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SOCCER

Kobe Bryant welcomes Marta to town

Lakers star, who is also a huge soccer fan, travels by helicopter to watch Marta be introduced by the L.A. Sol.

March 06, 2009|Grahame L. Jones

It won't show up in the NBA statistics, but that was some steal Kobe Bryant made Thursday.

On an afternoon when Brazil's Marta, the top women's soccer player on the planet, was being introduced by the Los Angeles Sol in Carson, Bryant flew in by helicopter after Lakers practice and walked off with the show.

By the time he left the Home Depot Center, he had the Sol players giggling like star-struck teenagers, all eager to be photographed alongside him.

Naturally, Bryant obliged.

He also did a little goalkeeping, a little ball-juggling, banged a shot in off the left post and generally enjoyed himself.

Sure, Women's Professional Soccer, the league that launches on March 29, was using the Lakers star to attract television coverage, but Bryant would have been there regardless.

As much as he admires Lionel Messi and FC Barcelona, and as close a friend as he is of David Beckham, the NBA's most genuine soccer lover places Marta right up there on the same pedestal.

"I'm a fan, really," Bryant said. "I don't feel like Kobe the basketball player at all. I'm just as excited as anybody here.

"Watching her play, the way that she plays with such passion, such energy, such a love for the game, and so much creativity, I found myself being glued to the TV set.

"There were three things I wanted to accomplish last summer when I was in Beijing. One was to win a gold medal. Two was to watch Michael Phelps make history. The third was to watch Marta play in person. I was fortunate enough to accomplish all three. I'm beyond excited that she's here."

So who would be the Marta of the NBA?

"Me," Bryant said, without hesitation.

Meanwhile, his favorite soccer club, Spanish league leader Barcelona, is enduring a rare lean spell.

"It's tough, but you go through that," Bryant said. "It's no big deal. It's going to be all right."

And what about the $150 million that Manchester City reportedly is willing to offer Barcelona for Argentina's Messi, who also won a gold medal in Beijing?

"It's understandable," Bryant said. "Business is business."

Would he want to see Messi leave?

"Of course not, because I'm a Barcelona fan, but at the end of the day the individual's got to do what's right for the individual, you know what I mean? As a friend and as a fan, I've got to support what he's doing."

What about another friend, Beckham? Any inside information?

"No, man," Bryant said, laughing. "Of course not. I have no idea what you're talking about."

Then he tells a Marta story that sums up the day.

"My daughter [Natalia] plays AYSO soccer, right. The first time, she really didn't know what she was doing. I tried to work with her and stuff.

"Then we go home and I bring up Marta on YouTube and said, 'Watch this.' She sat there for like 15 minutes just watching. She's only 6, but she [recognizes] what's amazing.

"What she [Marta] does is phenomenal. It's incredible. Marta's gifted, man. The things that she does on the pitch, I've just never seen anybody do, male or female."

--

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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