Kobe Bryant’s death sent shockwaves across the United States. However, the Los Angeles sports icon’s death reaches around the world from Kenya to China.
Brand Kobe Bryant was globally known even more and perhaps more impactful than Michael Jordan — widely considered the greatest NBA player of all time in some circles.
Even before his death in a helicopter crash this past week, the Los Angeles Lakers had planned to add a statue of Kobe Bryant to the Star Plaza an area in front of the Staples Center where the figures of many Laker greats stand. A statue of Kobe wearing his Laker uniform already stands in front of the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts’ Sculpture Museum in China. Along with native-born Yao Ming, Kobe Bryant played a crucial role in opening China to the NBA.
To be sure Bryant’s path to global stardom was in Bryant and the NBA’s interest but, it also came out of a legitimate interest in other people and cultures. Thousands of American children have grown up in Italy like Bryant — very few of them have come to learn Italian.
That curiosity was present in Kobe Bryant’s first trip to the Philippines at 19.
Already a prominent basketball star he got into the spirit of the occasion and dressed in a traditional Filipino shirt known as a barong Tagalog for a dinner event with local dignitaries. Later he even allowed himself to be videotaped attempting to awkwardly dance “tinikling” – a traditional Filipino folk dance.
“Kobe Bryant was a frequent visitor to the Philippines,” says Arnold Vegafria, who knew Bryant and is the business manager of Manny Pacquiao, “and it is not surprising that he has millions of Filipino fans who adore and idolize him because of his down-to-earth personality.”
Pacquiao, who has played basketball professionally in the Philippines, was a big fan of Kobe Bryant. Kobe Bryant was a big fight fan and once filmed a Sprite commercial where he featured as a boxer. The two often met when Pacquiao was in Los Angeles.
“It is not surprising that Kobe and Sen. Manny Pacquiao eventually became friends, and despite their busy schedules, managed to keep in touch over the years,” Vegafria said who broke the news of Bryant’s death in a call to Pacquiao.
Bryant once visited the Wild Card Gym in Los Angeles to watch Pacquiao train for an upcoming fight. There he was impressed by his friend’s smooth footwork in the ring. Bryant believed that his high-top shoes aided Pacquiao’s footwork and Bryant later commissioned a sneaker, the Kobe Bryant 9, based on Manny Pacquiao’s boxing shoes.
His role as a citizen ambassador began early. Kobe Bryant’s his father Joe “Jelly Bean” Bryant wanted his son to be internationally minded. Kobe was named after the famed Japanese beef his parents saw on a menu. Some of Kobe’s formative years were spent in Italy where he first began using Jersey’s with the number 8. His father played in an Italian league for seven seasons after his NBA career ended in 1983. The young Kobe Bryant soon learned Italian and even late in his career would occasionally impress visiting reporters by answering questions in Italian. Indeed, in Los Angeles, Bryant would also learn to converse in Spanish — much to the delight of his Latino fans in Los Angeles and a skill which increased his marketability in the Spanish speaking world. Bryant also learned some Serbian and French to rattle opposing players or encourage teammates.
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In Africa, Kobe’s death has been deeply mourned. Just as Africa’s cellphone revolution was beginning Kobe Bryant is in many ways the face of basketball on the continent.
“Africa is largely young, over 70% under 40,” said Cynthia Mumbo, the CEO of Sports Connect Africa and former manager of the Kenya women’s national basketball team in an interview with the author, “Many of us grew up watching NBA Action or an NBA game on Sundays. Kobe was a crucial feature in those games … Most games featured were Lakers, Bulls, Magic games.”
“Matatus” are public buses and taxis that travel on their informal schedules that service Nairobi. “The NBA features greatly, and when Kobe was at Lakers, we had so many with his image. I believe we’ll see many this week too.”
Photos by Claudia Gestro
Top photo: the tribute floating off South Beach in Miami during Super Bowl LIV Week
Joseph Hammond is a freelance reporter and researcher. He is a former Cairo correspondent for Radio Free Europe during the 2011 Arab uprisings, he has also reported from four continents on issues ranging from stability in Somalia to the M23 rebellion in the Eastern Congo.
Hammond’s work on international issues have been published by Forbes, Christian Science Monitor, International Business Times, Monocle, Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown (CNN), U.S. News and World Report, Deutsche Welle (Qantara), The Diplomat, Naval War College Review, Africa Defense Review, and other publications.