ROME – At a Lakers preseason game in Beijing in 2013, the arena rang out with chants of “Kobe! Kobe!” — despite the injured superstar not even having suited up.
From Los Angeles to Italy, Asia and beyond, Kobe Bryant was bigger than just a basketball player. He was the sport’s global ambassador.
It was a role that Bryant began studying for at an early age, during his seven-year childhood tour of Italy while his father played pro basketball in the country.
“Because of that, he was fluent, he could understand the mentality,” Italian coach Ettore Messina, a former consultant with the Los Angeles Lakers, told The Associated Press. "And he played soccer so he learned to use his feet, not only his hands. Because of that he was open minded.”
Bryant, an 18-time NBA All-Star with the Lakers and a lifelong soccer fan, died Sunday with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, in a helicopter crash near Calabasas, California. He was 41.
“The other thing that was crucial in his career was USA Basketball. Because of being who he was for Nike, he traveled every summer all over the world, whether it was Europe, China, South America,” said Messina, who now coaches Olimpia Milano. "With those commercial tours he was always open to do that. He was a typical citizen of the world and he understood that before a lot of other people.”
Bryant’s popularity among Chinese fans was rivaled only by eight-time NBA All-Star Yao Ming, LeBron James and Michael Jordan. His playing appearances, including winning the gold medal with the United States at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, were far exceeded by his promotional appearances in the country, both on behalf of his own brand and basketball generally.
In Taiwan, where the NBA also is an enormous draw, President Tsai Ing-wen tweeted that “Kobe inspired a generation of young Taiwanese basketball players, & his legacy will live on through those who loved him.”
Philippine presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo noted that Bryant had been a frequent visitor to the Philippines, adding “he was well-loved by his Filipino fans.”
Back in Europe, Bryant could connect with sports fans because he had been a big soccer fan since he was a kid.
“Kobe was a true legend and inspiration to so many,” soccer great Cristiano Ronaldo wrote on Twitter.
Bryant kept an AC Milan jersey inside his locker room at the Staples Center to show his support for his favorite soccer team. Milan was planning an extensive tribute to the player at the San Siro on Tuesday.
Milan tweeted an interview with Bryant when he visited the club’s training facility a few years ago.
“Watching (Ruud) Gullit, (Frank) Rijkaard, (Marco) Van Basten and (Paolo) Maldini was always a dream for me,” Bryant said in Italian, wearing a Milan jersey. “It’s always been my favorite squad. Back in Los Angeles I have an AC Milan shirt and scarf inside my locker and I see them every day.”
The Italian basketball league was also honoring Bryant by observing a minute's silence before every game across every division and level for an entire week.
Messina, who coached teams to four EuroLeague championships, recalled how welcoming Bryant was to him when he joined the Lakers — as well as to Italian and European players in the NBA. Bryant’s attitude was likely a product of his direct knowledge at how far foreign players had come.
For instance, when Bryant’s father Joe was playing in Italy in the 1980s “nobody was even dreaming for an Italian to go play in the NBA," Messina said.
Now, Marco Belinelli is an NBA champion with the San Antonio Spurs and along with the Oklahoma City Thunder's Danilo Gallinari a mainstay in the league, while Andrea Bargnani was selected first overall in the 2006 NBA draft by the Toronto Raptors.
Messina went on to become an assistant coach with the Spurs and on occasion filled in for Gregg Popovich as head coach, becoming the first non-North American to coach, and win, an NBA game.
Bryant returned to Pennsylvania for high school but continued to speak Italian his entire life and often said it would be a “dream” to play in the country.
The dream almost came true when Bryant nearly joined Virtus Bologna in 2011 during an NBA lockout, only for the deal to fall apart.
“Kobe was very, very good. Very strong. Even when he was just a kid, his Mamba mentality was there,” said Davide Giudici, a close friend of Bryant's from childhood in Reggio Emilia. “I remember him many times saying, 'Guys, one day I'll be a professional player. I don't know if in Serie A in Italy or in Europe or the NBA, but I will play basketball, for sure, in my life."
As it turned out, Bryant did much more than just play basketball. He became a global spokesman for the sport.
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