Philly via Italy: The formative years of Kobe Bryant

Los Angeles is the city that most people associate with Kobe Bryant after his death. But the NBA star has deep roots in places east of the City of Angels.

As friends, loved ones, and well wishers prepare to pay their respects to the legendary Laker on Monday, Feb. 24, there will likely be stories shared about Bryant’s immense success in his professional and personal lives. But a childhood journey, one that took off in Italy and touched down in Philadelphia, helped mold Kobe into the NBA icon known across the world.

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Italian love for an American sport

Like many professional athletes, Bryant’s love for his sport was passed on by his father. Joe Bryant played professional basketball for the Philadelphia 76ers, San Diego Clippers, and Houston Rockets. After his time in the NBA came to a close, the elder Bryant’s professional career journeyed over to Italy, where he played with a handful of Italian teams from 1984 to 1991.

During that time, Kobe lived with his father in Italy, developing a love for the game that did not diminish through adulthood. The younger Bryant learned to speak fluent Italian, even saying that it would be a “dream” to play in Italy one day, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

“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,” Ettore Messina, an Italian coach who worked as an assistant for the Lakers, told the Associated Press. “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.”

Living in Europe also helped spark Bryant’s passion for soccer. Bryant’s love for the game helped it gain more mainstream popularity in the United States. He even traveled to South Africa to support the U.S. Men’s National Team in the World Cup in 2010, according to Yahoo.

“He evolved into [Michael] Jordan’s successor as the NBA’s face and a global pitchman, he was among soccer’s biggest advocates, wearing his fandom on his sleeve at every opportunity and helping put world football on the map stateside in as meaningful a way as any actual footballer could have.”

An unmatched high school legacy

His time in Italy would come to a close when Bryant went on to play high school basketball in the United States. Bryant spent four years as a member of the basketball team at Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Pennsylvania.

The Patriot News noted how Bryant became a starter on the squad in his freshman year, but “that it took some time for the Aces to gel together,” ultimately finishing with a 4-20 record that year.

The following three seasons would show early signs of that Black Mamba magic, with the team garnering a cumulative 77-13 record.As for Bryant, his stats speak for themselves: On average, he earned 30.8 points, 12 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 4 steals and 3.8 blocked shots per game, according to Penn Live. Throughout his entire high school career, he earned 2,883 points, a state record.

Even off the high school court, Bryant displayed gratitude that would become a trademark of his personal relationships later in life. The New York Times reported on Bryant’s continuing connection with his sophomore English teacher, Jeanne Mastriano, and how the teacher sparked his love for storytelling. He stayed in touch with her and the local community, even after becoming a household name.

These tales show that it won’t just be those in Los Angeles paying respects to Bryant at the Kobe and Gianna Bryant public memorial on Monday, Feb. 24. A global community, comprised of those who were inspired by his in-game talents or touched by his in-person kindness, will be saying goodbye.

This story was reported from Los Angeles. The Associated Press contributed to this story.