Kobe Bryant

 

Kobe Bryant [Photo: L.D. Cross via Wiki Commons]

 

 

This is the sports story no journalist wants to write. Nobody wants to write about how their hero, a man who overcame any obstacle put in front of him and radiated an aura of invincibility in a sport where players are treated as almost religious icons is somehow…dead.

 

Kobe Bryant was drafted to the NBA as a cocky 17-year-old, and while his arrogance rubbed some people the wrong way, he didn’t care. He knew he had the hunger and passion to outwork anyone and turn his dreams to reality, there was no chance of failure in his mind.

 

It didn’t take long for people to admire Bryant for his dedication to his craft, even leaving his peers in awe like former Chicago Bulls guard Jay Williams, who encountered Bryant’s legendary work ethic first-hand.

 

“I worked out for a good hour, hour and a half,” Williams said in 2017, on the television series Impact Theory. “When I came off after I was done, I sat down, and of course I still heard the ball bouncing. I look down, I’m like, ‘this guy’s still working out? It looked like he was in a dead sweat when I got here, and he’s still going!’ I sat out there and watched another 25 minutes and he got done. That game he drops 40 on us. After the game is over, I’m like, ‘I have to ask this guy. I have to understand why he works like that.’ After the game I’m like, ‘Hey Kobe, why were you in the gym for so long?’ He was like, ‘because I saw you come in and I wanted you to know that it doesn’t matter how hard you work, that I’m willing to work harder than you.’”

 

Stories like these inspire exceptional athletes and everyday people to push themselves beyond standard expectations – to work to separate themselves from the pack, not to do just what’s required. Those who do more, get more, achieve more. This is where ‘overnight success’ comes from.

 

“If your job is to be the best basketball player you can be, you want to train as much as you can, as often as you can,” Bryant said during a 2016 TED talk. “Imagine you wake up at 3am, you train from 4am to 6am, come home, relax. Now you’re back at it again, 9am to 11am, relax. Now you’re back at it again, 2pm to 4pm. And now you’re back at it again, 7pm to 9pm. Look how much more training I have done by simply starting at 4am, right? As the years go on, the separation that you have with your competitors and your peers just grows larger and larger. [Five or six years later], it doesn’t matter what kind of work [your competitors] do in the Summer, they’re never going to catch up because they’re five years behind. If I start earlier, I can train more hours, and I know the other guys aren’t doing it because I know what their training schedule is. I know if I do this consistently over time, the gap is just going to widen and widen, and they won’t be able to get that back. To me it was just common sense, thinking ‘how can I get an advantage?’ Start earlier. Yeah, let’s do that.’”

 

You can’t help but question your level of commitment to your field of work and your passion after hearing how hellbent Bryant was to better himself every day. Those who revered him knew they could never match his work rate, but he motivated them to try.

 

There were many aspects in Bryant’s approach to the game that fans idolised him for, one being his fearlessness, both on-court and off-court.

 

As a teenager, Bryant was playing alongside the most dominant big man in the league, superstar Shaquille O’Neal. Despite O’Neal tormenting rival teams on a nightly basis, Bryant wasn’t satisfied with the star’s attitude and his level of fitness. He would refuse to pass O’Neal the ball on occasions, telling him to get in shape and earn it.

 

This was a teenage kid telling arguably the best player in the world that he’s lazy. That he knows what’s best. How’s the audacity?

 

Their distaste for one another grew and snowballed into a fistfight during a practice game. A 19-year-old Bryant fearlessly threw punches at the 216-centimetre, 155-kilogram behemoth. Recalling the fight in an NBA TV interview in 2018, O’Neal remembers thinking, “this mother****** is crazy”, while Bryant remembers thinking, “[O’Neal] wants this thing (an NBA championship). It affects him, it consumes him.” Most people live in the moment, whereas Bryant would always be looking at the bigger picture.

 

Typical of Bryant, he described his approach to conflict through an analogy.

 

“A guy has something in his teeth, and other guys just talk to him and let him be. They’re not going to tell him. I’m going to be the guy to tell you you’ve got something between your teeth. Then it’s on you whether you want to walk around looking stupid. But I am going to tell you.”

 

Bryant was documented as a ‘bad teammate’ or a ‘difficult guy to play with’ throughout his career. He didn’t shy away from the noise like some would, or act like people who said that were idiots. He just thought differently about the game to most and recognised there is no textbook formula to achieving greatness, there are a multitude of pathways.

 

He addressed his critiques on Facebook, posting a status detailing his views on leadership. He wrote, “the ability to elevate those around you is more than simply sharing the ball or making teammates feel a certain level of comfort. It’s pushing them to find their inner beast, even if they end up resenting you for it at the time. I’d rather be perceived as a winner than a good teammate…I have nothing in common with lazy people who blame others for their lack of success.”

 

Bryant felt so strongly towards this that he even trademarked his own phrase – “friends hang sometimes, (championship) banners hang forever.”

 

Some people didn’t agree with his views on leadership, believing mateship and camaraderie are essential in building a successful team, but that’s what made others respect for Bryant grow, because he didn’t care what people thought. Despite being vilified as a loner and an asshole, he figuratively shrugged his shoulders by sticking with his own beliefs. His self-belief and self-confidence were infatuating.

 

“The confidence comes from preparation,” Bryant said during a 2016 TED talk. “When the game’s on the line, I’m not asking myself to do something that I haven’t done thousands of times before. When I prepare, I know what I’m capable of doing, I know what I’m comfortable doing, and I know what I’m not comfortable doing. In those [late game] moments, if it looks like I’m ice cold or not nervous it’s because I’ve done it thousands of times before, so what’s one more time?”

 

Bryant’s confident mindset was again highlighted in a Sports Illustrated feature in 2014, describing how he handles poor shooting nights.

 

“I would [shoot] 0-30 (0 shots made from 30 attempts) before I would [shoot] 0-9. 0-9 means you beat yourself, you psyched yourself out of the game…the only reason [you’d stop shooting] is because you’ve lost confidence in yourself.”

 

Bryant was asked during a Genius Talks interview in 2015, “how did you become one of those people who doesn’t seem to be afraid of failing?” He laughed in response, almost confused by the question, then said, “what the hell does that mean? Seriously, what does failure mean? It doesn’t exist, it’s a figment of your imagination. If you fail on Monday, the only way it’s a failure on Monday is if you decide to not progress from that. That’s why failure’s not existent, because if I fail today, I’m going to learn something from that failure, and I’ll try again on Tuesday. If I fail again, I’ll try again on Wednesday. [A fear of failing] doesn’t exist.”

 

His mental toughness was astounding, leaving fans in awe as people would pick his brain to learn how to be wired like that. He didn’t arrogantly talk the talk; he was always very measured and thoughtful when explaining his thought processes. He loved to educate, as well as inspire.

 

Bryant’s revered mentality exceeded pushing through fear, but pushing through physical pain, too.

 

During a tight game against the Golden State Warriors, Bryant, at 34 years of age, was fouled on his way to the basket, tearing his Achilles tendon in the process. Holding his composure, he made his way to the free-throw line and knocked down two crucial shots before hobbling off the court with one of the worst injuries in sport. It became an iconic moment of Bryant’s career.

 

Bryant was asked in an interview in 2019, “how the hell do you tolerate that kind of pain?” His response was classic Bryant, saying, “this is the best way to explain it – let’s say you have a hamstring injury and you can barely walk; you can’t do anything. You’re at home and all of a sudden, a fire breaks out, your kids are upstairs, your wife is wherever she may be, shits going down. I’m willing to bet that you’re going to forget about your hamstring, you’re going to sprint upstairs, you’re going to grab your kids, make sure your wife’s good and you’re getting out of that house. The lives of your family are more important than the injury of your hamstring. So, when the game is more important than the injury itself, you don’t feel that damn injury.”

 

Bryant maintained that mindset throughout his 20-year career, even to his final game as a 37-year-old, carrying a body of minor injuries and signing off with a remarkable 60-point outburst for the Los Angeles faithful one last time.

 

The life of Kobe Bryant wasn’t all spotlights, smiles and success, however, as he famously faced a sexual assault charge in 2003, almost destroying his budding career and his life.

 

Bryant managed to continue playing basketball, flying back to face the charges in Colorado in between games. Although the case was eventually dropped, facing immense scrutiny, shame and fear for your freedom as a 25-year-old celebrity sounds unbearable. The pressures of performing on-court during the episode seems unfathomable.

 

“I went from a person that was at the top of his game, had everything coming, to a year later having absolutely no idea where life is going, or if you’re going to even be able to be a part of life as we all know it,” Bryant said during his 2015 documentary ‘Muse’.

 

Bryant’s name was tarnished. Stadiums were awash with hostility as fans brought signs, booed and vilified him on a nightly basis around the nation. It didn’t matter which city he was in; he was the villain.

 

“This place that was my refuge is now being bombarded with all kinds of things that they (the fans) would say. I had to separate myself, because going through that time it felt like there were so many things coming at once, it was very, very confusing. I had to organise things, so I created The Black Mamba.”

 

The Black Mamba – a fast, venomous, aggressive snake – was Bryant’s alter-ego.

 

“Kobe has to deal with all the personal challenges,” Bryant said. “The Black Mamba steps on the court and does what he does.”

 

To not only cope with his life falling apart and facing a potential life sentence behind bars, but to constructively create another character within himself to focus purely on basketball, and to continue to dominate at the highest level is astonishing. Is there another sportsman alive who would even consider something like that, let alone pull it off?

 

“The name [Kobe Bryant] just evokes such a negative emotion,” Bryant told the New Yorker magazine in 2014. “‘If I create this alter-ego, so now when I play this is what’s coming out of your mouth, it separates the personal stuff, right? You’re not watching David Banner – you’re watching the Hulk.”

 

Bryant was recognised as The Black Mamba for the rest of his days. An alter-ego that enabled him to cope and overcome an intense, life-changing battle inspired fans. No matter how bleak a situation, The Black Mamba showed us you can find a way to get through it.

