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Childhood residence in Italy honors Kobe with plaza

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While Los Angeles and Philadelphia will mourn the one-year anniversary of the death of native son Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna on Tuesday, another one of Bryant’s hometowns halfway across the globe will be doing the same.

Reggio Emilia, located about an hour’s drive east from Bologna in northern Italy, will unveil the “Largo Kobe and Gianna Bryant,” a plaza dedicated to the man who spent several years of his youth living in the small city while his father, Joe Bryant, played for the Cantine Riunite, Reggio’s professional basketball team.

“The city of Reggio Emilia and its citizens loved, first Joe, and then Kobe Bryant, the child who, once he returned to America, always remembered Reggio with love,” Emanuele Maccaferri, the vice president of the Sport Foundation of Reggio Emilia, told ESPN. “On this sad day we want to remember that happy child who left wonderful memories in so many people of Reggio Emilia.”

The space, located in the historic center of town, will be commemorated with a plaque and a newly planted Ginkgo biloba tree in the Bryants’ honor and is a pedestrian thoroughfare commonly used by fans coming and going to the city’s basketball arena.

Come nightfall, parts of the city will be lit up in the Los Angeles Lakers’ purple and gold and a streaming event, “Reggiano Forever — Reggio Emilia remembers Kobe Bryant,” will be held in accordance with COVID-19 protocols. New Orleans Pelicans forward Nicol√≤ Melli, who grew up in Reggio Emilia a decade after Bryant left — two NBA players from a town with a population under 200,000 — will be a featured guest.

“The fact that we had the same gym teacher because we went to the same middle school. The fact that we started our youth path in the same gym, that we had the same coach. These are aspects that always make me smile,” Melli said in a statement. “They make me in some way even a little more proud of how my career started.”

Christopher Ward, a childhood friend of Bryant’s, first got to know him in the late 1980s and they played on Reggio’s youth basketball team together before Bryant and his family moved back to the United States in the early 1990s.

“OK, 90% of our time was basketball oriented,” Ward told ESPN in an interview this week. “So, it either was playing in the backyard or the gym or playing the Nintendo basketball games or watching every day tapes — VHS. For example, Michael Jordan’s ‘Come Fly With Me,’ that tape was like 24/7 on the TV. … It was all about basketball in any kind of expression.”

Despite the burgeoning basketball obsession, Bryant used to claim that when he went back to Philadelphia and played in the Sonny Hill Future League as a 12-year-old, he scored zero points the entire summer.

“I could believe that because there was a time when he left Italy and he came to America, the first couple of years were hard for him because everything was so different there,” Ward said when asked about Bryant’s memory. “He almost couldn’t speak slang and be the real American cool guy. He was just a European, a Black European, going to the states and basketball-wise, you need to have that [city] approach in the States in the ’90s.”

The Bryant that Ward knew had swag, even as a kid. So much so that MC Hammer picked him out of a crowd when Bryant attended a concert of the baggy-pantsed performer in Milan with his mother and sisters.

“We found out — Pamela [Bryant] and the girls told us — that MC Hammer called him on the stage to dance with him,” Ward said. “I guess they had front-row seats or whatever and he was called on the stage to dance with MC Hammer because he was really, really good at dancing [in his seat]. I remember that really clearly.”

The coordination showed up on the basketball court too.

“He was a good basketball player. He knew what he had to do with his body,” Ward said. “But he was very skinny at the time. Still very small. So he just had some problems with strength. But regarding technique and everything, he was incredible at basketball. He was like the big Kobe, the adult, in miniature. It was incredible.”

Nearly 30 years after first meeting Bryant, Ward was reunited with the grown-up NBA star in the Lakers’ home locker room, a few weeks before Bryant’s last game, as a guest of his old pal.

“I was a dreamer, like he was, when we were kids and dreaming of being there [in the NBA]. And finally I got there,” Ward said. “Through him, but I got there. So it was very satisfying.”

Bryant welcomed a bit of Italy back into his life. Now Bryant’s old Italian stomping grounds will welcome his spirit forever more.

“I know that it was just six or seven years that Kobe lived in Italy, but the Italian period was very, very important for what Kobe became,” Ward said. “What he lived here, what he learned here, I think was very important for him in a sense of culture and approach to things. … This was a sensibility that Kobe had that many others do not have.”

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Melinda Martin