By Luis Arroyave
CHICAGO - Many U.S. soccer fans have wondered what would happen if the nation's best athletes played soccer, especially after seeing the United States' disappointing performance during this summer's World Cup
One of the athletes U.S. soccer fans dream about most actually dreamed about playing the sport himself.
When Kobe Bryant's father moved his family to Italy where he was playing pro basketball, then 6-year-old Kobe was introduced to soccer and the culture that came with it. Bryant often went to the parks in Italy to play basketball and would jump in on a game of soccer before hitting the basketball court.
"I wasn't anything spectacular," Bryant said. "I would have moments of doing something crazy that really wasn't done on purpose. I'd pull off a nice move that was unintentional.
"I started out at goalkeeper because my arms were so long and I didn't really have a good feel at handling the ball. As I practiced and progressed, they moved me to midfield."
The Bryants moved back to the United States in 1991. With few kids playing soccer in his Philadelphia neighborhood, Bryant turned his sports attention strictly to basketball.
Bryant never played high school soccer, but he credits his playing days in Italy for helping his basketball game.
"I'm comfortable (with basketball) footwork because I played soccer," said Bryant. "From changing up rhythms to foot speed, to being comfortable with having my right foot as my pivot foot and my left foot as my pivot foot."
Bryant entered the NBA straight from high school and has won three titles with the Los Angeles Lakers.
What would have happened if he had stayed in Italy?
"I would have kept playing (soccer) - that's for sure," Bryant said. "I loved basketball so much, but I also wanted to play for AC Milan. That was my team growing up."
Following AC Milan these days has been a challenge for Bryant with his schedule, but he says it's getting easier with the increase in Internet coverage and soccer channels.
Bryant attended the Brazil vs. Japan World Cup match this summer in Germany with his wife. He now hopes to attend an AC Milan match.
"To this day, I've never seen my team, AC Milan, play in person," Bryant said. "My mother never let me go to games in Europe. She'd say, `No, it's too violent. What happens if the fans go crazy and (you get) squished up against the fence?'"
On Saturday, Bryant emceed Nike's pep rally for FC Barcelona in Los Angeles. Bryant was unable to participate in the event's soccer activities because of a recent knee surgery, but he insists he can "still put it in the net."
Bryant and Barcelona star Ronaldinho met for the first time on stage at the event and exchanged phone numbers.
Imagine if Bryant met Ronaldinho under different circumstances this summer. Not on a stage in Hollywood, but on the world's biggest soccer stage in Germany.
"If myself, Tracy McGrady, and LeBron James had a soccer ball at our feet instead of a basketball at 2 years old, with our size, it could have been something," Bryant said. "If we had played soccer all our lives, I think (the U.S. soccer team) would have been pretty potent."