Kobe Bryant has strong background in soccer
Had he remained in Italy, Kobe Bryant may very well have been honing his footwork on the pitch instead of the hardwood.
He's appearing Sunday when he appears in the Celebrity Soccer Challenge at Kastles Stadium in Washington D.C., an event sponsored by former U.S. women's soccer player Mia Hamm and her husband, ex-Dodger Nomar Garciaparra, though it remains unclear if he'll play or if he's a mere spectator. But incidentally enough, Bryant may not have been making a token appearance on the soccer field had he seriously kept up with the sport.
Sure, it's easy to imagine the uber competitive and athletic Bryant dazzling fans wearing an A.C. Milan uniform (his favorite childhood team) or an FC Barcelona jersey (his current favorite team). Bryant, however, sensed his skills kicking a soccer ball nowhere matched what he could do with a basketball, a sport he got serious about once his family moved to Philadelphia in 1991.
"I wasn't anything spectacular," Bryant once told the Chicago Tribune's Luis Arroyave. "I would have moments of doing something crazy that really wasn't done on purpose. I'd pull off a nice move that was unintentional.
"I started out at goalkeeper because my arms were so long and I didn't really have a good feel at handling the ball. As I practiced and progressed, they moved me to midfield."
Still, it's not hard to trace how his soccer roots affected him as a basketball player.
Bryant displays his crafty footwork when he posts up or slashes to the basket . He plays with fluidity when he pulls up for a jumper or when he drives past an opponent off the dribble. With exception to perhaps this past season, when he was plagued with fatigue and injuries, Bryant's 15-year NBA career has mostly entailed his relentless drive kicking in in the fourth quarter, a sign of superior conditioning. Most important, Bryant's pure albeit obsessive love for the game traces back to those young days on the pitch.
"I'm comfortable [with basketball] footwork because I played soccer," Bryant told Arroyave. "From changing up rhythms to foot speed, to being comfortable with having my right foot as my pivot foot and my left foot as my pivot foot."
There are other tangible connections.
Bryant's strong interest in soccer landed him on the cover of ESPN The Magazine's fan issue. He appeared in Nike's "Write the Future" ad. And whether it's traveling to the 2006 World Cup in Germany or 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Bryant visits soccer venues any chance he can.
That also includes when he's traveling with the Lakers. When they traveled to London as part of their exhibition schedule last season, Bryant attended a Chelsea-Arsenal Premier League game with several teammates. His interest in soccer, which is also shared with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, becomes a frequent conversation topic.
It'd be a stretch to suggest Bryant should spend part of the NBA lockout taking advantage of David Beckham's good will in giving him a Galaxy jersey into trying out for an MLS team, much like the way athletes such as Chad Ochocinco and Gilbert Arenas have in years past. But when Bryant takes the pitch on Sunday, it'll prove to be more than just a public appearance. It'll also reflect his love for the "Beautiful Game."
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Photo: Kobe Bryant plays around with a soccer ball in 2009. Credit: Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times