As the world mourns the death of a legend, fans, players, and media members alike have shared their All-Time best moments with Kobe. Some amazing stories have been told, but perhaps none greater than the experience of Federico Biagini.
As a former Italian ballplayer who used to play with a young Kobe, his encounter with the basketball legend is unique.
I'm the guy in the white jersey in this picture, and it took me two days to process what has happened.
Hi kid, I was saying... To me you will forever be that nice kid at the Piattelli Trophy in Montecatini Terme in 1989: a scrawny kid with the longest legs, with lively eyes and a smile that would have, later, charmed not only basketball but the world as a whole.
A kid that one night, thirthy years ago, did something unique and unrepeatable: step on the court alongside your father "Billy Joe", with the "grown-ups" during the Finals of a summer tournament, with his jersey down to his knees and the shamelessness of Champions, even if you were only eleven. You tried to leave a mark on the game, to be a protagonist and not just an extra, like you would have done later and for the rest of your career.
The Finals of a summer tournament, probably one of the most important tournaments at the time, played in Montecatini during the best years of basketball in Tuscany; on the court there were only adult players, from Serie A, Serie B, Serie C and Serie D; from Montecatini, Pistoia, Livorno, Siena and Florence: nobody wanted to lose, it was serious business...
Matters of local rivalries and honor, "italian suburbs" stuff, but feelings and emotions that you would have brought, with your immense talent, to basketball overseas.
"A kid on the court, how cute!", was the thought of the 1,000 people on the stands, among them your mother, that looks at you, entranced.
"A kid on the court, what a bore!", the athletes thought.
"What am I supposed to do now?", the thought of the man that had to guard you.
And that man, for better or for worse, was me, a mediocre player from the lower Tuscan divisions.
The kid catches the ball... And I tell myself "don't move, don't do anything... It's a kid!"
The kid shoots from 3... Nothing but net, the crowd goes wild, my teammates show signs of disapproval.
On the next play, the kid gets the ball again... I think "get closer, but don't raise your arms... It's a kid!"
The kid, careless, shoots again from 3... and he scores again! The crowd shouts again, my mates grumble again, my coach that didn't want to lose (nobody did) calls a timeout and demands me to defend.
We get back on the court.
Again the kid has the ball.
The whole arena wants the kid to shoot. And cheers him.
All my teammates want me to defend. And shout "don't let him shoot!"
"F- me" I think "what should I do now?"
I get closer to the kid and with my eyes I try to tell him "don't do it, please"
No chance, he's got only sheer determination in his eyes (was the mamba mentality already there?)
The crowd is out of their minds: shoot! Shoot again!
I raise my arms without even looking at the kid.
As reckless as before, he takes the ball, bigger and heavier than him, and shoots it.
Unintentionally and inevitably, I block the shot: what's his mother going to think about me?
The arena screams disappointed at me, my mates keep on playing like nothing ever happened...
I start laughing facing this tragicomical situation and tell the coach "either you bench me now or you're coming here and guard this kid!"
Right... The kid... That kid, that in a few years would have given to basketball so many emotions that nobody could ever imagine, including the best love letter, the best farewell that anyone has written.
Now you'll make angels fall in love with basketball: every basket a divine "plan"!
Maybe one day we'll play again 1 on 1, and, without any doubt, you'll give me back that ridiculous block, while your daughter will watch us and laugh.
Farewell, Kobe. It has been beautiful.
Before Kobe became the global icon the world would later see him as he was just a kid with a whole lot of heart. Although Federico and the rest of the players that day may not have realized just who was out there balling with them, they got to experience a different side of Kobe -- an underdog, a stranger, an outlier.
Decades later, as the world mourns his death, it is only now that people realize what we've all lost. For Federico specifically, this must be a challenging time.
More challenging than having to guard an 11-year-old kid in a serious basketball tournament.