Basketball fans in Europe and Asia reacted to the sudden death of former Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant with tributes and praise.
Bryant and his daughter Gianna were among several people killed Sunday in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, a source confirmed to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Bryant was 41. Gianna was 13.
In Europe, where Bryant grew up, the retired NBA star was remembered for his “Italian qualities.”
“All of the NBA players are important because they’re legends, but he’s particularly important to us because he knew Italy so well, having lived in several cities here,” Italian basketball federation president Giovanni Petrucci told The Associated Press. “He had a lot of Italian qualities.
“He spoke Italian very well. He even knew the local slang,” Petrucci added.
Bryant lived in Italy between the ages of 6 and 13 while his father, Joe Bryant, played for several teams in the country. Kobe Bryant returned to Pennsylvania for high school. He spoke fluent Italian and often said it would be a “dream” to play in the country.
That dream almost came true when Bryant nearly joined Virtus Bologna in 2011 during an NBA lockout, only for the deal to fall apart.
“He was a supernatural,” Italian coach Ettore Messina, who worked with Bryant as an assistant for the Lakers, told the AP via text message Sunday while traveling with his current club, Olimpia Milano.
“To hear him speak and joke in our language and to remember when his father played here and he was a kid drew a lot of people to the NBA,” Messina said. “He was also always very attentive to help Italian kids arriving in the NBA and to help them enter such a tough and competitive world. He also did that with me when I arrived at the Lakers and I’m still very grateful to him for that. It’s very sad that his family has been devastated like this.”
In Asia, Bryant was a hugely popular figure, nowhere more so than in China, where basketball rivals soccer as the most popular sport.
However, Bryant’s death Sunday in a helicopter crash came at an awkward time between the country and the NBA. National broadcaster CCTC pulled all NBA games off the air following a tweet in October from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey expressing support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests.
The Chinese Basketball Association, led by former Rockets MVP Yao Ming, announced it would suspend all cooperation with the Texas-based team. Yao and the association have yet to comment on the crash that killed Bryant, his daughter and seven others.
Bryant’s popularity among Chinese fans was rivaled only by that of Yao, LeBron James and Michael Jordan. His playing appearances, including the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics won by the U.S., were far exceeded by his promotional appearances in the country, on behalf of both his brand and basketball generally. At a 2013 Lakers preseason game against the Golden State Warriors in Beijing, the arena rang out with chants of “Kobe! Kobe!” despite the injured superstar not even suiting up for the game.
Commemorations began rolling in online Sunday, many of them accompanied by photos of Bryant and Gianna with “R.I.P.” Others showed the two dressed in uniform walking away into clouds under a basketball net.
“For our generation, our memories of the NBA begin with Jordan and move through Kobe and Yao Ming. You were a part of our youth. Already missing the bright sun of Kobe. Go well,” commentator “ZhanHao” wrote on Weibo, a popular social media platform.
“Your willpower has inspired a generation. Thank you,” “Teacher Kai Ting” wrote.
Ramona Shelburne joins Adrian Wojnarowski as both share reactions, memories and context on Kobe Bryant’s death. Listen now
“I hope there is basketball in heaven. Kobe just went to another world to play basketball with his daughter,” wrote “Cici’s green paper.”
In Taiwan, where the NBA also is an enormous draw, President Tsai Ing-wen tweeted that her “thoughts go out to the Bryant family & the families of all those who lost loved ones today.”
“Kobe inspired a generation of young Taiwanese basketball players, & his legacy will live on through those who loved him,” Tsai wrote.
Philippine presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo noted that Bryant was a frequent visitor to the Philippines. “He was well-loved by his Filipino fans,” Panelo said in a statement.
In Japan, Tetsunori Tanimoto, an official at the Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association in Kobe, Japan, expressed his deep condolences for Bryant’s death.
“He helped make Kobe Beef known throughout the world,” he said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press on Monday.
Kobe got his name, the legend goes, after his father ate Kobe beef during a visit to Japan and loved the taste.
Tanimoto, who watches NBA games on TV but never met Bryant, said people know the story of how Bryant got his name.
“We have always felt a closeness to him,” he said. “It is so sad. And we offer our deepest condolences.”