Naomi Osaka on How Kobe Bryant Helped Her When She 'Didn't Even Know He Was Paying Attention'

The tennis pro recalled that Kobe Bryant "would text me positive things and tell me to learn from it"

Naomi Osaka WSJ. Magazine
Photo: MICAIAH CARTER for WSJ. Magazine

Naomi Osaka is reflecting on her late mentor, Kobe Bryant.

Speaking with WSJ. Magazine for the publication's September Women's Style Issue, the 22-year-old tennis champ opened up about bonding with the basketball legend before his untimely death on Jan. 26 in a tragic helicopter crash that also killed his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others.

Osaka — who met Bryant in June 2019 — recalled how he would show support for her, even when she didn't expect him to be following her career closely.

"There would be some really tough losses," Osaka said. "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."

Osaka is one of several athletes featured in a new short film inspired by Bryant titled Better, which is fitting since she remembers an exchange she had with the NBA star in which she said she aspired to be like him and he replied, "No, be better."

Back in February, Osaka shared a throwback clip on Twitter that showed herself volleying a tennis ball back and forth with Bryant. "He wasn't THAT bad at tennis," she jokingly captioned the video at the time. "Haha love you bro."

Naomi Osaka WSJ. Magazine
Naomi Osaka WSJ. Magazine
Naomi Osaka WSJ. Magazine

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After news surfaced of the Jan. 26 helicopter crash that killed Bryant, Osaka posted an emotional letter to her mentor in the sports world. "Hey … I don't really know what to do so I'm writing you this letter," she 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."

"Thank you for caring and checking up on me after my hard losses," Osaka wrote. "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," she continued. "You will forever be my big bro/mentor/inspiration. Love you."

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Also in the WSJ. Magazine interview, Osaka — whose mother is Japanese and father is Black — spoke about racism she's experienced during her athletic career so far. The star made history at the 2018 U.S. Open when she became the first Japanese player to win a Grand Slam title after beating Serena Williams.

"It's a general way people treated me, but also I was representing Japan. So it kind of came from everywhere. ... I might get in trouble for saying this, but eventually I'm going to have to talk about it," she said. "The issues of America don't really translate that well in Japan, so sometimes they do blackface and things like that, and it's a bit ignorant. ... It's not really a hate thing."

Naomi Osaka WSJ. Magazine

"I'm just trying to put a platform out for all the Japanese people that look like me and live in Japan and when they go to a restaurant, they get handed an English menu, even though it's just a little microaggression," she said.

Osaka recalled a tennis match at age 10 when her Japanese opponent referred to her as "that Black girl."

"She was talking with another Japanese girl, and they didn't know that I was listening [or that] I spoke Japanese. Her friend asked her who she was playing, so she said Osaka. And her friend says, 'Oh, that Black girl. Is she supposed to be Japanese?' And then the girl that I was playing was like, 'I don't think so.' "

Added Osaka: "I remember that specifically because, yeah, I sometimes feel like a lot of people think that way about me."

WSJ. Magazine's September Women's Style Issue is on newsstands September 5.

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