Naomi Osaka Grieves Kobe Bryant's Death in Netflix Doc, Wonders How 'to Carry on His Mentality in Tennis'
Naomi Osaka is opening up about her close bond with her late friend and mentor Kobe Bryant.
In the second episode of her Netflix documentary Naomi Osaka, which documents her life for two years after her 2018 U.S. Open victory over Serena Williams, the tennis star shares a candid moment during her grieving process following the news of the NBA icon's death.
In a selfie video recorded on Jan. 27, 2020, one day after the Los Angeles Lakers legend's death in a helicopter crash alongside his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others, Osaka tearfully talks about her admiration of Bryant's famous Mamba mentality and influence.
"It's so amazing how one person can, like, touch the hearts of so many people. I've been walking around and there's so many people with Bryant jerseys on," Osaka, 23, says in her self-shot footage after showing that she changed her lock screen background to a black-and-white portrait of herself and Bryant, whom she met in June 2019.
"When I talked to him, I felt so similar to him. Like the way he was talking, the way he would describe how, I don't know, he would do things to get under his opponents' skin or whatever. I was like, 'That's literally what I do.' So I'm feeling like I let him down, like, I'm supposed to carry on his mentality in tennis and here I am like, having what ... I haven't won a Grand Slam. Like, I'm losing matches because I'm mentally weak, and he's ... that's so uncharacteristic of him," says Osaka, who just three days before on Jan. 24, 2020 had lost to American phenom Coco Gauff in the third round of the Australian Open and was unable to defend her 2019 title.
"We're having all these talks and I'm not even doing what we're talking about. So it's like I'm just gonna text him again, like, 'How do you heal with this situation?' And then I didn't text him that 'cause I didn't wanna feel like a loser, and now I'll never have the chance to talk to him again. I don't know, like wow," she says.
Osaka's coach Wim Fissette also speaks about the athlete's reaction to Bryant's death, specifically how the loss impacted her performance at the 2020 Fed Cup qualifier against Sara Sorribes Tormo on Feb. 7, 2020. "The death of Kobe was a real thing that upset her. They were close," he shares of Osaka, who broke down in tears after losing to Tormo.
Fissette adds, "It's really so tough because as a coach, you wanna go to her, speak to her, ask her, tell her things just to help her because she was like ... Yeah it was very sad. Very sad to see her."
Want to get the biggest stories from PEOPLE every weekday? Subscribe to our new podcast, PEOPLE Every Day, to get the essential celebrity, entertainment and human interest news stories Monday through Friday.
Osaka previously shared an emotional letter to Bryant following his death. "Hey … I don't really know what to do so I'm writing you this letter. 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," she wrote. "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—-d 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. You will forever be my big bro/mentor/inspiration. Love you."
Then in September 2020, when she won her second U.S. Open title, celebrated her victory while wearing Bryant's Black Mamba Lakers jersey. "I wore this jersey every day after my matches. I truly think it gave me strength. Always 💛💜," she shared on social media.
At the time, Osaka told reporters it meant a lot to know that Bryant believed in her. "I just want to be the type of person that he thought I was going to be. He thought I was going to be great, so hopefully, I will be great in the future," she said.
That tournament was also the platform during which Osaka made headlines for her activism by wearing face masks with the names of victims of police brutality and racial injustice to her matches, including Tamir Rice, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, George Floyd and Philando Castile.
In February, after her Australian Open semifinals victory over Williams, Osaka paid tribute to Bryant when she wore a Lakers jacket while speaking to reporters. "For today, I felt like I needed some extra strength. That's kind of why I'm wearing this," she said. Osaka would go on to win the 2021 Australian Open, earning her fourth Grand Slam title.
Naomi Osaka premieres July 16 on Netflix.