Four years after his passing, the memory of the great Kobe Bryant lives on through modern players and a passion that spans multiple generations
One of my greatest regrets as a basketball fan is that I was never able to watch Kobe Bryant play live. It is my belief that watching a player in a stadium allows you to get a feel for their game that might not always be evident on television. I find myself thinking about Kobe this week as we approach the 4th anniversary of his tragic passing as a result of a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California alongside his daughter Gianna and seven other passengers. I vividly recall being at work when the news hit, and being in utter disbelief until it was confirmed. In a moment, a player whose career I followed since he was a rookie was just gone.
Kobe Bryant was unquestionably one of the greatest players to ever pick up a basketball. But for many, his impact stretched far beyond his abilities on the court. He was a tremendous winner, a player that had to mature before he became the legend we think of today, and had a drive that we may never see again in the NBA. His legacy now lives on through the players that he mentored and touched with his skill, charisma, and personality. Kobe Bryant was a trailblazer in the sport of basketball as a player, and also defined basketball fandom for a generation of fans, and that can never be forgotten.
Excellence on the Court
Kobe Bryant’s resume is one of the most impressive we have ever seen in basketball history. During his 20 year career he accomplished the following:
First ballot Hall of Fame selection
5-time NBA champion
15-time All-NBA selection
12-time All-Defense selection
2-time scoring champion
1-time NBA MVP
2-time NBA Finals MVP
Bryant was the second player in the 1990s to jump from high school to the NBA after Kevin Garnett. The success of Bryant created a path for many other high school players to make that leap, such as Tracy McGrady, Rashard Lewis, Amar’e Stoudemire, and others. Kobe had the pressure to perform as soon as he was traded from the Charlotte Hornets to the LA Lakers on draft night in 1996. Not only was he traded to one of the league's premier brands, but to a team that was ready to take the next step after acquiring Shaquille O’Neal from Orlando in free agency.
Bryant played behind veteran Eddie Jones for a couple of seasons before Jones was traded to, ironically, the Charlotte Hornets. From there Kobe took off into superstardom alongside the dominant presence of O’Neal. The Lakers would go on to win 3 championships with Bryant and O’Neal, quickly becoming an iconic dynasty in the post-Michael Jordan NBA. Kobe was everything you wanted in a young guard; he had elite scoring ability, impressive athletic ability, and was a lockdown defender. This was Kobe’s early era, where he was defined as being a slasher who relied on his driving ability.
But the truly great players that have longevity in the NBA, know how to redefine their game as they age. After losing to the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals, O’Neal left for Miami and Bryant became the main focus of the Lakers. It was in this period that Kobe became a masterful scorer, a player that could get to a spot at will and score in a multitude of ways. During the three years after O’Neal’s departure, the Lakers were retooling their team and roster around Kobe, which meant that he had to handle the scoring load. Two of those seasons, Bryant led the league in scoring. It was in this period where he scored 81 points in a game against the Toronto Raptors and had four consecutive games of scoring more than 45 points.
In 2007, Bryant changed his number from 8 to 24, which was indicative of the evolution of his game that defined his greatness. While he wore the number 8 he was dynamic, a supernova that could score with the best of them. But number 24 Kobe was a technician, a leader that won two championships without the need for Shaquille O’Neal. It was during this time that the legend of Kobe Bryant was written. Many people view Michael Jordan as the greatest player in basketball history, and those people will often concede that the closest we have come to Jordan was Kobe Bryant. Part of this was the relationship between Jordan and Bryant and the mentorship they shared. But the enduring part of Kobe’s legacy is the unrelenting work ethic that he displayed every day of his career, something that is more commonly known as “Mamba Mentality”.
The Legend of Mamba Mentality
In 2003, Kobe Bryant crafted a nickname for himself inspired by Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill series: the Black Mamba. Upon seeing an assassin using a black mamba snake kill another character, Kobe related to the snake's aggression and temperament and adopted the name Black Mamba as his on-court persona. Outside of the court, Kobe was a thoughtful and kind intellectual. On the court, he was venomous, doing whatever it took to win.
