Soccer, yes, but basketball? One rarely associates this sport with the country of Italy. It was in Italy, however, that Kobe Bryant first learned his skills, practiced incessantly, and dreamed of becoming an NBA player. In 1984, Kobe’s father, Joe ‘Jellybean’ Bryant, retired from the NBA to play in Italy and moved the family to Rieti, in Lazio. Then 6 years old, Kobe would jump off the balcony of his parents’ house, cross a busy street, and run to a church playground to throw a ball in a basket. The family moved several times—to Reggio Calabria, then to Pistoia (in Tuscany) and finally to Reggio Emilia. During his formative years until the age of 13, Kobe became fluent in Italian, practiced basketball, and made many friends and memories, particularly in Reggio Emilia.
It was in Southern California that Kobe established his adult life and his career as a Los Angeles Laker. And it was here that he died in January 2020 in a helicopter crash along with a 13-year-old daughter and seven other people. He was on his way to coach his daughter and her teammates in a basketball game. Kobe is now being mourned throughout the world, most notably in Southern California and in Italy.
Italy always seemed to be in Kobe’s heart. He returned to Reggio Emilia whenever he could. He gave his four daughters Italian first and middle names: Natalia Diamante (17), Gianna ‘Gigi’ Maria-Onore (13), Bianc(k)a Bella (4), and Capri Kobe (7 months). In 2018, he received an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film called “Dear Basketball.” His acceptance speech ended with a tribute in Italian to his wife and daughters: “Vi amo con tutto mio cuore” (I love you with all my heart).
Kobe gave many interviews to the Italian media in flawless Italian. In a 2011 interview on Radio Deejay, he said, “I grew up here in Italy, it’s a country that will always be close to my heart. Always….Here I feel at peace.” Luca Vecchi, the mayor of Reggio Emilia, recently wrote on Facebook, “Kobe Bryant grew up here and was, for all of us, a ‘Reggiano.’” Davide Giudici, a longtime friend and former teammate of Kobe’s, wrote, “When he moved to Reggio Emilia and started playing on my team, it was immediately clear he was from another planet, a cut above us all.” Davide continued, “When he often told us that one day he would become a professional NBA player, we would make fun of him. But he worked for it. At the end of our training, the rest of us would just go watch TV or do other things. Kobe, instead, would go home and keep training with the basket that his father had put up for him in his garden.”
In his adult life, Kobe often came to Santa Barbara where he worked with children at the Boys and Girls Club and at his “Kobe Basketball Academy.” Santa Barbara was one of his favorite cities in the world because it reminded him of his days growing up in Italy: “It is calm and very family-oriented, so it brings back a lot of memories.” A personal anecdote: When Giuseppe Crisà (now a foremost pizza oven maker in Santa Barbara) first arrived here from Sicily to join his brother, he got lost one day in the city. A man stopped his car to ask if he could help. When he heard Giuseppe’s accent, he immediately responded in Italian and together they found the brother’s house. That good samaritan was Kobe.