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The Black Mamba’s Unknown Italian Life

On August 23, 2023, the L.A. Lakers icon would have turned 45 years old. But life had different plans for Kobe, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna Maria, and the seven other people flying with them on January 26, 2020. That day, they died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, about 30 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. The basketball superstar was gone at age 41. To celebrate and honor the NBA legend, in 2020 L.A.’s Orange County declared August 24 as Kobe Bryant Day (24 was always his L.A. Lakers number). Italians are still in love with Bryant, a great man and sports superhero. You might not know that in Kobe’s life there was a lot of Italy.

He and his family (his dad, mom, and sister Pamela) spent seven years in Italy, when Kobe was age six through thirteen. His father Joe, a professional basketball player, brought the family over when he was hired to play on local teams in Rieti (south of Rome), Reggio Calabria, Cireglio (near Pistoia in Tuscany), and Reggio Emilia. Kobe, who would much later give himself the nickname the “Black Mamba'' (after the venomous snake), always remembered his years in Italy as extremely happy ones, a childhood paradise in which he played basketball on playgrounds and started his career in Pistoia’s Maltinti Basketball youth category. The 2022 documentary by Jesus Garcés Lambert, Kobe: An Italian Story, is one of the best ways to learn everything about Kobe as a child, a young champion beginning a climb that took him from the Italian suburbs to the top of the world.

In the film we watch Kobe speaking perfect Italian, with no accents or inflections: “I really like pasta alla carbonara, even lasagna is not bad . . . and I like gnocchi, also!” A simple guy.

A 2013 anecdote reveals more about Kobe’s personality. During his holidays in Italy, he decided to return to Cireglio to greet some close friends and pay a visit to the small village’s bars. Early in the morning, the Pierattini family’s house front doorbell rang. Alessia, who had always kept in touch with the LA Lakers star, opened it and found her friend grinning happily. He had been happy in Cireglio, she explained, and he had “a great desire to let his daughters know the reality he lived in Cireglio and in Italy.” As a child, she continued, Kobe was “naughty, unstoppable, and very brave: he used to play basketball with those older than him without problems!

Another of Kobe’s friends, the Italian-American Chris Golman Ward, played with him when he was a teenager in Reggio Emilia. In 2021, Ward, an architect, wrote a personal book dedicated to their Italian friendship, Il Mio Kobe—L’amico Diventato Leggenda (My Kobe—A Friend who Became a Legend”). He met Kobe when they were both eleven years old and their beautiful friendship lasted until Kobe’s death. But Kobe was the one to call Chris:  he didn't even have Kobe’s phone number.

Ward told a Vanity Fair Italia journalist: “The longevity of our friendship lies in the very fact that we did not see or hear from each other on a regular basis. Those who knew Kobe know he was a peculiar guy. It is said that he had no friends, and in a way, it is true: I am convinced that Kobe Bryant, the Black Mamba, did not have any. Kobe, living in Italy, on the other hand, had many friends. He had one, two, maybe three full cities.

We wish to remember him like this, everybody’s dear friend. Forever.

Barbara Benzoni

 Barbara Benzoni was born in Milan and lives between Rome and Tuscany. She is devoted to USA, the land of courage and innovation. She’s Peter's super-lucky mum and Ale's wife. Cinema, art, good food and only beautiful things are the themes of her existence. With a degree in Italian literature and a Masters in Sports Management she can both enjoys books and basketball matches. In 25 years she has been organizing sport events all over the world and she’s been lucky enough to meet the greatest champs ever. Curiosity in everyday life and people are her drivers. Her personal icon is Mohammed Ali : "It's not bragging if you can back it up".