Long before he was a coach in the NBA, Mike D’Antoni was a pretty good point guard in Italy for Olimpia Milano, a team he led to five Italian League titles.
No big deal, you say?
How about this: One of D’Antoni’s biggest fans was a kid whose father also played in Italy at the same time – Kobe Bryant.
“He was a little kid about 12-years-old who would come out on the court at halftime in Italy and hang out and play,” D’Antoni remembered. “We’d have to beat him off the court in order to start the second half. I never envisioned he’d grow up to be Kobe Bryant. That’s the way the relationship started. Americans usually in Europe flock together and eat together after games, and I got to know his parents very well. And Kobe. It just starts from there.
“He speaks Italian like I do do, and that’s great, ’cause he can come over and cuss me out in Italian and you guys might not even know it. We’re good.”
There are other connections between the Lakers star and their new coach, but it’s not incorrect to say their relationship began decades ago, Kobe as an adoring fan, D’Antoni as the player he most enjoyed watching.
In fact, when Kobe first entered the league, he wore No. 8, in honor of D’Antoni.
“[I liked] his competitiveness,” Bryant said. “He showed a lot of emotion when he played. He was intelligent.
“He used his size very well. Those are some of the things I liked about him.”
Kobe laughed and added, “keep in mind, I was about 10-years-old and already analyzing.”
Bryant’s father, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, played in Italy for four teams from 1984-1991. D’Antoni was a point guard with Olimpia Milano from 1978-90 and became the team’s all-time leading scorer. In 1990, he was voted the league’s best point guard of all time.
One more connection: D’Antoni and Bryant worked together as coach and player on U.S. Olympic teams in 2008 in Beijing and 2012 in London. D’Antoni was an assistant coach on both gold-medal-winning teams.
“There’s something about [Kobe],” D’Antoni said. “He’s the most competitive guy I’ve ever been around. Whether it’s an All-Star game or whether it’s a pick-up game, he’s coming at you. That’s why he has the rings he has and has had the career he’s had. That’s not going to change. His intensity is something that, as a coach, man I love it.
“And he’s playing great basketball right now, as good as he’s ever played.”