Latinos mourn Kobe Bryant, who he said were first to embrace him in Los Angeles

"My Latino fans are very important to me because they were the first ones who embraced me the most when I first got here," Kobe Bryant said in Spanish in 2016.
Image: Kobe Bryant poses with his family as both his Los Angeles Lakers numbers, 8 and 24, are retired at the Staples Center on Dec. 18, 2017.
Kobe Bryant poses with his family as both of his Los Angeles Lakers numbers, 8 and 24, are retired at Staples Center in Los Angeles on Dec. 18, 2017.Maxx Wolfson / Getty Images file

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By Gwen Aviles

The death of Kobe Bryant has affected many and brought together people of all backgrounds, but it is especially painful for Latinos, who say the basketball legend had an outsize impact on their communities.

Bryant, who along with his daughter Gianna and seven other people died in a helicopter crash Sunday, was the husband of Vanessa Bryant, who is Mexican American. The couple had four daughters and lived in Los Angeles, which is nearly half Latino. Bryant had shouted out to Latino fans in interviews, even crediting them with his desire to learn Spanish.

"My Latino fans are very important to me because they were the first ones who embraced me the most when I first got here," Bryant said in a 2016 Spanish-language interview that was widely shared on social media in tribute. "So I told them, 'Give me two or three years so that I can learn a little bit of Spanish.'"

Bryant added that his Spanish was "not that good," but that appears to have been a modest assessment, as he routinely conducted full-length interviews in Spanish, which endeared him even more to Latino fans. He said he was inspired to learn the language because of his wife and because his Latino fans "mean everything" to him. He told Univision in a separate interview that he learned Spanish by watching telenovelas with his family.

Even though he was not Latino himself, Bryant's death has been described as "a major loss to the Latino community," and several people have suggested that he was an honorary member of their community. A number of social media tributes referred to Bryant as "compa," which is Mexican slang for "friend." In one such tribute, the mourner said he knew a man who named his son after Kobe.

"Chicano friend of mine named his kid Kobe 15 years ago," tweeted one fan. "I never truly understood why a Latino would name his kid Kobe back then, but today it makes a lot of sense."

"He gave his retirement conference in Spanish," another fan tweeted. "He had a special closeness with the Latino community of Los Angeles, especially he had a closeness with Mexico because his wife and daughters were Mexican."

According to the Los Angeles Times, Bryant expressed his appreciation for Latinos beyond the basketball court. He frequented El Camino Real, a Mexican restaurant in Fullerton, which was his wife's favorite childhood haunt. Whether Bryant would dine in or get takeout, he was reported to have always greeted the staff and customers in Spanish. His favorite meal was carnitas and flan.

Although Bryant is being remembered as a Lakers legend who won five NBA championships with the team, Latinos remembered him as an extension of their family.

"My wife was a nurse at a children's hospital. A young terminally ill patient's (of Mexican heritage) last wish was to meet #KobeBryant," a fan recounted in a tribute post. "Kobe came, and stayed for over 3 hours playing video games, they ate they had fun. My wife said it was the happiest she ever saw the boy."

Latino celebrities have also been sharing tributes to Bryant, including Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny, who released a single titled "6 Rings" in honor of the basketball star. The title refers to Bryant's five championship rings and his wedding ring.

Other victims of the Calabasas helicopter crash included John Altobelli, the head baseball coach at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, California; his wife, Keri; and their daughter Alyssa. Payton Chester, a 13-year-old basketball player; her mother, Sarah; and Christina Mauser, an assistant coach for Gianna Bryant's Mamba Academy basketball team, were also on board.