Mourning a cross-cultural icon: How Kobe Bryant embodied basketball and football’s unique relationship

Kobe Bryant and Andrés Iniesta pose for a photo during a visit by the former to FC Barcelona’s training complex in 2015. (Image courtesy of Mark Ralston/AFP).

Kobe Bryant loved the Beautiful Game, and the Beautiful Game loved him back

In light of the shocking news that legendary basketball player Kobe Bryant was one of nine people on board during a helicopter accident in Calibasas, California on Sunday, tributes poured in as numerously as the NBA star racked up points over his 20-year career. Bryant’s impact resonated far beyond merely basketball, as quickly became apparent, and he was known to have a distinctive love for football. During and post-career, Bryant became a symbol of a mutual love and a cultural crossover between basketball and football, or soccer.

One of the most heartbreaking aspects of Bryant’s passing was the profound impact he seemed to have across the sporting world. The former LA Laker transcended his own sport, and over the course of his 41 years achieved an astonishing level of success both on and off the court. An underappreciated success of Bryant’s — which it is fair to attribute to him as a major player — is the developed, reciprocated interest and admiration between football and basketball during his two decades in the global conscience.

At a time when US soccer was in its infancy and the nation hosted the 1994 World Cup, Bryant was a high schooler just years from being drafted into the NBA and with an innate passion for a then relatively alien game on American shores. Now, he leaves behind a world in which the two are more closely connected than he could have ever imagined: a world in which footballers are regularly seen courtside at NBA games and mega-rich athlete-investors buy stakes in foreign leagues.

Bryant embodied a general mutual acceptance of elite-level skill required to reach the top. However, there was something special to him about football – something which began to blossom during his early years. When his family moved to Italy at the age of six, Bryant was thrust into the passionate Italian “calcio” environment and never looked back. In his later years, he talked humorously about how, even at that age, his abnormally long limbs lent themselves to him playing as a goalkeeper. A young Bryant began a routine of playing both basketball and football, honing his skills and forming an irreversible bond. Gradually, he fell in love with football, unaware of the love the game would one day have for him.

Throughout his career, Bryant made no secret of the fact that he was an AC Milan supporter, and the Italian giants were one of many clubs to release statements of condolence to his family and the other victims of the accident on Sunday. It was later announced that AC would hold a minute’s silence in his memory before their game vs Torino on Tuesday. Bryant’s support for the Rossoneri stemmed from his upbringing in Italy, another key reason for his eventual ability to communicate proficiently in Italian as well as three other foreign languages (Spanish, Serbian and French).

Bryant during a visit to his beloved AC Milan’s “Milanello” training facility in 2013. The Philadelphia-born icon’s support for AC Milan began during his childhood years, when he moved to Italy at the age of his six for his father’s professional basketball career. (Image courtesy of ACMilan.com).

As recently as Jan. 16, “The Black Mamba” talked about his battle with racism at football games while growing up in Italy.

“Even though now we’ve come such a long way but there’s still so much to be done and I think education is always the most important thing,” Bryant told CNN’s Andy Scholes at a recent Major League Soccer event in California.

“When I was growing up in Italy, I’ve obviously witnessed it first-hand going to certain soccer matches and things of that nature,” added Bryant. “My parents have taught me and educated me on how to deal with those sorts of things…”I think speaking up and taking a stand, a significant stand [is important].”

At the same event, Bryant was keen to praise the development of Major League Soccer in the United States since its inception at the beginning of his career. He simply loved football.

In fact, it was childhood ambition to become a professional footballer. In a previous video interview with ESPN, Bryant said that after starting in goal, he started “getting better and better. But I was never close to being as good in soccer as I was at basketball.”

In another interview with ESPN, Bryant said in 2017 that “[football] is strategic,” Bryant told ESPN during a 2017 interview. “Upon receiving the ball you already have to have a good idea of what you’re reading in front of you and what the next move is. And also the structure; they taught me at an early age how to play in triangles and how to utilize space, which wound up helping me tremendously in basketball as well. I loved the idea of how quickly the ball moves and how quickly you have to process what’s moving right in front of you to make decisions.”

The NBA great leaves behind an arguably unmatched cultural synergy in sport – particularly of two sports so distant in their roots and separation in location. The connection and his impact on European football in particular were undeniable this past weekend. After scoring for Paris Saint Germain on Sunday evening, Neymar’s celebration in homage to the late Bryant went viral. Elsewhere, tributes from all manner of footballing icons touched by Bryant’s presence and career poured in, including Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Ronaldinho. One of the most fitting statements came from Andrea Pirlo, who retired a year after Bryant and with whom he featured in a pre-2014 World Cup Nike advert. The Italian simply said, alongside a still image of the two in said advert: “You’ve been an example for our generation. R.I.P. Legend”.

On top of his European influence and interest, Bryant undoubtedly helped grow the game in the United States. He took an active interest at the 2008 Olympics and established communication with football stars which remained until his passing. As well as pursuing his love of football, he was able to pull in interest to his own sport from those in the other camp.

Professional footballers are often photographed courtside at NBA games, something that simply does not happen at other American sporting events. On Friday, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar were in attendance at the NBA Paris game and exchanged photos and signed memorabilia with Giannis Antetokounmpo, who, like the two PSG stars, is a contracted Nike athlete. Despite this particular game being held abroad, footballers are routinely pictured (and inevitably often lambasted for) travelling to American shores for live basketball matches.

Whether people like it or not, fashion and celebrity are interconnected characteristics of modern-day sport that exist at the heart of the basketball-football relationship – originally established and forwarded by Bryant. In the same vein that athletes signed to the same companies utilize each other’s image for self-gain and promotional value, there often exists a genuine excitement about the career of the other. Game recognise game.

Steve Nash, two-time NBA MVP and now a leading soccer pundit for B/R Football, told Sport Illustrated in 2016 of his love for football, which preceded a career at the top level in basketball. Nash spoke in the same vein as Bryant later would about the similarities between the two games. It is not a unique story, but one most commonly associated with the legend of Kobe Bryant – a sporting icon who will never be forgotten – by his own sport or by the game he adopted, so dearly loved and that loved him back.

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