pennsylvania for high school.
Kobe Bryant spoke fluent Italian, and often said it would be a “dream” to play in the country.
“Italy is my home. It's where my dream of playing in the NBA started. This is where I learned the fundamentals, learned to shoot, to pass and to (move) without the ball,” Bryant said. “All things that when I came back to America the players my age didn't know how to do because they were only thinking about jumping and dunking.”
The dream almost came true when Bryant nearly joined Virtus Bologna in 2011 during an NBA lockout, only for the deal to fall apart.
“He was a supernatural,” Italian coach Ettore Messina, who worked with Bryant as an assistant for the Lakers, told the AP via text message while traveling with his current club, Olimpia Milano.
“To hear him speak and joke in our language and to remember when his father played here and he was a kid drew a lot of people to the NBA,” Messina said. “He was also always very attentive to help Italian kids arriving in the NBA and to help them enter such a tough and competitive world. He also did that with me when I arrived at the Lakers and I’m still very grateful to him for that. It’s very sad that his family has been devastated like this.”
Thanks to his young years in Italy, Bryant was a lifelong soccer fan, too.
AC Milan, one of the clubs that Bryant supported, tweeted: “We have no words to express how shocked we are to hear of the tragic passing of one of the greatest sportsmen of all time and Rossonero fan, Kobe Bryant. All our thoughts are with the families of those affected by this tragic accident. You will forever be missed, Kobe.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.