During his time in the NBA, few men were more popular than Kobe Bryant. To an entire generation of fans, the legendary guard was like their Michael Jordan; when the chips were down, you could count on him to do something incredible. Even if you preferred another player or hated the Lakers, you had to respect Kobe’s game.
Bryant, however, wasn’t always the most popular guy around. During his childhood in Italy, the guard was actually “the least-liked player” on his basketball team.
Kobe Bryant’s road from Italy to the NBA
These days, it’s tough to imagine Kobe Bryant anywhere other than Los Angeles. Growing up, however, he hit the hardwood in some different locations.
Bryant was born in Philadelphia, but, at age six, moved to Italy so that his father could keep playing professional basketball. The distance, however, didn’t keep Kobe from his first love; his grandfather would mail him VHS tapes of NBA games to study Michael Jordan and other stars.
The Bryants eventually returned to the United States, though, and Kobe enrolled at Lower Merion High School. He immediately made the varsity squad as a freshman; while the team was terrible, Bryant was poised for stardom. By the time he graduated, he was a McDonald’s All-American, had taken Brandy to his prom, and decided to skip college and go directly to the NBA.
When the 1996 draft rolled around, the Charlotte Hornets selected Bryant with the 13th-overall pick; they flipped him to the LA Lakers, and the rest is history.
The least popular player on his youth basketball team
During his time in Italy, Kobe Bryant didn’t only study basketball videos; he also hit the hardwood with some local youth teams. Despite his talent, he wasn’t universally beloved by the other players.
“He was always the best player, and the least-liked player — so superior to his teammates that he rarely looked their way,” Jeff Perlman wrote in Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty, an excerpt of which was shared on ESPN.“Peers would scream, “Kobe, passa la palla!” (“Kobe, pass the ball!”), and he would respond simply, “No” (“No”). Not unlike a good number of children with famous parents and a shiny silver spoon, Kobe was known to be arrogant, curt, dismissive of other children. He wasn’t hated so much as he was disdained.”
While they couldn’t knock his talent, Kobe’s peers still found one way to needle their star teammate. “They repeatedly told Kobe — “Sei bravo qui, ma non sarai molto in America!” (“You’re good here, but you won’t be much in America”),” Perlman explained.
It’s safe to say that Kobe Bryant proved those teammates wrong
In retrospect, Kobe Bryant’s Italian teammates were some of the first ones to recognize the challenges of playing alongside the talented guard and getting him to pass the ball. It’s safe to say, however, that they were wrong about his ability to make it in the NBA.
While he experienced some growing pains as a rookie, Bryant, of course, became a star. He spent a total of 20 seasons with the Lakers, averaging 25 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per outing. He won five NBA championships, two scoring titles, and one NBA MVP award.
Beyond those stats, he became a giant on the sporting landscape; there’s a reason that a generation of kids grew up shouting, “Kobe” as they tossed their trash into a garbage can. Even today, the late legend’s Mamba Mentality serves as an inspiration to countless athletes around the world.
It’s impossible to know if Kobe Bryant’s childhood teammates meant what they said about him. Today, though, it’s abundantly clear that he could make it in North America.
Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference