CW: Sexual Assault
A transcendent icon
81 points in a single game; the most in the modern era. 60 points in his farewell game at the age of 37. 5-time NBA champion. 2008 NBA Most Valuable Player.
These achievements are enough to disarm even the fiercest Kobe critic, but it is not the accolades that make him truly great. It is something much more intangible; it is something that can be felt every single time he steps onto the basketball court. It can be explained in two words: Mamba Mentality.
Lamar Odom, Kobe Bryant’s former teammate, alluded to Kobe’s invincibility in his Instagram tribute – “I just knew if he was in a helicopter crash he would have been the one to survive. Somehow he would have jumped out and landed on his feet” – pointing out how Kobe always, always found a way. It is not what he achieved that is so impressive; it is how he achieved it. Whereas other NBA superstars score 50+ because they want to, it felt like Kobe did it because he had to. His relentless desire to reach the pinnacle of his sport, and beyond, meant that passing the ball was not an option. He had to shoot an impossible fadeaway over three defenders, and he had to make the shot.
Some criticise him for being strong-willed to the point of selfishness. Others point to how he gets into conflicts with even his own teammates because he is so demanding. While these would be considered faults in any other player, Kobe somehow turns them into his greatest strengths. He thrives because of his selfishness, not despite it. He demands the best from everyone around him because he has no other choice: failure is not an option.
While the oft-quoted truism “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” serves as inspiration to many, Kobe takes it a step further. He holds the NBA record for most regular season missed shots and wears it as a badge of honour. The sheer physical endurance, and mental will, required to shoot 50 shots in 42 minutes, as he did in his last NBA game, is something 99% of the league will never possess.
He is not a 6’1”, 147kg giant like Shaquille O’Neal. He does not possess the athletic ability, both in terms of strength and speed, of a LeBron James. In fact, despite having a father who also played in the NBA, Kobe does not have hereditary shooting pedigree of Steph Curry. Therefore, what truly makes him great is his mentality – one that is almost unparalleled in the history of sport.
His 4am workouts have now become basketball folklore, perfectly epitomising his unrelenting attitude. If an average professional is someone who works hard in training, then a basketball great is someone who puts extra hours in when others are resting. However, Kobe has transcended even this definition of greatness: he admitted, in 2018 (two years after his retirement), that he still rose at 4am to work out. How many great, never mind average, athletes would do that when there is seemingly no goal to work towards?
Kobe’s choice of the number 24 jersey, which he wore for the latter part of his career, can be considered a metaphor for his motivation. The player he is most like is none other than Michael Jordan, possibly the GOAT (greatest of all time) of basketball, who famously wore number 23. It is clear, both on and off the court, that Kobe looks up to Jordan and wishes to emulate his success. Kobe’s 60-point swansong is analogous to Jordan’s ‘flu game’, an NBA Finals game in which Jordan posted impressive numbers despite badly suffering from illness. Kobe, in response, massively outscored every other player (no-one else on the court even reached 20 points), even though most of them were in peak physical fitness in their 20s.
Although his impact on the world has clearly transcended basketball – it is common for people who know nothing about basketball to shout ‘Kobe’ as they toss something into the bin – the saddest part of this tragedy is that he will never be able to achieve Michael Jordan’s post-retirement success. Kobe was working closely with his daughter Gianna, who also tragically passed in the helicopter crash, to raise the profile of women’s basketball. Just like a young Kobe, she was considered a precocious talent in basketball circles and would undoubtedly have benefitted from his guidance.
Ultimately, his story is one that has been tragically shortened and thus he will not be able to achieve his true off-court potential. However, he, like his idol Jordan, has massively transcended the world of sport and that is perhaps the greatest compliment one can give to Kobe Bryant. RIP.
A complex legacy
In a world where public figures are so often boiled down to polarising characterisations of good or bad, inspirational or toxic, charismatic or despicable, it seems impossible to adequately pay tribute to a man like Kobe Bryant. At some point or another in his life, Kobe embodied every one of these characteristics on or off court.
Bryant was undeniably one of the biggest stars of his generation. His 20-year career spent at the Los Angeles Lakers yielded 5 NBA Championships, 2 Olympic gold medals and worldwide renown from obsessive die-hard fans to casual would-be basketballers, shouting his name as they threw balls of paper into the bin in their kitchen. But no matter if you were a fellow elite sportsman or a 5-foot-7-ish white kid from Ireland with little to no sporting talent such as myself, Kobe also crucially came to represent something else entirely: a universal mentality. Unwaveringly competitive, inexhaustibly hard-working, it was Kobe’s work ethic and competitiveness which undoubtedly drove him to greatness and ignited a similar set of principles within those who admired him. ‘Mamba Mentality’, a mantra which would become the title of Bryant’s 2018 autobiography, represented a single-minded focus and commitment to achieving your goals. For Kobe, this meant practicing in empty gyms at 4 a.m. before training. This meant commanding his teammates to put the ball in his hands every possession, putting up unprecedented numbers of shot attempts per game, even playing through injuries to ensure success; when Bryant tore his Achilles in April 2013, he refused to leave the court until he’d shot the free throws earned from the foul which caused the injury. He converted both, earning the Lakers two points before leaving the court. He wouldn’t return from the Achilles injury until that December. The Lakers ended up winning the game – by two points.
However, this single-mindedness also drew the ire of many. As a team-mate, Kobe could be – and regularly was – brutal. During practice sessions, Kobe would regularly become frustrated and vulgar towards his team-mates. During timeouts, Kobe did not make ‘suggestions’, nor did he listen to his coaches. He told his team-mates to “get the f**k out of his way” (as he said mid-game in 2014) and proceeded to dominate the ball. His excellence and star power were clear for all to see; but all the same, right from his unprecedented decision to join the NBA aged 17 straight out of high school, Bryant’s brazen self-confidence was unparalleled.
However, as much as discussions of sporting excellence have dominated the discourse of Kobe in the days following his untimely death, it is perhaps his personal life that is the most complicated thing to reflect on of all. It would be remiss not to mention the case in 2003 which, notably, did not derail Kobe’s career. While married and with a daughter, Kobe was accused of rape by a 19-year-old woman. The accuser’s medical examination revealed lacerations “too many to count” around her genitals. “I recognise now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way as I did”, stated Bryant following charges being dropped against him by the accuser, who had in turn been accused of promiscuity, gold-digging and mental instability during the trial.
Bryant later established a charitable foundation alongside his wife Vanessa in 2010 and, 13 months ago, Kobe launched the Mamba Sports Academy. It was while travelling to a game in heavy fog for the Academy’s girls basketball team that a helicopter containing Kobe, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and six family friends crashed into the side of a mountain, killing all passengers and the pilot.
It would be no exaggeration to say that I loved Kobe. My early teenage years were mostly spent watching old Finals games from the Lakers’ championship three-peat between 2000-2002 and simulating them on my Xbox, and my later ones were mostly spent refusing to go out, locking my door and Mamba-ing out yet another essay so that I could make it to, and survive at, Oxford. Certainly, Kobe’s work ethic and his gleeful undertaking of the role as a family man, as shown in the endless stream of now-viral videos of his interactions with his daughters, were genuinely inspirational. But I, nor anyone else, should refuse to ignore the difficulty in summarising Kobe Bryant’s legacy. His one-track mind led to clashes with the people he worked with throughout his career and, amidst the seemingly infinite outpourings of love and admiration, the spectre of his sexual assault case still looms large. In the wake of a death which has stunned the world, perhaps the most fitting way of remembering Kobe is as a man who was unashamedly and unreservedly himself.