Novak Djokovic won his 24th Grand Slam on Sunday, and used the moment to honor someone else who had a connection to the number 24: Kobe Bryant, who wore the No. 24 jersey while playing for the Lakers.
After beating Daniil Medvedev in the U.S Open final, Djokovic put on a shirt with a photo of Bryant and himself that read “Mamba Forever.” While accepting his trophy and prize money, the tennis great explained the T-shirt’s significance.
Djokovic said Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash in 2020 alongside his daughter and seven others, was a good friend. “We chatted a lot about the winner’s mentality,” he said in the post-match interview on the winner’s podium. “When I was struggling with the injury and trying to make my comeback – work my way back to the top of the game – he was one of the people that I relied on the most.”
Djokovic, 36, said Bryant was always there to give advice and support. “So, of course what happened a few years ago and him and his daughter passing, hurt me deeply.”
Djokovic, who holds the record for most Grand Slams in professional tennis, won the Australian Open just days after Bryant died at age 41.
After winning, Djokovic wore a zip-up sweatshirt that had Bryant’s initials and both the numbers 24 and 8, the number Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna “Gigi” Bryant, wore on her basketball jersey. He teared up while speaking about Bryant after the final match. “He was there for me, he was my mentor, my friend,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking to see what happened to him and his daughter.”
The Bryants were traveling to a basketball tournament with some of Gigi’s teammates and coaches when the helicopter crashed into the hills of Calabasas, California. Bryant is survived by his wife, Vanessa and their three other daughters, Natalia, Bianka and Capri.
After a 20-year career in the NBA, during which he won five NBA championships, Bryant retired and focused on his Mamba Sports Academy, which helps train young athletes and comes from Bryant’s nickname “Black Mamba.”
Djokovic has won 10 Australian Opens, three French Opens, four U.S. Opens and seven Wimbledon tournaments. After his U.S. Open win on Sunday, his family also donned sweatshirts with the number 24 on them.