I Wasn't A Kobe Fan - Until I Went Pro
Kobe “Bean” Bryant.
Over the last few days I’ve gone through various waves of emotion as I grieve the loss of one of the greatest athletes and persons to ever walk this earth. It’s still difficult to come to terms with the fact that he’s actually gone. I’ll watch some of his legendary highlight reels on YouTube or re-read parts of his ‘The Mamba Mentality’ book that sits on my coffee table; I actually start to feel better, feel some sort of comfort and then…boom, like a perpetual nightmare I can’t wake up from, it hits me. Kobe Bryant is really gone.
I found out around 2:30 p.m. I was at brunch with my wife and some friends, supposedly eating and engaging in conversation, but actually scrolling through my Instagram timeline. I came across one of those homemade RIP graphics with a blurry picture of Kobe and a crying emoji. In a world full of fake news I laughed and commented on the pic, “Why did you even post this crap?” Just to be sure, I quickly pulled up Google to fact-check so I had some gossip to chat about with my boys. But then, wait…this was real.
It felt like my heart immediately sank into my stomach.
I kept scrolling. First TMZ, then ABC, then Fox and eventually every news publication in America was synonymous. “Kobe Bryant, 41, killed in a helicopter crash.” In that moment everything felt dark, downcast, and dreary. My timeline quickly filled up with false narratives and guesses about who was on the aircraft with Kobe. Everything felt like it was happening too fast and with each passing minute I felt worse and worse. I headed home and started calling some friends to check-in.
Ring. Ring. Ring. Voicemail.
I tried another friend, a devoted follower of Kobe. Same outcome. At this point I just needed to talk to someone. I wasn’t sure if I was calling to check on them or for my own need to be consoled.
The news kept getting worse. After multiple falsely cited sources, an official confirmation was released that Kobe’s daughter, GiGi, was also on the flight. By this time I didn’t know what to say or think. I only felt heartbreak. I didn’t want to talk. All I could do was lie in my bed looking at the ceiling wondering, why?
I felt this immeasurable void in my heart and to be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure why. I didn’t know Kobe, never had the chance to meet him and he wasn’t even my favorite player. Still, I felt like I’d just lost a family member; two of them.
This is where a week’s worth of introspection and reflection began. As a basketball player, Kobe was just one of those athletes you either loved or you didn’t. But you had to choose. He was the second coming of Michael Jordan; one of the greats.
As a kid born in the ‘90s but not really understanding the game until the 2000s, I never had the chance to admire Air Jordan in action, so Kobe was the default. I remember him scoring 81. I mean 81 points. It didn’t make sense to me. How could someone score that many points in one game, that efficiently, and get the W? It’s still a spectacle today. Throughout middle school you could find me strolling up to the front of the class to shoot a fadeaway paper ball in the trash in front of my crush, yelling “Kobe.” Talk about influence.
Unfortunately, that influence faltered when I began to religiously follow the next great player to enter the NBA, LeBron James. Kobe became a name I used only in debate about who the G.O.A.T. was, usually in favor of LeBron. I didn’t care about what Kobe was doing. And then came the summer of 2015 and my first stint playing pro basketball overseas.
Mamba mentality really wasn’t a phrase I used but I’d heard it often amongst my teammates in college and on the courts playing rec. Right before I left for Europe, a family member gave me a pair of Kobe elites to play in. I liked them mostly because they matched my jersey, as I was an avid retro Jordan wearer. On the 16-hour flight to Lauf, Germany, Kobe’s documentary, “Muse” was offered as one of the featured movies. I figured, why not? I’ve got nothing but time.
As I look back now, that film actually changed my life. If you've never seen it, the documentary follows Kobe’s life from an immature but talented 18-year old rookie for the Los Angeles Lakers, to his last few injury-riddled seasons.
Kobe was an ANIMAL.
I’d never seen any athlete with his drive and determination to be and do better every single day. Each segment of the doc had me hooked. The way he loved his wife and children, the way he approached life and new opportunities, the way he conditioned his body, the way he trained his mind; I wanted to emulate exactly what I saw. One particular thing that really stood out was how much time he dedicated to his craft. Kobe was the first one in the gym, like, hours before everyone else, and was the very last one to leave; every single practice. His drive inspired my drive. Kobe had changed the way I viewed basketball.
Then the farewell tour happened.
I’ll keep it a stack with you, even with my newfound mentality I still did not expect much from Kobe in his final season. He’d just come back from a torn Achilles injury and had a torn rotator cuff. Kobe was getting older and it showed. Not sure why I doubted him, but I did. And at first he was proving me right. He had some pretty mediocre games throughout that season. I thought he was going out gracefully. I couldn’t have been more wrong. In front of the entire world, on April 13, 2016, in what would be the final game of his career, Kobe Bryant dropped 60 points. Did I mention he single-handedly willed his porous team to a victory that eliminated the Utah Jazz from playoff contention? I shouldn’t have been surprised; this was who Kobe was. Chief competitor. The Black Mamba. Another inspiring performance that inspired me and millions more athletes. If you ask me, it was potentially the performance of the decade.
I sit here today struggling with the fact that I have to use past tense when talking about Kobe. But I find comfort in understanding why I felt like he was family. Kobe made even the most unqualified feel valuable. He didn’t even have to speak; he lived a life of action. Action that everyone could look up to and say, “I can do it too.” I’m not saying Kobe was perfect; but who is? He led a life of redemption after being unfaithful in his marriage (an incident for which he almost went to jail but which he settled out of court) to becoming a fine example of a devout husband and father. He showed us all how to work hard and when that became difficult, to keep working harder. Kobe was the athlete we all needed and that’s why he was brother, uncle, cousin and friend to many of us.
It’s hard to comprehend death, especially when it's unexpected. Although it may still hurt and the physical void will continue to remind us of his premature passing, if Kobe accomplished all he did and inspired the world at only age 41, imagine what we can do with the time we have left on earth.
Live life with a Mamba Mentality.
Thank you, Kobe, for the passion, the lessons and the love for the game you gave us for 41 years. You left a legacy that will live on forever.