Inside Naomi Osaka's Relationship With Kobe Bryant

In Hollywood, it's not uncommon for the industry's leading actors and actresses to end up in the same friend circles. Take Timothée Chalamet and Saoirse Ronan, for instance. That being said, it's not unusual for celebs to make friends with those in a different line of work either. Be it Ellen DeGeneres and Jennifer Aniston or Courteney Cox and Ed Sheeran, celebrity friendships are all too common. The same can be said of the world's top athletes.

Following the death of legendary NBA player Kobe Bryant in January 2020, it was clear Bryant had close knit relationships in and out of the basketball world. His impact on and off the court touched the hearts of fellow players, politicians and people around the world. One unlikely friendship was the one between Bryant and tennis champ Naomi Osaka.

With about 20 years between them, the two athletes bonded over their work ethic. In an interview with WSJ Magazine in August 2020, Osaka reflected on her mentor, whom she had only known personally for about seven months before his tragic death. "There would be some really tough loses," Osaka told the outlet. "I didn't even know he was paying attention, but he would text me positive things and tell me to learn from it. For me, it was definitely helpful."

However, their friendship went beyond positive text messages and mentorship.

Naomi Osaka and Kobe Bryant played tennis together

Over the course of his NBA career, Kobe Bryant racked up quite a long list of accolades, including 5x NBA champion, 2x NBA Finals MVP, 18x NBA All-Star and 4x NBA All-Star MVP, just to name a few. On top of all that, he was a self-proclaimed girl dad and unsurprisingly an overachiever in everything he did.

What is surprising is Bryant also played tennis, but that may be thanks to his mentee, professional tennis player Naomi Osaka, who, as of this writing, holds two Grand Slam titles. In February 2020, Los Angeles Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka spoke at the Celebration of Life held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles to honor Bryant. He told a story of how he and Bryant would play tennis together, but Bryant wasn't thrilled about consistently losing to his longtime agent.

"So what is the Black Mamba doing the next few times I arrived at the club? There he was waiting for me already with a full sweat," Pelinka said (via People). "As his tennis skills exploded, I learned that he had secretly reached out to the club's pro for private lessons and then didn't share any of them with me. Typical Mamba mentality."

Shortly after, Osaka shared on Twitter a video of her and Bryant playing tennis together with the caption, "He wasn't THAT bad at tennis. Haha love you bro."

Naomi Osaka wrote Kobe Bryant heartfelt letter

Kobe Bryant tragically lost his life on Jan. 26, 2020 in a helicopter crash alongside his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others. After his death, the entire basketball community and beyond shared heartfelt stories of the NBA legend.

Female tennis star Naomi Osaka took to Twitter to post an emotional letter to her mentor. "Hey ... I don't really know what to do so I'm writing you this letter," Osaka wrote."Thank you for being you. Thank you for inspiring people everywhere, you have no idea how many hearts you've touched. Thank you for being so humble and not acting as big as you are."

Osaka continued, "Thank you for caring and checking up on me after my hard losses. Thank you for randomly texting me 'You ok?', cause you know how f**ked up my head is sometimes. Thank you for teaching me so much in the short time I've been lucky enough to have known you. Thank you for existing." She finished the letter with: "You will forever be my big bro/mentor/inspiration. Love you."

Naomi Osaka is part of a tribute to Kobe Bryant

In August 2020, Nike launched its "Mamba Week" campaign on what would have been NBA legend Kobe Bryant's 42nd birthday, per People. The week was a celebration of Bryant's life and legacy. In addition to a million dollar donation to the Mamba and Mambacita Sports Foundation, the campaign brought together big name celebrities and athletes to honor the legend.

Those names included Serena Williams, Megan Rapinoe and Kendrick Lamar, who narrated a short film titled Better inspired by Bryant. The film opens with Lamar saying, "Kobe taught us to be better." It only makes sense that Bryant's mentee Naomi Osaka was featured in the short film. In her interview with WSJ Magazine in August 2020, Osaka remembered how the better sentiment was key to their relationship. The tennis star shared that when she told the legendary Lakers star that she was inspired to be like him, his response was "No, be better." 

Osaka, like many athletes, now surely carries Bryant's Mamba Mentality with her on and off the tennis court.