In the wake of Kobe Bryant's tragic death, photos of the NBA icon from his time on "Cantine Riunite," an Italian junior basketball team, have emerged online. In the early '90s, when Bryant was still in his pre-teen years, he lived in Italy with his family and played basketball in the city of Reggio Emilia.
One of his former teammates from that era of his life, spoke to CNN about the late sports legend, saying that though they had a "strong team," he was "better than all of us."
"At 11 years old, he was already very secure in his power and what he would become," friend and former childhood teammate, Davide Giudici said. "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."
A very young Kobe Bryant while in Italy where he followed his father playing thereJanuary 26, 2020
Along with the new interview, a number of photos of a young Bryant have surfaced, and we have collected a number of them below, along with fan reactions. Scroll down to see more.
"He was like a friend of ours..."
Bryant's father Joe, played in Italy for a number of years and was already famous among the locals when they moved to the town of Reggio Emilia. Giudici added that he spent "two years with Kobe," who spoke very fluently. "Very perfect Italian so he was like a friend of ours," he said.
Take a quick break from Game 2 with this photo of 12-year-old Kobe Bryant with his basketball team in Italy. pic.twitter.com/zWWehBx2W7— SI Vault (@si_vault) June 5, 2017
The town claims Kobe as their own
Bryant's time in Reggio has been a high point for many and the kind of conversation that comes up when people explain the whereabouts of their hometown. Giudici goes on to tell CNN that even locals "who have no interest in basketball claim Kobe Bryant as their own."
Kobe Bryant with his 1st basketball team in Italy. Kobe grew up there & eventually left in 1991 when he was 13. However, Italy always had a special place in his heart.
Little did they know that he would become one of the greatest players in the world.
Just a kid with a dream! pic.twitter.com/LJDBDtq1hf— The Truth Hurts (@NBATruthHurts) February 4, 2020
In an interview with NBC News, Italian sports journalist, Andrea Barocci said that at age 6, Bryant would often "jump off the balcony of his parents' house, cross a busy road and run to a church playground, where he would spend hours throwing a ball in the basket." Barocci, who wrote An Italian Named Kobe, said that it "became clear very early on that he knew he was the best."
Lot of people keep bringing up Kobe in Italy. Did some research.
This picture is from a fundraiser game. He competed against adults, but he wasn't a professional. LaMelo's the first. pic.twitter.com/hbic720MzF— Thomas Duffy (@TJDhoops) January 11, 2018
"He knew he was the best."
The town's mayor, Luca Vecchi issued a statement to Facebook shortly after Bryant's death, writing: "Kobe Bryant grew up here and he was, for all of us, a 'Reggiano. Today, he left us. A basketball legend that all of our town will forever fondly and gratefully remember."
"He worked hard for it even back then."
Giudici reveals to NBC News that when Bryant would often tell his teammates that he would one day "become a professional NBA player," they would all laugh at him and make fun. "But he worked hard for it even back then. At the end of our training, the rest of us would just go watch TV or do other things. Kobe, instead, would go home and keep training with the basket his father put up for him in his garden."
Kobe with his elementary team in Italy pic.twitter.com/hPvVoMsYVU— Slam🏀Dank (@NBA_Mixes) December 8, 2017
Just watched the Kobe and Gianna memorial from a hotel in his beloved Italy, where I’ve come to visit MY daughter. And I’m reminded just how lucky am to be able to. What an emotional & heart wrenching series of tributes, from Geno, MJ, Shaq, et al.❤️❤️❤️— Bryan Behar (@bryanbehar) February 24, 2020
Remembering his roots
Bryant never lost touch with the country, nor his childhood friends per Giudici. Though he left Italy in 1991 at the age of 13 and moved on to become one of the most successful and celebrated NBA players in history, he made active efforts to communicate with his friends. "The last time I saw him was in 2016, when he came to town for a sponsored event. It was right after he retired, and I teased him saying that I still played [in the second Italian league] and he didn't," Giudici said.
One of Bryant's former teammates, Giovanni Ghini took to Instagram shortly after the news broke of his helicopter crash, sharing a snapshot of the team with a heartfelt caption.
"Sometimes we wonder how an NBA superstar could have been your locker room mate," he wrote in a translated from Italian caption. "Sometimes we wonder if the one who makes circus numbers on TV is the friend who laughed and joked with you. Sometimes we ask ourselves how, as young children in the grass with a common passion for the ball in segments, one finds himself in the global spotlight and the other to spend a peaceful life in the Po Valley. Sliding doors. But one thing was already clear: Kobe was not then a champion, but he wanted to become a champion. And this made the difference."
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Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna were killed in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, along with the aircraft's pilot, and six other passengers. Bryant was 41 years old at the time of his death. He leaves behind his wife, Vanessa, and their three daughters, Natalia, Bianka and Capri.
Photo credit: Getty Images