WASHINGTON — NBA basketball star Kobe Bryant is a massive FC Barcelona fan and on Sunday afternoon, he went as far as crediting the defending European champions for influencing his basketball game.
"Growing up in Italy, I’ve always been a huge soccer fan, so it’s very easy for me to identify with the sport,” Bryant said at an event hosted by an international airline for which he serves as global ambassador. “When I first saw Barça play, they play with so much creativity, passion and enthusiasm, it was so easy to follow it. They inspired me and the way I play.”
The weekend for Bryant has had a distinctive Blaugrana flavor to it. He was based at the FC Barcelona team hotel since Friday, he attended Saturday’s match and participated in a halftime ceremony, he was wearing the new Barcelona kit at the Mia Hamm Foundation Celebrity Match on Sunday morning and then sat beside Carles Puyol and Sergio Busquets for a Sunday afternoon press event.
This kind of Barcelona whirlwind is nothing new for Bryant. During Barcelona’s US tour in 2006, he was the featured celebrity in an event held in Hollywood in which the entire team participated in front of more than a thousand fans. It was roughly around the same time as the Los Angeles Lakers star’s greatest soccer memory.
“I think it was 2005 or 2006,” Bryant recalled. “I was on vacation in Barcelona and they were practicing and I was fortunate to go down to practice when Frank Rijkaard was coach. I grew up watching him and I was a big AC Milan fan [Bryant’s father played basketball in Italy]. I went to watch practice and watched [Barcelona] train, which is cooler than the watching a match because you actually see things develop.”
With rumors swirling about a possible move to Turkish basketball team Besiktas during the NBA lockout — Bryant admitted having discussions with the club “weeks ago” but that no deal was imminent — he said he’d look forward to the opportunity of playing overseas, potentially even for Barcelona’s basketball squad.
“I’m just waiting for my phone to ring,” he said. “I’d play anywhere. I grew up overseas, so I’m very comfortable playing overseas. I’d definitely come [to Barcelona] and play, for sure.”
Perhaps he can even be around to see FC Barcelona make another run at La Liga and the UEFA Champions League titles. As someone who knows a thing or two about repeating as champion — he repeated on three separate occasions as NBA champion with the Lakers, including a three-peat from 2000-02 — Bryant says that his money is on Pep Guardiola’s team.
“I think they have a great chance of repeating,” he said. “Repeating is always the most fun. As a defending champion you’re thinking about attacking and going after another championship, which is fun to do. You have to have a little bit of luck and stay healthy and if all their pieces stay healthy, they have a good chance to win.”
Take that with a grain of salt. After all, Bryant’s biased.