Kobe Bryant was a global icon, an American basketball superstar, but one formed in Italy where he spent seven years of his childhood.
Bryant died Sunday when a helicopter he was travelling in crashed in thick fog, killing all nine people on board including his 13-year-old daughter Gianna.
The 41-year-old’s death plunged legions of fans around the world into mourning and his passing sent shockwaves through Italy where he spent his formative years.
“Italian sport is in mourning. Kobe Bryant is the son of Italy, in all respects,” said Italian Olympic Committee president Giovanni Malago.
“He grew up in Italy. We are all devastated by pain.
“One of the greatest sporting personalities of all time, not only sport since he had also won an Oscar and was also very committed to social issues,” continued Malago.
“He had elegance and an infinite class.”
Bryant lived in Italy between the ages of six and 13 while his father, former NBA player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, played professional basketball before he returned to Pennsylvania for high school, and spoke fluent Italian.
The family first moved to the central city of Rieti.
They later moved to Reggio Calabria in the south of Italy, Pistoia in Tuscany and Reggio Emilia in the north.
It was in Reggio Emilia that Bryant himself said “my story began”.
“It’s where my dream of playing in the NBA started,” he said.
Bryant entered the NBA draft straight out of high school in 1996.
“From you I learned to be a basketball player,” Bryant, an 18-time NBA All-Star who won five championships during a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, said of his time in Italy.
“Forever one of us,” local basketball team Pallacanestro Reggiana posted, alongside pictures of Bryant as part of its youth team.
“Kobe Bryant grew up here and he was a ‘Reggiano’ for all of us. He left us today. A basketball legend that our whole city will remember forever with affection and gratitude. Ciao Kobe,” the mayor of Reggio Emilia, Luca Vecchi wrote on Facebook.
Vecchi later announced that a new square in the city would be named ‘Piazza Kobe Bryant’ in his honour.
Another former team, NPC Rieti, posted a childhood photo of the player, saying: “You made us dream, moved us and made us cry and cheer but above all you made us fall in love.
“We are proud to have been the first to see you tread the basketball courts. We will never forget you Kobe Bryant, an idol of the Rieti, of Italians and of all those who thanks to you, try to fly high.”
Bryant forged strong links with Italy and regularly returned. His four daughters with his wife Vanessa all have Italian names, including Gianna Maria-Onore, a promising basketball player who also died in the crash.
His three other daughters are Natalia Diamante, 16, three-year-old Bianka Bella, and seven-month-old Capri Kobe Bryant.
‘A boy who played here’
A minute’s silence will be observed before all games in Italy to honour Bryant, who Italian Basketball Federation president Giovanni Petrucci said: “has been and will always be linked to Italy”.
“It’s a small but heartfelt and deserved gesture to honour the life and memory of Kobe Bryant, an absolute champion who always had Italy in his heart,” Petrucci said.
Bryant’s death “has affected the whole city,” said the mayor of Pistoia, Alessandro Tomasi.
“The whole city has been hit by this tragic news because many of my generations, I am his age, played basketball with him, attended school with him, went out with him, met the father who played here,” said Tomasi.
“For us he is not only the great champion, he is not only the legend, but he is a person, a boy who played here and who trod our courts.”
Bryant was also a lifelong AC Milan football fan, growing up watching the likes of Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Paolo Maldini.
“We have no words to express how shocked we are to hear of the tragic passing of one of the greatest sportsmen of all time and Rossonero fan, Kobe Bryant,” the club said.