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SportsCenter film traces Italian roots of Kobe Bryant and Tamika Catchings’ friendship

Tamika Catching and Kobe Bryant. (ESPN Films)
Longtime friends and basketball stars Tamika Catchings and Kobe Bryant share memories of their unique childhoods and more in Italian Imports. (ESPN Films)
Editor’s Note: ESPN reporter and play-by-play commentator Holly Rowe is the executive producer of “Italian Imports,” the latest SportsCenter Friday Night Movie Night segment (ESPN, during the 6 p.m. ET edition). In this post for Front Row, Rowe reveals how she became involved in the film – directed by Joie Jacoby – that details the friendship and growth of pro basketball stars Tamika Catchings and Kobe Bryant.

I first became interested in this story covering Tamika Catchings for more than a decade, since her days at the University of Tennessee and in the WNBA. I was always intrigued by what made Tamika play the ways she does – she’s fierce, demanding, always the most competitive player on the court.

In discovering more of her story, we uncovered an intriguing connection between Tamika and another basketball superstar who plays with a similar drive and intensity, Kobe Bryant. We pitched the story to ESPN Films and are thrilled to present Italian Imports.

With a rare and largely unknown connection, two of the best basketball players in the world share why and how they became the friends and competitors they are today.

Catchings was born with a hearing disability. As a young girl, over-sized hearing aids in both ears made her self conscious off the court.

“On the court is the only place I felt normal,” Catchings said. “I just wasn’t normal, I didn’t fit in, and that was the toughest year for me.”

Basketball provided an escape.

“I got really, really good, people didn’t make fun of me and they looked at me for my athletic talent rather than the speech problem or the hearing aids or the hearing problem. And so that was where I became accepted,” she said.

Bryant also felt like an outsider.

Raised in Italy until middle school, he found his return to America difficult.

“It was similar just in the sense that I didn’t speak the English language very well, couldn’t read very well,” Bryant recalled. “So there was times when the teacher would call on me in class and I couldn’t read. I didn’t know a word. Italian was the first language. It was always very awkward. Basketball ended up being my escape, my place where I vented those frustrations.”

They have been on parallel paths toward the same basketball achievements since they first met in Italy when five and six years old, respectively.

Each has won a Naismith Trophy as a high school player of the year – Catching also garnered the honor as a collegian. As professionals, each has won league MVP and team championship titles. Each also is an Olympic gold medalist.

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