This weekend, the world of sports lost one of its most iconic figures as Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna “Gigi” Bryant and seven others tragically died in a helicopter crash on the morning of Jan. 26 in Calabasas, Calif.
On the court, to me and to so many people of my generation, Kobe was nothing short of a god. Ascending to stardom in his teenage years, Kobe was the youngest all-star in NBA history at just 19 years old. He would go on to cement himself in NBA history, winning three straight NBA titles from 2000 to 2002. Just six years into his career, Kobe had already enshrined himself in NBA history.
Kobe was undoubtedly one of the best players in the NBA for the vast majority of his playing career. He was a first team All-NBA player for 10 of 11 years from 2002 to 2013. He would prove to not just be a Hall of Fame caliber player, but a generational player during this period. He would win two more NBA championships in 2009 and 2010; he also won the Finals MVP both years. Additionally, he was named league MVP in 2008. Finally, he scored the fourth-most points in NBA history with 33,643 points after being passed by LeBron James on Jan. 25, the night before Kobe’s tragic passing.
Capable of winning a game on his own, Kobe had no issue putting the team on his back. In perhaps his most famous single-game performance, Kobe scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors, the second-most points ever scored in an NBA game. To encapsulate his playing style, Kobe gave himself the nickname “The Black Mamba.”
In a 2015 interview with NBA reporter Ahmad Rashad, Kobe explained the nickname and how it represented his relentless work ethic on the court.
“When I step on that court, I become that. I am that killer snake. I’m stone cold, man,” Kobe said.
Stone cold may be an understatement. In March 2010, Kobe was guarding Matt Barnes on an inbound pass. Barnes faked a pass, bringing the ball just inches from Kobe’s face; Kobe was completely unphased.
Kobe is perhaps most known for the characteristic that allowed him to be so great for so long — his unrelenting competitiveness, or, as it is better known by fans and opponents, “the Mamba Mentality.”
Even his greatest naysayers would never doubt Kobe’s work ethic. In his own words, the Mamba Mentality “means to be able to constantly try to be the best version of yourself.” When it came down to his proudest accomplishment, Kobe had no shortage of accolades from which to choose. Rather than choose any of his five championships, his MVP award or any of the honors he won in between, however, he simply was most proud of the “hard work behind it.”
There are countless moments where this will to win at whatever cost was clear, but one stands above the rest. In April 2013, Kobe ruptured his Achilles tendon in the fourth quarter of a regular season game against the Golden State Warriors. An Achilles injury is so damaging, some players have chosen to just retire rather than attempt to come back from it. Kobe, however, stood up on his own strength to shoot two free throws on his ruptured Achilles. He made both of the shots and then powerfully limped off the court. The Lakers would go on to win that game by two points. Kobe’s relentless commitment to the game has inspired an entire generation of athletes and will continue to serve as the model of sports greatness for years to come.
Since retiring in 2016, Kobe has continued to serve as a role model. In 2018, he won an Academy Award for his short film “Dear Basketball.” Kobe also dedicated his time to raising his four daughters: Natalia, Gianna, Bianka and Capri.
This week, the NBA and its players have commemorated Kobe. Many teams have taken eight- and 24-second shot clock violations in honor of Kobe’s two jersey numbers during his career. The Dallas Mavericks have retired his number 24. Meanwhile, players across the league such as Spencer Dinwiddie and Terrence Ross have changed their numbers from the number eight, unofficially retiring it. Kobe will be entered in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame later this year, according to Hall of Fame Chairman Jerry Colangelo, circumventing the standard voting process and inducting him as a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
In his career, Kobe was often compared to his contemporaries. He was referred to as “the closest thing to Michael Jordan.” You can compare points, championships and style all you want, but the numbers are not what made him great. The greatest quality Kobe had was his power to captivate the sports world every time he took to the court. His mark on the game and on those who watched it will last forever. For a generation of kids who wore the number 24, bit their jerseys and said his name as they airballed a napkin into their bedroom trash can, he will never be forgotten.