The entire world is in shock over the tragic passing of Kobe Bean Bryant, who passed away at age 41, and his daughter Gianna, who was only 13. An additional seven passengers were on the helicopter that crashed in Calabasas, California.
It feels surreal to write a piece like this about Kobe, because it’s hard to believe that someone who was still so young could go so suddenly. He was less than a decade older than me, which creates a stark reminder of my own mortality.
However, instead of only writing about the loss created by his passing, I felt it more appropriate to celebrate what Kobe was in his lifetime: an inspiration to millions of people.
If I’m being honest, Kobe wasn’t one of my favorite athletes growing up. He was the polar opposite.
As a big fan of the Sacramento Kings, Kobe, along with Shaquille O’Neal, were the biggest roadblocks to my Kings ever winning a championship. Sure, the refereeing in some of those playoff games still hurts, but at the end of the day Kobe and Shaq still found ways to lead their teams to victory.
Irrational dislike for an athlete can carry on a long time, and I remember that the sight of Kobe would put me in a foul mood through all of the 2000s. I relished the sight of the Boston Celtics routing the Lakers in the 2008 NBA Finals – not just because a longtime hero in Kevin Garnett got his chip, but also because the pulled one over Kobe and the Lakers.
But then, as I got a little older, I started to appreciate the man and the athlete a little bit more. Kobe responded to that 2008 loss by bringing in back-to-back titles of his own, finally outdoing Shaq in ring count. He was the very best player on those 2009 and 2010 championship teams, and he played through injuries to be on that court as much as he could.
The twilight of his career changed my view of him as a basketball player even more, because of the way he continued to battle against serious injuries like a torn Achilles tendon, a torn rotator cuff, and more in his final few seasons.
He rehabbed those injuries like a young man trying to make sure he earned his place in the league, even though his financial future was already taken care of. He worked more diligently than arguably some players (who shall not be named) who were a decade his junior, some of whom didn’t seem to take rehab seriously at all.
That final game of his is something I’ll never forget, because it was a quintessential ‘Kobe Moment’. In a meaningless game at the end of the season for a team that wasn’t bound for the playoffs, Kobe refused to give up on a game and put up a heroic 60-point effort to beat the Utah Jazz on the Staples Center floor.
Kobe didn’t stop working that day, either. He won an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film for Dear Basketball, made a number of solid investments, and released a memoir called The Mamba Mentality: How I Play. He also coached his daughter’s basketball team and gave his time to charity work.
Reading that book was what truly changed my view on him. I devoured that book in one sitting and read it a couple more times in the following weeks. It left me in awe of just how deeply intelligent Kobe was, and how seriously he took the game of basketball.
That book wasn’t just a commentary from one of the NBA’s greatest legends. It was a deep look into the psyche of a competitor who valued every moment of his athletic career and took his responsibility as a role model seriously.
It was also a great reminder that Kobe didn’t become a worldwide sensation overnight. The hundreds of millions of dollars that he made, the five championships, the fame, and the glory all came because he was willing to wake up while it was still dark to get to his practice so that he could also get back to his children by the time they woke up.
My thoughts go out to his surviving family members, along with his close friends and confidants.
Kobe Bean Bryant transcended basketball. He was an inspiration to an entire generation around the world. Rest in peace to one of the greatest to ever grace a basketball court.
It felt fitting to end this tribute by allowing Kobe to speak to us in his own words. Here are two of the most powerful quotes from his 2018 memoir:
At the same time, starting early helped me balance basketball and life. When my kids woke up in the morning I was there, and they wouldn’t even know I had just finished at the gym. At night, I’d be able to put them to bed, then go work out again during my own time, not theirs.
I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my game, but I also wasn’t willing to sacrifice my family time. So I decided to sacrifice sleep, and that was that.
– Kobe Bryant, The Mamba Mentality: How I Play
Whether I hear an elite college or NBA player or a Fortune 500 CEO reference the #mambamentality, I find it very meaningful. When I see people talk about finding inspiration in it, it makes all of my hard work, all of the sweat, all of the 3 AM wakeups feel worth it.
– Kobe Bryant, The Mamba Mentality: How I Play