Moments after Novak Djokovic won the U.S. Open final on Sunday night, he pulled a T-shirt out his bag and put it on.
The shirt said “Mamba Forever” and had an image of Djokovic together with Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers star who died in a helicopter crash in 2020 with one of his daughters and seven others.
Across the back, the shirt also had a No. 24, which Bryant used for 10 seasons with the Lakers (he also used No. 8 for 10 seasons).
Djokovic said in an interview on the court during the trophy ceremony that the idea for the tribute came as he realized his 24th Grand Slam title was within reach, giving him a chance to connect with a meaningful number from Bryant’s career.
“I thought 24 is the jersey that he wore when he became a legend of Lakers and world basketball,” Djokovic said. “So I thought it would be a nice symbolic thing to acknowledge him.”
Djokovic added that he had a close relationship with Bryant and often sought the basketball star’s advice, especially as he tried to recover from injuries.
Many athletes have praised Bryant over the years for his relentless drive, nicknamed the Mamba Mentality, which he showed repeatedly as he pursued N.B.A. championships (he won five) and tried to show himself to be the best player on the court.
“We chatted a lot about the winner’s mentality,” Djokovic said. “He was one of the people that I relied on the most. He was always there for any kind of counsel, advice, any kind of support in a most friendly way.”
Djokovic’s shirt is not the first ode to Bryant from a U.S. Open winner. When Naomi Osaka won the tournament in 2020, defeating Victoria Azarenka, she returned to the court after her match to pose for a picture with her trophy wearing a No. 8 Bryant jersey.
“I wore this jersey every day after my matches,” Osaka said on Instagram. “I truly think it gave me strength. Always.”