The international market for 6-foot-6 soccer players is only slightly better than that for selling snowplows in Saudi Arabia. So, Kobe Bryant chose the proper profession by gravitating toward basketball and a Hall of Fame career with the Los Angeles Lakers.
That’s not to say, however, that Bryant didn’t improve himself by playing soccer as a youth while living on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Aside from building coordination and stamina, soccer taught Bryant about seeing the big picture in a sport with a constant flow of action.
Joe Bryant moved his family to Italy in the early 1980s
Besides being one of the greatest NBA players ever, averaging 25.0 points and 5.2 rebounds over a 20-year professional career, Kobe Bryant formed half of a respectable father-and-son combination in basketball.
Joe “Jellybean” Bryant was a 6-foot-9 forward who entered the NBA in 1975 as a first-round draft pick. He played eight seasons in the NBA with the Philadelphia 76ers, San Diego Clippers, and Houston Rockets, averaging 8.7 points and 4.0 rebounds over 606 games. In the summer of 1983, Bryant decided to play overseas instead, embarking upon an eight-year career with four teams in Italy.
After retiring as a player, he returned to the United States and began a coaching career that covered more than two decades.
Kobe Bryant was born on Aug. 23, 1978, in Philadelphia and moved to Italy with his family. It was there that he spent half the formative years of his childhood and acquired skills that would launch him into a pro career as a teenager.
Kobe Bryant honed his basketball skills by playing soccer
One need not travel far in many European countries to find youths kicking a soccer ball around in a field or on quiet streets in small towns. Kobe Bryant was part of that culture growing up in Italy. He spent much of his youth in the northern Italian town of Reggio Emilia, about 75 miles southeast of Milan.
The young Bryant played a lot of basketball while immersing himself in the culture. He learned the language and spoke it fluently. In fact, a Washington Post story noted that he had brief difficulty reacquainting himself with the English language after returning to the Philadelphia area in junior high school.
If he didn’t return home with a complete grasp of the language, Bryant did bring with him an advanced understanding of team sports that a coach like Phil Jackson could later appreciate.
“Most of the time, American basketball is only taught in twos: one-two, pick and roll, or give-and-go, or something like that,” Bryant said in a Yahoo! Sports interview in 2016. “In playing soccer growing up, you really see the game in a combination of threes, sometimes fours — and how you play within triangles.”
Bryant also spoke of how quickly reversing the ball to the weak side opens an entirely different perspective for finding the advantage while continuing the attack. It translates nicely to the basketball court.
“You see things in multiple combinations,” he said. “And growing up playing (soccer), my eye and my brain became accustomed to seeing those combinations in threes and fours versus one and two.”
Kobe Bryant translated his soccer education into stardom
One other aspect of playing sports overseas served Kobe Bryant well later on. He told Slam Online that youth basketball practices in Italy were nothing like what Americans see.
“We played on smaller courts and smaller rims at a really early age and that taught us how to shoot the ball correctly and how to be fundamentally sound,” he explained. “Every week in practice, we wouldn’t scrimmage ever. It was all fundamentals. Passing, screening, moving off the ball, shooting. All the basics. And if we did scrimmage, we’d scrimmage full court no dribbles allowed.”
Bryant credited that discipline for the ease with which he dominated high school basketball. College coaches realized by his senior season that Bryant was so advanced that he would head directly to the NBA.
It was the start of a 20-year NBA career and a place in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.