On Sunday afternoon, Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant tragically passed away in a helicopter crash at the age of 41, shocking not only NBA fans but many others who recognized him as one of the greatest, most beloved professional basketball players in history. But well before he became known around the world as the “Black Mamba,” the future NBA phenom was, as his childhood friend recalled, a prodigy of sorts while playing for an Italian junior basketball team.
In an interview with CNN, Davide Giudici looked back on the time he was teammates with Bryant on Cantine Riunite, a youth team based in Reggio Emilia, Italy, back when they were children in the early 1990s. Back then, the club’s players ranged in age from 11- to 12-years-old, and Kobe’s father, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, was a local celebrity, having played professionally in the country for several years after his NBA career wrapped up.
“We had a strong team, but he was better than all of us. At 11 years old, he was already very secure in his power and what he would become,” said the 41-year-old Giudici, who now works as a graphics designer.
“I mean, I think we knew he was going to become a professional basketball player. We didn’t know then that he was going to be one of the biggest stars in the world.”
As further related by Giudici, the young Bryant was a close friend to his Cantine Riunite teammates in the two years he played for the club and was capable of speaking in “very fluent, very perfect” Italian.
Kobe Bryant was a massive AC Milan fan having spent a significant part of his childhood in Italy where his father had played basketball. pic.twitter.com/6YGN3kgzRn
— Quinton Mtyala (@mtyala) January 26, 2020
By the time Bryant was 14-years-old, he returned to the United States and began playing for Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, where he suited up for four years before getting selected with the 13th pick in the 1996 NBA Draft, as recalled by ESPN.
Even as he went on to superstardom in his home country, Bryant is still fondly remembered in Reggio Emilia, where the city’s residents consider the Lakers icon as a source of pride. This was underscored in a tweet posted by the city’s basketball team, which included multiple photos of Joe and Kobe Bryant during their time in Italy and the words “forever one of us” in Italian.
Reacting to his former teammate’s death, Giudici told CNN that his primary concern upon learning the news was for his family. He also commented on the irony of Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, dying while they were on their way to one of her basketball games.
“It’s unbelievable. We are all fragile,” he continued. “Even if Kobe is like a superstar, a superman, unfortunately we are all fragile.”