Gioacchino Fusacchia, 60, coached Bryant in Rieti, a small town in central Italy, when the late athlete’s father, Joe, played professional basketball following a career in the NBA.
“Kobe followed Joe everywhere, to matches, to training, and was already passionate about basketball,” said Fusacchia, who was in his mid-20s during the period the Bryants were in Rieti, from 1984 to 1986.
Rieti was Joe’s first stop in a seven-year spell in Italy during which he played seasons with other Italian teams in the southern region of Calabria and the northern regions of Tuscany and Emilio-Romagna before returning to the United States.
“To say I coached Kobe is a big word. We really just let him play because he was younger than the other kids in the youth side, but you could see he was a pure talent, a free spirit,” Fusacchia said in a phone interview.
When Joe Bryant took Kobe to play in a tournament for children, Kobe proved far better than any other player on the court, despite being by far the youngest.
“He didn’t pass to anyone and because he was so much better than the others, we took him off to restore some balance,” Fusacchia said. “Kobe ran to his mother and father in tears, thinking we were punishing him, before we gave him a prize for being the best player in the tournament.”
Giuseppe Cattani, 55, the president of Rieti’s team today, was a 20-year-old player then. Lucky enough to have played twice alongside Joe Bryant, he says it was like father, like son.
“Kobe’s dad didn’t pass either,” Cattani said in a phone interview. “He was incredible, an idol to us.”
Cattani said that Kobe did benefit from Italian-style basketball coaching, which focuses on tactics. “Kobe later said he was lucky to have learned the fundamentals here in Italy, where there are lots of tactics, sometimes an exasperatingly large amount of tactics,” he said.
Today, Rieti’s team is planning to retire its No. 24 jersey, the number worn by Bryant when he retired from the Los Angeles Lakers. “Rieti has long been a basketball town, more than a soccer town, and we all grew up with the legend of Kobe,” said the team’s current general manager, Gianluca Martini, 33.
“There is a real sense of sadness here with his passing,” he said in a phone interview. “It has been an honor to play on the court he played on and he made us all more proud of this town.”
The team posted a childhood photo of Bryant, adding: “You made us dream, feel and, above all, fall in love. It was in Rieti that you first started to make your little opponents cry. We’re proud to have been the first to see you tread the courts. We’ll never forget you, Kobe.”
On Monday, Italy’s basketball federation said a minute’s silence will be held before all games in Italy in all categories over the next week.
“It’s a small but heartfelt and deserved gesture to honor the life and memory of Kobe Bryant, an absolute champion who always had Italy in his heart,” the federation president’s, Gianni Petrucci, said in a statement.