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Kobe Bryant: An Italian Icon

“Ciao Kobe!,” yelled Luca Piazza, an Italian living in Orange County. 

“Tutto apposto!?,” Kobe Bryant responded. He smiled as he asked if he was doing alright while stretching his hand toward Piazza.

“Sì, sì tutto apposto!,” Piazza said that everything was alright and shook Bryant’s hand.

Piazza, my father, was starstruck and impressed by the way Bryant had responded in perfect Italian. Bryant treated my father as somebody that he has known like a friend. 

This interaction did not happen when Bryant was walking off the court at the Staples Center. Rather, he was attending a fundraising event with his wife Vanessa in Southern California.

This happened in 2014, a couple years before Bryant retired from the game of basketball. Everyone was keen to see what he would do next, whether it would be coaching his daughters or providing guidance to the next wave of NBA stars.

On Jan. 26, 2020, Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna passed away in a helicopter accident, along with seven passengers —  John, Keri and Alyssa Altobelli, Sara and Payton Chester, Christina Mauser and Ara Zobayan. They were on their way to a basketball tournament where Bryant would coach his daughter’s team. 

The news of his passing was shocking. Millions of people were in denial. Fans flocked from all over Southern California to a makeshift memorial outside of the Staples Center where they paid their respects. It was a global event with the epicenter being in Los Angeles, who knew Bryant as a Laker legend.

Because the event had seismic effects, Los Angeles was not the only place where people felt heartbroken about his death. 

Italy, a country known for its food, historic sights and having some of the most established professional soccer clubs, was a place where Bryant spent seven years of his youth while his father Joe Bryant played in the professional basketball league in Europe.

Quickly, Kobe immersed himself in the Italian culture. He learned the language, hung out in the town squares and made a name for himself in the youth basketball circuit. According to his teammates and coaches, Bryant already had the motivation to not quit and to play all the time.

“We were beating a team by a large amount and we wanted to give space to others to play. But Kobe had this need to play all the time and continued to ask the coach to let him play more,” said ex-youth teammate Andrea Menozzi in an interview with Italian news outlet La Repubblica.

Kobe on the youth team of Pallacanestro Reggiana. Photo provided by Pallacanestro Reggiana/Twitter. 

Although Bryant moved often, he embraced the Italian lifestyle off the court. 

He did not live in a big city like Milan or Rome, rather he lived in the small towns where friends feel like family. He would casually hang with friends by going out to the town square or piazza to grab a gelato or play basketball at the park. This is how many Italians feel connected to the late Laker legend.

Giulio Morandini

In a Tuscan valley south of Florence, the small town of Figline (feel-yené) Valdarno lies along the bank of the Arno River. 

This is where Giulio Morandini, 19, calls home. Unlike most kids in Figline who played soccer, Morandini felt an affection for basketball from an early age.

In Italy, basketball is a far second place behind soccer. The professional league is not as big and widely publicized, so most Italians look to the NBA.

When Morandini started playing at the age of six, he followed the NBA by watching game recaps since live games were during the middle of the night. He noticed there was one player that was particularly strong, Kobe Bryant.

“He was really strong at the time. He was a player that you can admire. On the court, he was fully concentrated, then off the court he was the opposite. Through that, he became a role model to follow,” Morandini said.

To him, Bryant was somebody who he never thought would stop working hard, even up until his last NBA game where he scored 60 points. Morandini stayed up with his younger brother until three in the morning to watch it live on a school night.

Morandini saving the ball from going out of bounds. Photo provided by Giulio Morandini.

When Morandini heard the news of Kobe’s passing, it was nighttime and nobody wanted to believe it. Finally, pictures and videos of the helicopter in flames surfaced on mainstream media.

“Everyone felt it. Everyone felt really, really bad,” he said.

The Italian Basketball Federation released a statement that every basketball game for a week, from the top division down to the youth teams, were to hold a minute of silence for the victims of the accident. It showed respect from a country that Bryant loved very much.

Morandini still plays for Figline’s first team, Basket Don Bosco Figline, in the regional divisions of professional competition and they took part in this nationwide action. 

Morandini, top row second from right, with his team Basket Don Bosco Figline. Photo provided by Giulio Morandini.

Alessandro Viara

Alessandro Viara, 18, lives in a town in the northwest part of Italy’s Piedmont region called Mondovì. 

When Viara was 11, he played the popular basketball video game, “NBA 2K.” He chose the Los Angeles Lakers at random. Immediately, he noticed that there was a player that kept scoring and was by far the best on the court. That player was Bryant.

A young basketball player himself, Viara wanted to know more about the player that wore the number 24 for the Lakers. 

During his 12th birthday, Viara only asked for things that had to do with Kobe or the Lakers. Everyday, he would watch videos on YouTube or read articles about the legend. He even woke up in the early morning to watch the Lakers play live, which was a nine hour difference when they played at home. 

As Viara grew older, he wanted to incorporate Kobe’s iconic Mamba Mentality into his own game.

“I looked to put his game in mine. I wanted to put his mentality in my game although there were obvious limits since I am not Kobe Bryant. Regardless, I looked for ways to have the Mamba Mentality,” Viara said.

Once Viara found out that Kobe had lived in Italy, he felt an even stronger connection. He saw that Kobe did many interviews in Italian and regularly visited during the off-season. To Viara, his love for the world renowned basketball star felt even more personal beyond the sport itself.

“It was crazy that my idol could speak my language! He came from my land and grew up in my land. And it was incredible and I was in love with this fact because for me he was Italian!” Viara said with enthusiasm. 

Bryant’s death took a hard toll for the young teenager. He found out after a match with his team BC Mondovi and began crying. For the next few days it was difficult for him because he felt he had lost a loved one. It was hard for him to believe what happened, but Viara continued to move forward.

Viara’s team also held a moment of silence for the victims with a Kobe jersey in the center of the court. 

Viara, number five in white, with his team BC Mondovì before a match. Photo provided by Alessandro Viara.

Viara noted that he saw the positive effect that Bryant had on Italy in the time after his passing.

“These days, I really saw what Kobe did for the world, especially in Italy. Down near Naples, in one day, an artist painted a mural of Kobe’s face near a basketball court. All of Italy really showed their love for Kobe,” he said.

Kids playing basketball in front of the mural of Kobe in Naples, Italy created by artist Jorit. Photo provided by OvertimeBasket/Twitter.

Bryant’s untimely death created an opportunity for many to reflect on the importance of life. He was also an example for people to overcome their previous shortcomings and make the best of every moment. 

For Italians, he was more than just a basketball player, he was one of them, a family member. That is certainly how my father felt when he shook Bryant’s hand back in 2014. Along with Morandini and Viara, the country had lost somebody who loved Italy just as much as them. It allowed people to appreciate the small joys of everyday life, whether it be in Rome or Figline. Kobe’s feelings towards Italy exemplify that people love everyone with an open heart.

Grazie Kobe!

Christopher Piazza is a Sports Intern for the 2020 winter quarter. He can be reached at capiazza@uci.edu.