Five-seconds left on the clock. I jab step out of a triple-threat stance. Time is running down – Three, two, one… I pull up from the makeshift elbow I’ve created out of the corner of my bed and scream “Kobe!” as the buzzer in my head sounds and my miniature foam Nerf basketball bounces off the back of the plastic rim attached to my bedroom door. I must have practiced that shot fifty times before being told to stop jumping around and making noise by my parents. Not content with the sound of the swish my miniature hoop provided, my ten-year-old self would convert the end of game scenario from a pull-up jumper to a game winning free-throw. I may have been silenced, but the game must go on.
Whether you grew up playing basketball or not, the power of pop-culture permeates the blockades of childhood awareness. I didn’t sit in front of a TV watching every televised basketball game my team played; and I didn’t yet understand what scoring 81 points in a single game meant. But I did know that there was a star that transcended the game of basketball – and his name was Kobe Bryant. I mean, how could you not know who this man was? In elementary school every kid who shot a balled-up piece of paper into the trash can yelled his name.
Growing up in California during the mid 2000’s there was only one team that mattered. Love them or hate them, the Los Angeles Lakers dominated sports fandom among the masses. Contrary to popular demand, I was raised as a Sacramento Kings fan. When I played youth-league basketball I thought I was Mike Bibby on the court with my black headband and all black Jordan sneakers. Now, if there is one team that has been scorned in the hearts of Kings’ fans during the last two-decades, it’s the Lakers. And if you were a kid who was not yet privy to the intricacies of basketball, it was Kobe.
As the years progressed, I developed a basketball IQ of my own. I adopted the Chicago Bulls as my new team around 2008 when Derrick Rose was drafted #1 overall. But as much as I tried to focus on the new generation of hoopers, there was still an alpha-dog proving that the NBA’s attention belonged on him. From the 07-08 NBA season to the 11-12 season, Kobe Bryant led the Lakers to three NBA Finals appearances – winning two of them – and was never eliminated from the playoffs before the Western Conference Semifinals. Along with bagging the 2008 Most Valuable Player award, Bryant was crowned Finals MVP in both the 08-09 and 09-10 seasons as well. I was staring greatness in the face and didn’t even know it.
By the time I was a senior in high school, the public perception of Kobe had shifted. Years prior, Kobe was associated with scoring; he was known as a ball-hog who would rather take a contested game-winning shot than pass to an open teammate. Come 2014, Kobe had rebranded his image. He was already known as the Black Mamba – the deadliest snake in Africa. However, he began referring to himself as “Vino,” a nickname that would aid him in the transition period of becoming an NBA elder statesman. He wanted to age like fine wine, and in the process he publicly allowed insight into his thoughts of the game and life itself.
It was at this point in my life that Kobe remains the most memorable. It was his instillment of Mamba Mentality that I will cherish him forever for. He taught all of us what determination and an endless grind will bring you on the court and off. The most important aspect of his principles remain in everyday life. When reflecting on what his mentality consisted of he was quoted saying, “To be on a constant quest to try to be the best version of yourself. That’s what the [Mamba] mentality is. It’s not a finite thing. It’s a constant quest to try to be better today that you were yesterday and better tomorrow than you were the day before.” He transformed from a persona of showboating and in-your-face aggression to a master of discipline and restraint.
In the introduction of Kobe Bryant’s book The Mamba Mentality: How I Play, the legendary coach Phil Jackson looks back on the last ten-years of Kobe’s career. “My staff would meet at 8:30 AM at our facility before a practice or game to prepare for the coming day. More often than not, by the time I pulled in, Kobe would already be parked in the car next to my designated spot, taking a nap. He would be in the gym well before that, maybe by 6 AM to get his pre-practice workout done before anyone else showed up. That was the trademark of the final 10 years of his career. Kobe led by example for his teammates. They couldn’t keep up – but they were always challenged by the example he set.” That’s what inspires me so much about the latter half of his career. He embraced challenge, he embraced the grind. And once I realized that the grind never ends, I knew it was time to get to work.
I have never really understood the concept of public mourning over a celebrity. I’ve always thought to myself that celebrities are human, just like everybody else. Then came the morning of January 26th. I was scrolling through Twitter, checking the updates of the sports world as usual. The internet is filled with satire, trolling, and pure nonsense that is all in the name of likes and attention. So when I saw rumblings of Kobe’s death, I knew it had to be a joke. Being a fan of dark comedy myself, it wasn’t too shocking that someone would make a sick joke like that. But as I continued to scroll down my timeline, I read this tweet by ESPN’s most trusted insider, Adrian Wojnarowski. My heart dropped.
This was truly my first experience of melancholy that an athlete/celebrity was no longer around to instill his wisdom to the public. Now it was real. Now, everything Kobe had said and the lessons he had provided needed to be absorbed to the upmost. Which brings me to this point. Writing this column has helped me turn the page on the death of a legend, an icon. His body is no longer with us, but Mamba Mentality is forever.
If you grew up with a story remotely similar to mine, you have a little bit of Kobe in you too. Keep your foot on the gas in all pursuits of life. Be better today than you were yesterday, and better tomorrow than the day prior. And don’t forget the kid inside of you, still yelling “Kobe!” when you shoot a crumpled up piece of paper into the trashcan.
Thank you, Kobe – for everything.