 

Being possibly the most obsessive sportsman ever, most people thought Bryant would wither away in retirement. He was frequently questioned, “how will you cope with life after basketball?” Surprisingly, he was not only accepting that the only life he knew was nearing the end, but he even voiced excitement about it. It was a fresh new challenge for him to wrap his head around, and he embraced it. Sixty percent of NBA players reportedly go broke within five years of departing the league – Bryant was determined to not only keep his head above water, but to thrive after basketball.

 

Bryant founded a media company, Granity Studios, which had been involved in producing sports-themed TV, film, podcast and book projects. He also co-founded a venture capital firm that today has more than $2 billion in assets. It’s safe to say Bryant’s inquisitive nature and pursuit for success wasn’t restricted to the hardwood.

 

“We have to constantly learn, that’s why [my] mantra is ‘value growth’,” Bryant said on the Consumer News and Business Channel in 2016. “To grow you must constantly learn, constantly move, constantly improve – that’s the key. That’s what makes life fun.”

 

Seeing Bryant’s hunger and success continue outside of basketball was not only impressive, it was reassuring to fans that this basketballer they’ve looked up to for motivation and inspiration in life was the real deal. He wasn’t just a basketballer, there was something about him that separated him from the rest. He was special.

 

He captivated us all when he won an Oscar in 2018 – just two years removed from the NBA – for the animated short film Dear Basketball, which was based on a poem he wrote. Seemingly any area of his life he focused on, he dominated.

 

“As basketball players the expectation is that you play,” Bryant told USA Today in 2018. “This is all you know. Don’t think about handling finances. Don’t think about going into business. Don’t think you want to be a writer. ‘That’s cute.’ I got that a lot.”

 

Bryant was one of the greatest basketball players to ever live, then achieved great success in business and writing immediately upon retiring from the NBA. Fans looked up to him as a god-like figure. What couldn’t this guy do?

 

Though his leap from basketball stardom to an instant business success took people by surprise, Bryant received more adoration for his evolution from an isolated, angry, stone-cold killer, to a charming, loving, happy husband and father of four. We always saw him hellbent in pursuit of something great, it was refreshing to see him relaxed, laughing and in admiration of his beautiful family – it was a new side to Bryant.

 

He became particularly close with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, the emerging basketball star. He coached her basketball team and the two went and watched NBA games together. They shared the same passion.

 

Having four daughters and no sons, Bryant was questioned by ESPN’s Elle Duncan if he was concerned that he’d have no one to carry on his legacy. Without hesitation he responded, “I would have five more girls if I could, I’m a girl dad.” When it came to sports, he said his oldest daughter was an accomplished volleyball player and the two youngest were to be determined. “But [Gianna]’s a monster, she’s a beast,” Bryant said. “She’s better than I was at her age. She’s got it.”

 

Gianna accompanied Bryant on the helicopter that fateful day. A beautiful father and daughter bond died together. Wife of Bryant and mother of Gianna, Vanessa Bryant, said at their memorial service, “God knew they couldn’t be on this Earth without each other.”

 

We lost a legend and a successor, far too soon.

 

But what will never be lost is Bryant’s impact on the world. He showed us than we can achieve anything we put our minds to. He taught us to seek constant growth, to be fearless, to push past our mental boundaries, to work to exhaustion then continue to work some more. His stories will live on forever.

 

He was more than a basketball player. He was a life coach. A philosopher. A storyteller. A fierce competitor. A basketball genius. An inspiration. A legend.

 

In a sit-down interview in 2016, Bryant reflected on his basketball career as he entered retirement: “Once upon a time there was a young basketball player who had dreams of becoming one of the greatest basketball players of all time. But what he came to realise is that the goal he set out initially of becoming the greatest of all time was a very fickle one. What he realised is that the most important thing in life is how your career moves and touches those around you and how it carries forward to the next generation. He realised that’s what makes true greatness.” – Kobe Bryant

 

 

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Comments

  1. Colin Ritchie says

    Enjoyed your story very much Mark. It’s certainly difficult when someone you have looked up to dies, especially tragically, but the good thing is the memories will always remain.

  2. John Butler says

    Mark, you’ve obviously put a lot of effort into this piece. Perhaps inspired by its subject?

    The line between the person and their work is one which is constantly debated, particularly in sport. It has been viewed many ways.

    The following piece may interest you, one way or another.

    https://meanjin.com.au/blog/kobe-bryant-and-the-ugliness-of-greatness/

    Keep writing. Keep reading.

    Cheers

  3. Like so many others, I’m fascinated by Kobe and his legacy, Mark.You’ve probably already heard it, but if not, the guys at Slate’s ‘Hang up and Listen’ – as good a sports podcast as there is going round – did a magnificent job of trying to fairly address his on- and off-court legacy earlier this year:

    https://slate.com/podcasts/hang-up-and-listen/2020/01/kobe-bryants-on-court-and-off-court-legacies-on-hang-up-and-listen

    I’d love to see you do a deep dive into the allegations in Colorado. It always seemed to me that Kobe owned up to his actions better than most do, and that’s why he was “forgiven” in the public eye. But, as always, there’s so much more to it than that…

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