The name was born in a tumultuous time in Bryant’s life and career. During this time, the dynamic between him, Shaquille O’Neal, and Lakers head coach Phil Jackson could best be described as toxic. Off the court, Kobe was dealing with turmoil as well when he was accused of sexual assault (a case that was eventually dropped and settled out of court). The moniker became a way for Bryant to have a distinction between his two lives. Mamba was lethal and animalistic on the court, but Kobe was someone trying to build a life with his wife Vanessa and their children.
In the wake of the nickname, Mamba Mentality was born. According to Kobe, Mamba Mentality was pushing yourself to be the best version of yourself. On the surface it's a statement that sounds like a line from a self help book, but it was something that Kobe lived everyday of his life. Gilbert Arenas recently commented on the anomaly that was Kobe’s greatness as a player that had standard measurables for an NBA player. What made Kobe so special was his work ethic, his willingness to wake up before everyone, practice the same move 500 times, to simply work harder than anyone else.
Bryant’s willingness to do anything to win included pushing himself to his physical limit. This determination to maximize his talent is something that has influenced the next generation of players. It is common during an NBA game to see today’s players wearing Bryant’s signature Nike sneakers, an homage to the level of respect that he still commands among current players. Kobe’s legacy and determination continues to influence this generation with players like Devin Booker, Khris Middleton, Julius Randle, Jamal Murray, Jayson Tatum, and others. These players have credited their approach to Bryant, to help them become the players that they have become today. But beyond all of his influence in the NBA, perhaps one of Kobe’s greatest accomplishments was his impact on the perception of women’s basketball.
An Ambassador of the Game
Gianna Bryant, Kobe’s daughter that sadly passed away alongside her father that fateful day 4 years ago, had dreams of playing in the WNBA. Kobe often took his children to both NBA and WNBA games, and was notably a champion for women’s basketball. He coached his daughters AAU basketball team, was often seen at games, and was known for defending elite WNBA players and their skills. For a sport like women’s basketball and a league like the WNBA, having the endorsement of one of the best basketball players of all time was a much needed shot in the arm.
Many people have criticized the WNBA online, saying that the game was boring or that no one pays any attention to women’s basketball. So having a high profile person like Bryant saying that the product was excellent and that some WNBA players could play in the NBA, brought much needed validity to the women’s game and was an answer to critics that had preconceived notions about the viability of the sport. Beyond words of support, Kobe also backed it up with his Mamba Sports Foundation, which helped both girls and boys find purpose through the game of basketball.
When we lost Kobe, we lost someone that was a tremendous asset to women’s basketball. As we look around today and see college players like Caitlin Clark, Paige Bueckers, and Angel Reese be heralded for their talent, you can’t help but think that Kobe is smiling down at the world finally recognizing their skill. That is the true tragedy of Kobe’s passing. At 41 years old, he had so much left to give the game of basketball. He was progressing to being a coach and/or mentor for a new generation of basketball players, and was preparing his daughter to be an eventual WNBA player.
When I think about Kobe Bryant, I see an intellectual that was incredibly intense, who would do anything to be considered the best. He defined a generation of basketball and subsequently basketball players. His signature moves that he perfected in Los Angeles are often emulated by players across the NBA and WNBA. He was a basketball savant and true lover of the game who had so much left to offer us as fans of the game.
When news hit of his passing. I was at work at the time, and talked about it to my colleague who also loved basketball. We were speechless, hoping that the report was wrong, that we didn’t lose such a beautiful human being that meant so much to our basketball fandom. It was the first time that a celebrity death saddened me. As a Knicks fan that watches every single game, I can’t help but see Kobe’s influence in the way that Julius Randle approaches the game. I see it when Devin Booker takes over games in Phoenix, when Jayson Tatum sizes up an opponent on the elbow, and when Sabrina Ionescu drives into the teeth of opposing defenses. Kobe’s influence lives on in the game that we all love to watch and marvel at, a tribute to his intellect and determination that he gave us for 20 years; Mamba forever.