Alejandro Panfil @AlePanfil
We’re in September 2020 and, unbelievably, beyond the coronavirus crisis and its tremendous consequences, many other things have happened in the world this very year. And one of the saddest events was losing basketball icon Kobe Bryant, who suffered a helicopter accident and left this world on January 26, at 41 years old.
Kobe, considered the natural successor of Michael Jordan, shone wearing the jersey of Los Angeles Lakers, winning five NBA Championships and being an 18-time All-Star, but basketball wasn’t his only passion. Since he was a child living in Italy, he was a soccer fan and as an adult he became a famous supporter of FC Barcelona and, of course, his star Lionel Messi (who finally couldn’t leave the club and will stay until June 2021, but that’s another story).
Bryant became interested in FC Barcelona thanks to his relationship with a team mate and a good friend, Pau Gasol (who had a brilliant career playing for Barcelona, Memphis, Lakers, Chicago, San Antonio and Milwaukee). The Spanish power forward/centre was his first link to Barça and invited Kobe, on many occasions, to the pre-season training session that the Barcelona soccer team held in the USA. As a result of those visits, Kobe went into fan mode and met Ronaldinho in 2006, took pictures with the defender and captain Carlos Puyol in 2011, and exchanged jerseys with the amazing Andrés Iniesta – Spanish hero after the 2010 World Cup in South Africa– in 2015.
But it was no other than Dinho who introduced his Nike team mate, Kobe B, to Messi. The Brazilian star was playing at the highest level and was considered one of the best players on the planet at the time but, on that occasion, he showed his humble character: “Several years ago, Barça came to Los Angeles for the preseason. I was talking to Ronaldinho, who was a great friend of mine, and he told me: "Kobe, look, I'm going to introduce you to the one who is going to be the greatest player of all time." And I said, What? But if you are the best in the world, then you are the best. But he replied: 'No, no. This kid is going to be the best.’ That boy was Messi, who was only 17 years old”, Bryant explained in very fluent Spanish.
Once Kobe took a closer look at Messi’s game, he understood what Dinho had told him and fell in love with La Pulga’s amazing skills and goal capacity. Thus, he made it a habit to visit Barcelona and the training camp, chat with the Argentinean and they even made a commercial for a flight company together.
When Kobe was asked his opinion about the personality of his new friend Messi, he said: "We are the same because of how we think about our obsession. For him it is football and for me, basketball. As people we are different: he is a very reserved person, but in the love we feel for our sport we are equal and have talent too, heh”.
Moreover, he described him as a player: "He's one of the greatest athletes of all time – his tenacity, intelligence with which he plays as well as his strengths. It just puts him head and shoulders above the rest”.
Gasol, Ronaldinho and Messi aroused in Kobe a deep connection to FC Barcelona. Maybe due to that inspirational connection, he once declared his desire to sign with the Catalan club: "I would like to finish my career playing for Barça with Pau Gasol”. According to Mundo Deportivo, the club took very seriously Bryant’s wishes and quickly made him a proposal to sign for the club and play in the international competitions in Europe. Kobe respectfully rejected that proposal, arguing that he wasn’t in physical conditions to cope with the high level of European basketball.
Bryant and Messi built a perfect bridge between basketball and soccer. Kobe, a Barcelona fan, left this world in the same year that Leo tried to leave—unsuccessfully—Barça after two decades of shining at the highest level. Those are sad enough reasons why, when it comes to sports, there is also no doubt that this 2020 will not be considered just another year.