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Childhood of Bryant in Italy remembered

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Andrea Menozzi

Andrea Menozzi

REUTERS

Andrea Menozzi

As Americans mourned NBA legend Kobe Bryant on Monday, fans and friends in Italy remembered a lesser-known chapter in his life when he played in their streets as a boy while his father competed in the local basketball league.

Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash on Sunday, was six when his father Joe moved the family to Italy in 1984 to play seven seasons with four different teams in the centre, south and finally the north.

The Bryant family first went to Rieti, a town in central Italy, and then moved to Reggio Calabria, in the country's toe, Cireglio in Tuscany, and finally to Reggio Emilia, in the north.

"We always kept two eyes on the ball and two eyes on him," said one of his father's teammates, Antonio Olivieri, 64. He remembered the boy as a ball of energy when the family arrived in Rieti, about 80 km (50 miles) from Rome.

"Kobe was a kid when he was here in Rieti. I remember Joe always taking him to the gym... he used to climb into the hoops while we were playing," Olivieri said.

The local team, NPC Rieti, published a photo of the young Kobe on its Twitter account. It wrote: "We are proud to have been the first to see you take to the court. We will never forget Kobe."

In a radio interview in 2011, Bryant revealed his affection for the country: "Italy will always be close to my heart," he said. His love for Italy was reflected in the names he chose for his four daughters - Gianna Maria-Onore, who died with him in Sunday's crash, Natalia Diamante, Bianka Bella and Capri, who was born in June 2019.

Bryant was especially fond of Reggio Emilia, where he spent two years. "Forever one of us," the Reggio Emilia Pallacanestro Reggiana team wrote on Twitter, posting some photos of Bryant when he played for the youth team.

"Kobe wasn't known as an NBA star in Reggio Emilia. He was the kid that all the fans knew and saw at the arena when his father played," said youth coach Andrea Menozzi.