The basketball legend was a lifelong football fan, who emphasised need for education in fight against racism.
As the world comes to terms with the tragic death of basketball legend Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash on Sunday, UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin described the lifelong football fan as a role model for the way he handled racism in sport.
“I did not know Bryant personally,” said Čeferin, “but I was always struck by the way he never shied from taking a firm stance against racism. It made him a true role model for other high-profile sports stars.”
“It is impossible to comprehend the grief that his family are suffering at this time,” added Čeferin. “The world of sport stands united in their support for them.”
Education in tackling racism
Čeferin singled out Bryant’s comments on 16 January about the recent series of racist incidents in football, particularly in Italy – the LA Lakers star’s home from the age of six to 13. In the interview conducted by CNN at a Major League Soccer event in California, Bryant underlined the critical role of education in tackling racism among football fans.
“It’s always education and understanding that racism is a thing that’s been part of our culture for a while,” said Bryant. “Even now though we’ve come such a long way, there’s still so much to be done and I think education is always the important thing.”
Bryant’s first experience of football
While Serie A and the great AC Milan side of the late eighties, featuring Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard, introduced Bryant to the beautiful game, he also learnt about its uglier side. The lessons learned shaped his firm anti-racist stance throughout a 20-year playing career in the NBA.
“While I was growing up in Italy, I obviously witnessed it first-hand going to certain soccer matches. My parents taught me and educated me on how to deal with those sorts of things,” Bryant said in the same CNN interview.
Chorus of tributes from football stars
Kobe Bryant’s close affinity with the world of football was evident in the chorus of tributes from clubs and stars alike after the announcement of his death on Sunday.
FC Barcelona called Bryant “an exemplary sportsman” while Lionel Messi wrote on Instagram: “It was a pleasure to meet you and share good times together. We lost a genius like no other.”
After his second goal for Paris-Saint German in a Ligue 1 match on Sunday night, Brazilian star Neymar flashed the number 24 with his fingers in memory of his friend’s Lakers’ shirt number. United States football star, Megan Rapinoe tweeted: “Heart going out to the Bryant family right now. RIP.”
Rossoneri fan, Kobe Bryant
In a tribute which would have moved Bryant himself, AC Milan also recognised their celebrated fan: “We have no words to express how shocked we are to hear of the tragic passing of one of the greatest sportsmen of all time and Rossoneri fan, Kobe Bryant. All our thoughts are with the families of those affected by this tragic accident. You will forever be missed, Kobe.”