The connection that brings soccer stars to basketball and basketball stars to soccer seems so recent. With the influx of international players in the NBA and the growing space that soccer is filling in North America, it seemed only a matter of time that the basketball world and the soccer world would crossover. Not long ago on Instagram, I watched a clip with Griezmann grabbing a soccer ball and shooting it against the tunnel wall before a big match or take the PSG x Jordan collaboration and watch how Neymar and Jordan intertwined two brands. It’s inevitable that the two sports will continue to run parallel closer and closer as the years go on, but the question is how did this start. Who played a part early on and why?
Growing up in Italy, Kobe Bryant was blessed to see his father play the sport he loved. Kobe had the opportunity to live in a country obsessed with soccer. As Kobe grew up not only did he take on the Italian language, but he also took a liking to the sport the Italians were so passionate about. At the age of 6 when Kobe first moved to Italy, it is said that Kobe went down to the local park to see if he could catch anyone shooting around. The courts looked familiar, but the game being played was foreign. Kobe recalled on an ESPN interview, “I remember saying, ‘What is going on? Where am I, and how does this happen? So it was like a couple of miles from my house and I had jogged there and I didn’t want to go back, so I waited. I decided to jump in and they saw a skinny kid with long arms, so they decided I’d be best in between the posts. That was my introduction to soccer. That’s how it started.”
For 8 years Kobe would find himself transcending language and culture. Going back and forth from playing basketball on the court to soccer on the pitch. Kobe soon learned that soccer and the footwork used could help him play basketball. He also learned that the off-ball movement helped him space out and anticipate the game differently than most. The two sports began to shape Kobe the basketball player and even up to today, the Kobe footwear line has always had a form of soccer boot technology into the design.
If I think about the early days of Kobe in the NBA, I can always remember him supporting soccer. From Ac Milan to Barcelona and his home town team the LA Galaxy, Kobe would represent anytime he could, from wearing his favorite kits, hanging with top soccer stars and attending local Galaxy matches. Kobe to me was far more than a fan of soccer. He was one of the reasons why I stuck with learning more about the culture of the game. I remember how hype I was in 2013 when the Kobe 8 Mambacurial hit the market. This was the first time a basketball shoe had taken a soccer boot and used it as the inspiration behind the design. The colorway taken from the Purple to Pink gradient Merc Vapor IX and the low top technology had already been inspired by the heel cup on various soccer boots. The perfect blend of where the soccer world inspired basketball.
The Mercurial was one of the most popular Kobes of all time, but prior to the launch of the Kobe 8, Nike and Kobe had teamed up for various basketball sneakers that had been inspired by the love Kobe had for the game. One of the first sneakers Kobe wore was the Hyperdunk in 2008 and in that same year Nike created a Milan and Barcelona inspired pair, then in 2010 with the Kobe 6, the extremely successful Barcelona inspired colors dropped. Even now the mango colored Barcelona Kobe 6 goes for over $1000 USD. It goes without saying that Kobe had his hand early into making the game cool.
Sitting at home reminiscing about the stories where I have been impacted by sport and soccer-specific, it has become very clear that Kobe Bryant made a major impact on the growth of the sport in the USA and specifically on my continued passion for culture within the soccer space. To think of all the players in the NBA that now have a connection to soccer, I can’t help but think of Kobe as a pioneer. When Kobe passed away, the outpouring of emotion from the soccer community was unlike anything I had seen within the space. A true testament of a man that not only was one of the greatest basketball players in the world but a key pioneer in building soccer culture globally.