ROME — When Joe "Jellybean" Bryant moved to the Italian town of Rieti in 1984 to play in the country's basketball league, he brought with him his wife, Pam, and their 6-year-old, Kobe.A small, sleepy and medieval town with fewer than 40,000 residents pinned in the middle of Italy, Rieti is pretty far from Philadelphia and San Diego, where the senior Bryant had played in the NBA. And the local basketball team, the AMG Sebastiani, was no 76ers or Clippers.Italy as a whole, where Kobe lived into his teens, is a far cry from Southern California, where the basketball legend not only made a career and a life, but also where he died Sunday in a helicopter crashalong with his daughter Gianna and seven other people.
While Italy is not the best place to learn the game — the country is obsessed with soccer, not basketball — that's where Kobe learned his first tricks."Aged 6, Kobe would often jump off the balcony of his parent's house, cross a busy road and run to a church playground where he would spend hours throwing a ball in the basket," Andrea Barocci, a sports journalist who wrote "An Italian Named Kobe," told NBC News."It became clear very early on that he knew he was the best," the journalist added.Two years after first moving to Italy, Joe Bryant joined the team in Reggio Calabria, a town in southern Italy. Then he moved to Pistoia in Tuscany, and ended his Italian career in Reggio Emilia in the north, where he twice won the Player of the Year Award.The town's mayor, Luca Vecchi, was quick to claim the basketball player."Kobe Bryant grew up here and was, for all of us, a 'Reggiano,'" Vecchi wrote on Facebook.While in Reggio Emilia, a 12-year-old Kobe joined the local youth basketball team."When he moved to Reggio Emilia and started playing in my team, it was immediately clear he was from another planet, a cut above us all," Davide Giudici, a longtime friend and a former teammate, said.
"When he often told us that one day he would become a professional NBA player, we would make fun of him," he said."But he worked hard for it even back then. 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 his father put up for him in his garden," Giudici said.Kobe Bryant never lost touch with Italy and his childhood friends, Giudici added."The last time I saw him was in 2016, when he came to town for a sponsored event. It was right after he retired, and I teased him saying that I still played [in the second Italian league] and he didn't," he said.Kobe left Italy in 1991 at 13 and moved on to become one of the most successful and celebrated NBA players in history, but he did appear to remember his Italian roots.In a 2011 interview on Radio Deejay, one of the most popular radio stations in Italy, Kobe Bryant said, in perfect Italian: "I grew up here in Italy, it's a country that will always be close to my heart. Always."Bryant will be mourned for a whole week in his onetime home country, with all basketball games in every category observing a minute's silence."It's a small but heartfelt and deserved gesture to honor the life and memory of Kobe Bryant, an absolute champion who always had Italy in his heart," the Italian Basketball Federation said. "Kobe was and will always be linked to our country."