Kobe Bryant

The Feeling's Mutual: Kobe Bryant's Appreciation for His Hispanic Fans

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

In a crowd of dozens of bowed heads at L.A. Live, a Hispanic man delicately lays out a lesser seen baby blue Lakers jersey among dozens of candles emblazoned with the Virgin of Guadalupe. He touches the jersey with a few fingers for the last time and makes the sign of the cross on a bent knee. 

At one of the makeshift memorials for basketball superstar Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles grieves.

Every so often, fans cry out for Bryant, who died tragically in a helicopter crash Sunday. But one fan insists on chanting for “mambacita,” or “little Mamba,” referring to 13-year-old Gianna Bryant, the daughter of the former NBA star, who died along with her father. 

Everyone can grieve the loss of Kobe Bryant. But one particular demographic feels that he embodied many of their cultural symbols: "Black Mamba" was a practicing Catholic, married to a Mexican American woman, spoke Spanish and dreamed big while working tirelessly toward his goals. Many Hispanics in LA thought those characteristics looked awfully familiar. 

Kobe Bryant demonstrates his Spanish fluency and his appreciation for his Hispanic fans after his last professional game on April 13, 2016.

“When I got here, those fans were the ones who embraced me the most,” the legendary athlete said in fluent Spanish about his Hispanic fans at a press conference after the last game of his professional career, during which he scored 60 points against the Utah Jazz. 

Why had he decided to learn the language? Because of what he himself said was an appreciation for his fans. 

“So I said, ‘Give me two years, three years, I'm going to speak a little Spanish,’" he said. And like he usually did, he stepped up to the challenge. He dedicated himself to telenovelas and famous Spanish-language programming like Sabado Gigante, according to one interview. 

These weren’t just the efforts of a man trying to please a Hispanic audience — which at the beginning of his career made up almost 45% of LA County, according to the census — but also of a dedicated son-in-law.

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In 2001, he married Vanessa Laine, whose mother was an immigrant from Mexico. He had his first of four daughters in 2003, and never forgot their Hispanic roots.  

Bryant was “a man who always spoke for us, who was always at many Latino events. He was proud when he spoke in Spanish, and often said, ‘My Mexican daughters,’” Saul Rodriguez, a sports reporter for Telemundo 52, said.

He had an affinity for Hispanic culture and a humility that his fans remember fondly and that they associate with the superstar.

“One day he came and told me, ‘Don't treat me like a star. I want to be another customer to you,’” Rodolfo Garcia, an employee at El Camino Real in Fullerton, said. El Camino Real is a Mexican restaurant that Bryant reportedly went to often with his family.

“We would see him here frequently,” Kelly Alesi, a customer, said. “He would sit at the table and everyone knew who he was, but we didn’t bother him. We’d leave him alone and maybe that’s why he liked to come here. ”

But there was no hiding Bryant’s greatness in the restaurant, on the court or in life in general. Teammates and rivals, other superstar athletes and political figures have paid tribute to him across social media. But even Latin music stars count him as an inspiration, saying his legacy went beyond the United States.

"I would have never imagined that this would hurt me so much!" Grammy nominee and Latin Grammy Award-winner Bad Bunny wrote on Instagram. "I've never mentioned it because it doesn't necessarily have to do with music, but this man has been an inspiration in many ways for me to be what I am today."

The Spanish-trap star even released a song in tribute to Bryant Tuesday where he tries to make sense of his passing. 

Ivy Queen, Anuella AA and J Balvin, were among others who paid tribute to the NBA star.

One fan even told the LA Times that the basketball star reminded him of his parents.

“They had multiple jobs and worked like crazy, but they never made excuses. That was Kobe. He’d play with broken fingers and torn ligaments, and would never say a thing. He set that example, and so we had to do the same,” Hugo Flores, an Anaheim resident, said.

Bryant became almost an honorary member of the community.

"They mean everything to me," Bryant said of his Hispanic fans.

From the tears shed at one of several memorials for the superstar, it's apparent he also meant everything to them.

Timeline: A Look Back at Kobe Bryant’s NBA Career

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story included an error about the location of the memorials. They were located at L.A. Live.

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