LOS ANGELES — When Kobe Bryant reflected on his career in front of the cameras after playing his last professional basketball game in 2016, he did something rare in the NBA — he switched to Spanish.
“Latino fans are important to me because when I arrived they were the fans who most passionately embraced me,” he said. “I told them, ‘Give me two or three years so that I can learn a little bit of Spanish.’ Now, my Spanish is not that good, but I can speak a little. They mean everything to me.”
The feeling, it is clear, was mutual. In the day since a helicopter carrying Bryant, 41, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others crashed into a hillside near Calabasas, California, killing everyone on board, the throngs of mourners who have gathered in Los Angeles reflect the city’s demographics: largely Latino.
Fans have brought tall candles, many of them bearing the image of the Virgen de Guadalupe, to Staples Center, and to newly painted Kobe Bryant murals scattered throughout the city. They have openly sobbed over Bryant’s death, and referred to him as their “compa,” a way of calling him a friend.
Bryant was part of Southern California’s Latino community, raising four black Mexican American daughters with his wife, Vanessa, who grew up in Orange County. During a nationally broadcast game against the Phoenix Suns in 2010, when Arizona was at the height of a debate over a bill that made the failure to carry immigration documents a crime, Bryant smiled as she wore a T-shirt that read, “Do I Look Illegal?” Bryant often referred to his wife as “mamacita,” an affectionate display of playful romance.
Even before his death, Bryant’s image was featured on cobijas San Marcos, fuzzy illustrated blankets that are often sold on the streets here. He was the subject of many corridos, or traditional Mexican ballads, celebrating his prowess on the court as a source of inspiration. His image hangs on the walls of dozens of Latino-owned auto repair and barber shops throughout the city.
Bryant, who spent part of his childhood in Italy and spoke Italian, told a reporter from Univision that he largely learned his Spanish by watching telenovelas and “Sábado Gigante,” a popular game show, with his wife and her mother.
“A big part of Kobe’s story is that he was always a little bit of an outsider,” said Shea Serrano, a sportswriter and the author of “Basketball (and Other Things): A Collection of Questions Asked, Answered, Illustrated.” “He became a global superstar in Los Angeles and adopted his hometown, which is hugely Latino. And if you talk to enough Latinos, I think you would get that we all feel the same sort of thing in our bones, that we’re really treated somewhat as outsiders.”
Joe Rivas, 28, a registered nurse from Cerritos, California, said he often watched videos of Bryant on the court to motivate him as he crammed for nursing exams.
“I grew up with Kobe. He is my favorite player of all time,” Rivas said. “He inspired me to work hard and get where I am.”
When Rivas heard the news, he was on a treadmill at the gym. He could not bear to finish his workout, so he changed, jumped in his car and drove 25 miles to Staples Center, where he had watched Bryant play his last game in April 2016.
Though Bryant’s public assessment of his Spanish skills was modest, he spoke the language well enough to joke in it and developed a friendship with Lionel Messi, the Argentine soccer superstar who plays for Barcelona.
Many Angelenos who offered tributes to Bryant said that watching him on the court inspired them to play basketball for the first time, and that they sought to emulate his work ethic.
“Because of him I’ve pushed myself,” said Eddie Lugo, 21. “Because of him I’m a dog on the field, on the court, on the road. I just grind because of Kobe. He’s instilled that Mamba Mentality; he’s created a whole ethic.”