Soon after then-6-year-old Kobe Bryant moved to Italy with his family, he went down to a local park in search of a basketball game. The court was easy enough to find but what the local kids were doing on it looked a lot different.
Underneath each basket was a set of goalposts, allowing the kids to play pickup games of soccer on the court.
“I remember saying, ‘What is going on? Where am I, and how does this happen?’ Bryant said in an exclusive interview with ESPN FC via telephone. “So it was like a couple miles from my house and I had jogged there and I didn’t want to go back, so I waited. I decided to jump in and they saw a skinny kid with long arms so they decided I’d be best in between the posts. That was my introduction to soccer. That’s how it started.”
Stepping onto the soccer field soon became part of his routine, as he found common ground with kids in a way that transcended linguistic and cultural barriers. After a while, his new friends even allowed him to play on the field and not as a goalkeeper. Then the focus would shift.
“You’d play soccer and then you’d play basketball, and then you’d play soccer again and you’d play basketball again,” said Bryant. “It went on and on for eight years.”
Of course, for the Los Angeles Lakers legend there was room for just one sport in his professional life and Bryant’s love for basketball — fostered by his father, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, himself a pro player — eventually carried him into a stellar NBA career that will one day see him in basketball’s Hall of Fame.
But thanks to Bryant’s early time spent living in Italy, his passion for soccer took root and remains to this day. He loved the camaraderie with teammates, and while the skill-set between the two sports might have little in common, there was more overlap than appeared on the surface.
Over the years, Bryant picked up tips on footwork and off-the-ball movement that would have made former Lakers head coach Phil Jackson proud.
“It’s strategic,” said Bryant about the game of soccer. “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.”
When the 14-year-old Bryant and his family returned to the U.S. in 1991, basketball became all-consuming and it became difficult to stay connected with soccer.
There is an impulse, however misguided, to think that Bryant was the U.S. soccer player who got away. But it was a different time back then and soccer was in a very different — mostly dark — place. The U.S.-hosted World Cup in 1994 was still three years away; the birth of MLS wouldn’t take place until two years after that. But his bond with the game wasn’t completely broken.
“At the time soccer wasn’t a very popular sport,” he said. “My focus shifted completely to basketball because I just kind of hit that time when the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) was just ramping up, and so basketball became a year-round thing. Just showing up to the park and playing casually didn’t exist anymore. But I was able to stay in touch with what my teams were doing. AC Milan was my favorite team, so I was able to keep tabs on them and stay connected that way.”
At present, Bryant’s affinity for the game has a business component. On this day, he’s engaged in a promotional event for the sports drink BODYARMOR, one of the sponsors of the upcoming CONCACAF Gold Cup.
So might Bryant increase his commitment to the game and join the ranks of athletes who have taken ownership of soccer teams? Baseball Hall of Famer Mike Piazza has done just that with Italian side Reggiana, while New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony has done the same with NASL side Puerto Rico FC. There were reports back in 2014 that Bryant was part of a consortium that was going to buy Italian side Bologna, but he dismissed those reports as “all smoke” and said it isn’t something he’s considering now.
“[Owning a team], that’s something that requires a big time commitment on my end,” he said. “To put together money to buy a team, buy a franchise, really requires spending the time focusing on that franchise. It’s not something that you invest passively into. Because of that I haven’t seriously given it any thought.”
But over the years, Bryant’s soccer fandom has continued to grow. He still counts himself a fan of Milan but also has an affinity for Barcelona due to his friendship first with former Blaugrana attacker Ronaldinho, and later club icon Lionel Messi.
Bryant takes some gentle ribbing about his divided loyalties but insists: “If you cut my arm open, man, you’d see four colors; blue and [garnet], and then you’d see red and black.
Yet the battle for Bryant’s affections seems to be tilting in Barcelona’s favor these days. Bryant and Ronaldinho became friends in the mid-2000s. Barcelona were slated to play in a preseason friendly at the Rose Bowl and at the behest of Nike, Bryant came down to “introduce them to the city of Los Angeles.” The friendship took off from there. Later, it was Ronaldinho who introduced Bryant to Messi.
“I think Messi must have been 18 at the time, 17 maybe,” said Bryant. “Ronaldinho called him over and said, ‘Kobe, I want you to meet the player who is going to be the greatest player who ever lived.'” Bryant and Messi got to know each other better at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Both men were in the process of leading their respective teams to gold medals when they happened to run into each other at the cafeteria in the athlete’s village.
“At the Olympics, the cafeteria is always the best place to be because you have all the athletes from all the teams in one place,” he said. “When we were in the cafeteria walking around, we saw him and his team sitting at one of the tables and I just walked up and sat down with him and kind of talked about the Olympics, the game a little bit. It was fun.”
Bryant says he has yet to make it to Camp Nou for a game, nor has he watched his teams in the Champions League, given how the demands of his basketball career limited his opportunities. But he has enjoyed his travels to the World Cup, which he attended in both 2010 and 2014, even appearing on ESPN FC’s set in Brazil.
“The fun part about the World Cup is walking into the stadium, all the different cultures,” he said. “You have different countries, different flags, you hear so many different languages being spoken. But the one common thing is the beauty and love for the game of soccer. That was amazing to be a part of that energy.”
With the Gold Cup set to begin on July 7, it’s clear Bryant’s passion for the sport lives on.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.