Flower Friday #2: Kobe Bryant

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My first memorable experience as a basketball fan came at Kobe Bryant’s expense.

It was Christmas Day in 2006 and I was visiting my cousins in California. As soon as we woke up, they excitedly told me about the Lakers vs. Heat game that was about to start. I wasn’t into basketball yet, but I figured it was my responsibility to represent the East Coast and root for the Heat.

My plan worked out well — the Heat won by 16, powered by Dwyane Wade’s 40 points. After this game, I considered myself a Heat fan. A little too convenient, I know, but I was seven. The Heat went on to win the Finals later that season, which may have been driven by my magical fandom powers, but that’s a different story.

To my kid brain, being a fan of Wade and the Heat meant I had to “hate” Kobe and the Lakers.

Taking my responsibility seriously, I bought into every negative Kobe stereotype: ball hog, volume scorer, system player, selfish, bad teammate, needed Shaq, needed Pau, blah, blah, blah.

That was the stuff I said, but I never really believed any of it. He was Kobe. I “hated” him, but only out of respect. Watching him make heart-breaking game winners against the Heat only increased my respect for him, even if begrudgingly.

That’s how it went on for years. I knew Kobe was Kobe, but I just couldn’t let myself enjoy and celebrate his greatness.

Mamba Out

When it came time for Kobe’s last game in 2016, I knew I had to tune in. You have to watch a legend’s last hurrah.

I didn’t have high expectations coming into the game. The Lakers weren’t great that year, neither were the Jazz, and Kobe was certainly well past his prime. Still, I was rooting for Kobe to finish out his career in legendary fashion.

Of course, because he was Kobe, he went out like nobody else could.

He started out cold, but then things started coming together. Soon enough he had 20. Then 30. Then 40. No way he could get to 50, right?

Toward the end of the game Kobe reached one of the most exciting states in all of sports. Everyone knew he was going to get the ball, everyone knew he was going to shoot it, everyone knew he going to make it, and everyone knew the Lakers were going to win… we just had to watch how he would do it. And of course he did it. 60 points in his last game! I mean, who does that? 99% of players can’t score 60 in their prime, let alone at the end of their career, and Kobe just decides to pull it off in his final game?

If you saw me that night, you would’ve assumed I’d been a die-hard Lakers fan forever. I’m usually not too expressive while watching sports — a few head nods or fist bumps here and there, but nothing too emotional. Kobe had me running around screaming. It felt like I was a little kid who’d discovered basketball for the first time.

After the game, I did some reflecting. It was an iconic performance, but it’s not like he hadn’t done anything like it before. He had been one of the best players in the NBA for my entire life. I could’ve had so many more great moments watching him, but I missed out because of a baseless sports beef. Rivalries are a fun part of sports, sure, but I felt dumb for taking it so far.

When the World Stopped

It was 2020 now, and I was a sophomore in college. I was walking back to my dorm after running some errands on a Sunday. I saw a GroupMe message that read, “Shit Kobe.”

I stopped walking and searched Kobe’s name on Twitter.

There were unconfirmed reports that Kobe was a passenger in a helicopter that had just crashed outside Los Angeles.

There was no way.

I kept refreshing for new details.

More and more outlets were now reporting on the story. I saw a friend of mine, a Lakers fan from California, walking my way. I only managed to raise my phone up and murmur, “Kobe died…”

He tapped around on his phone for a second, just like I had done a minute before. He could only offer a weak “no way.” We just looked at each other, shaking our heads, and silently walked our separate ways.

There were no words for that moment.

I sat in my room reading about it for the next few hours. Every time I refreshed my feed I hoped I’d see a story explaining how the whole thing was a mix-up and Kobe was still here. That story never came.

Every interaction I had with other basketball fans for the next few days was similar:

“I can’t believe it.”

“I know, me neither.”

“He was Kobe…”

Followed by a shrug and silence.

There was nothing more to say.

I had spent most of my life pretending to hate him because of how good he was. Again, I didn’t give him his flowers while he was alive.

