Kobe Bryant was known for his Mamba Mentality as a decorated NBA player and devoted family man.
What Bryant wasn’t known for — at least on the surface — was his Catholic faith.
Bryant and his family attended a 7 a.m. Sunday Mass at Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church in Newport Beach, California, just a couple hours before the helicopter crash that killed him, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven other people.
“We shook hands. I saw that he had blessed himself because there was a little holy water on his forehead,” Father Steve Sallot told the Orange County TV station KCBS/KCAL. “I was coming in the same door as he was going out. We called that the backhand of grace.”
Bryant rarely spoke about his Catholic faith in interviews, but Sallot said Bryant was “certainly a man of faith.” Bryant never received Confirmation, one of the seven Catholic sacraments, but Sallot said Bryant told him he wanted to eventually.
Sallot declined separate interviews with national media outlets, including USA TODAY Sports, “to respect the dignity and privacy of the Bryant family.”
“A longtime Orange County resident and parishioner in our Diocese, Kobe would frequently attend Mass and sit in the back of the church so that his presence would not distract people from focusing on Christ’s Presence,” Bishop Timothy Freyer of the Diocese of Orange said in a commemorative Facebook post. “(Kobe) was a committed Catholic who loved his family and loved his faith.”
Bryant would regularly attend Sunday Mass at the Newport Beach church and other Orange County churches close to his home in Newport Coast. He would occasionally attend a mid-week daily Mass. He and his wife Vanessa were married in 2001 at a Southern California parish, and raised their children — Natalia, Gianna, Bianca and Capri — Catholic as frequent parishioners at Our Lady Queen of Angels, which typically seats more than 1,000 in its cathedral.
Bryant’s parents, Joe and Pamela Bryant, raised Kobe as a Catholic when they lived in various parts of Italy including Rieti, Reggio Calabria, Pistoia, and Reggio Emilia. He also attended Catholic church when his family moved back to Philadelphia when he was 13.
Bryant’s Catholicism was known overseas. Monsignor Stephen Doktorcyzk, who was visiting Rome last week to meet Pope Francis for a scheduled visit, told The Orange County Register: “He (Kobe) spent much of his childhood in a few regions in Italy, and that he could speak the language with fluency along with his undisputed skill at the game of basketball have resulted in Italians taking great pride in his achievements and close association with their homeland. They are very sad that they lost a native son in such a tragic way.”
Bryant spoke of his Catholic faith in a rare 2015 interview in which he said he turned to a priest in 2003 when he was charged with sexual assault and false imprisonmentwhile staying in Eagle, Colorado, for knee surgery. The case was dropped when the woman decided not to testify, Bryant issued an apology and a civil suit was settled with the woman out of court.
“The one thing that really helped me during that process — I’m Catholic, I grew up Catholic, my kids are Catholic — was talking to a priest,” Kobe told GQ Magazine in the interview. “It was actually kind of funny: He looks at me and says, ’Did you do it?’ And I say, ’Of course not.’ Then he asks, ’Do you have a good lawyer?’ And I’m like, ’Uh, yeah, he’s phenomenal.’ So then he just said, ’Let it go. Move on. God’s not going to give you anything you can’t handle, and it’s in his hands now. This is something you can’t control. So let it go.’ And that was the turning point.”
Bryant also attended Holy Family Cathedral in Orange, California. Orange County singer Cristina Ballestero posted on Instagram a touching story of when she met Bryant at weekday Mass.
“As we went up to communion, (Bryant) waited for me to go,” she recalled in the Jan. 26 post. “If you grew up in the Catholic Church, you understand this is a respectful thing men do in church as a sign of respect to women. He said I have a beautiful voice.
“His most inspiring trait was his decision to turn to his faith in God and receive God’s mercy and to be a better man.”
Several Bryant and Lakers fans attended Our Lady Queen of Angels in Newport Beach this past Sunday to mourn and heal together.
“I came to see where he was last week and to reminisce,” Paco Frausto told Yahoo Sports. “I feel a little bit more of a connection as a result.”
Follow Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.