Who else was going to tear their achilles, get up, make both free throws, and walk off the court? Who else was gonna put up 60 in their last game? He always seemed invincible. It was inconceivable to imagine such a powerful, resilient individual was gone just like that.

The Legacy of the Mamba Mentality

To me, Kobe’s life is an example of what legacy really is. Legacy is about what you leave behind for others, not what you achieve for yourself.

Kobe won five rings. That’s important, but for me, it’s deeper than that. Other players have won five rings and been arguably as good as Kobe, but they don’t have his legacy.

The difference lies what Kobe left behind for his fans and his haters: his mentality. The Mamba Mentality.

Do The Work

You can’t talk about Kobe without mentioning his work ethic. Anyone who knew him would tell you he wasn’t just a freak athlete, he was a freak competitor.

There are too many stories about his competitive spirit to go through in detail, but these two have stuck with me.

It was a preseason game from 2014. The Lakers were down 31 to the Warriors, but Kobe was still picking up Steph Curry full court. In a preseason game. It might not look that meaningful in isolation, but it’s a clear illustration of the Mamba Mentality lived out to the fullest.

The other is the story of Kobe explaining why he would wake up at 3 in the morning to train during the offseason:

“You wake up at 3, train at 4. 4-6. Come home, eat breakfast, relax. Now you’re back at it again 9-11. Relax … Back at it again, 2-4. Now you’re back at it again, 7-9.By year 5 & 6, it doesn’t matter what kind of work they do in the summer – they’re never gonna catch up.”

I can’t comment on this routine from a health or longevity perspective, but the mindset behind it is what sticks out to me. Kobe was willing to commit his full human capacity to his goal. He had the vision to take action in the present that would bear fruit half a decade later.

After he retired, he applied the same intensity to storytelling, and turned his debut effort into an Oscar. Again, who does that?

Ultimately, he was just really passionate about what he did. That’s cool no matter what you’re into.

You may work as hard as Kobe did, you may not. Either way, he showed us all what’s possible with full commitment.

Have Insane Confidence

Kobe didn’t wait to cultivate these traits in himself. In fact, hints of his future could be seen even in his high school days.

Entering the NBA straight out of high school takes a crazy amount of confidence to begin with. To end up on a historic franchise like the Lakers and proclaim you’re going to become its most storied player takes even more guts.

My ultimate Kobe moment is from before I was born. In the playoffs against the Jazz in 1997, 18-year-old Kobe air-balled four shots in crunch time. Four.

When I played in high school, one airball was my nightmare. At the same age, Kobe did it four times in front of the whole world.

Like I said in my Mac Miller article, most people would find it tough to come back from that level of public failure.

Kobe took those shots because he believed he could make them. When he didn’t, he just worked harder to make sure he did make them the next time. Ultimately, having the confidence to fail gave him the space to become the player he knew he could be.

Mamba Out

Losing Kobe felt like my first “you know exactly where you were when this happened” moment.

At least to me, it really felt like the world stopped.

I’m going to forget some of his accomplishments, and I’ll forget the details of some specific games, but I’ll always remember how I felt while watching him play. His dominance made me feel like a little kid who is just starting to love sports.

Even if it’s the one second rush of saying “Kobe” when I shoot something into a trash can, that’s still how he makes me feel.

Equally importantly, Kobe left behind a blueprint for accomplishing one’s goals in life. That’s just the first step though. Following that blueprint is the real challenge.

I remember watching a Kobe interview a few years ago and thinking he wasn’t telling us his full recipe for greatness. Yeah sure, work hard, sacrifice, love the game, and so on. I’ve heard all that before, but what’s the secret?

It’s only recently that I’ve realized that is the secret. It’s not complicated, but it’s extremely difficult.

Most of us think we work hard, sacrifice, and love what we do, but do we really? Are we sacrificing important things like time spent with friends in the pursuit our dream? I don’t know about you, but I could push harder than I am right now.

That’s the beauty of Kobe’s legacy. If you want to honor Kobe, work harder than you ever have. It’s what he would’ve wanted.

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