“These young guys are playing checkers. I’m out there playing chess.“
Where do I start? How do I summarize his legend in mere words? It’s always good to start with a story. Jordan has just retired for the second time and Phil Jackson is now coaching Lakers. Phil said Michael “Meet me after the game. I want you to speak to this young bloke, convince him to be a bit patient and allow the game to come to him so that the team doesn’t lose offensive direction”. Mike obliges and this young bloke says to him “I will kick your ass one-on-one.” You knew better than talking trash to Mike unless you are Kobe Bryant.
Now most of us remember Kobe playing for Los Angeles Lakers, but it wasn’t exactly a match made in heaven. Charlotte Hornets drafted Kobe Bryant as 13th overall pick. Yeah, you heard it right, 13th. Mainly because he didn’t play for any college team and no one was ready to place their bets on a 17 year old guard straight from high school. One man’s loss is another man’s gain. Jerry West, the man in the NBA logo, was never as certain in his life as when he saw the best ever workout session in his lifetime by a 17 year old. Moved some rivers and mountains, not literally, floated some rumours, yeah you can make an interesting mini series based on those events. Kobe was finally a Laker.
It’s tough for every kid to adjust in the NBA. You can’t start dominating from the get-go considering the guy never played college basketball. In a must-win playoff game against Utah Jazz, Kobe shot four airballs in the final minutes of the game eliminating the Lakers. In the hindsight, no one else even had the courage to attempt the shots in the first place. Why so? There’s an interesting story behind it: So Kobe wasn’t practising with the team but just observing them. He was practising his moves with a fake ball like shadowboxing at full speed. The team thought this guy is nuts, but it just speaks about the efforts to craft his art even without the brush.
Phil Jackson chose LA as the second stop after dominating with the Bulls. Imagine the trio of Shaq, Kobe and Phil. Did someone say dynasty? What followed was one of the most dominating and dynamic duos bulldozing the league for a 3-peat. A dynasty who would eventually draw a comparison to the 90s Bulls and later the 2010s Warriors. The Showtime Lakers were back on the top.
Shaq and Kobe could arguably be compared to Magic and Kareem, definitely better than LeBron and AD. You really could not see anyone challenging them. No one had seen dominance like Shaq in the league of Ewing, Duncan and Robinson. Kobe was moulding his game to the likings of Jordan. These two were not 2 AM buddies but had immense respect and admiration for each other. In a series against Spurs, Kobe wasn’t passing the ball and the team members asked Shaq to talk to him. Shaq said “Kobe, there’s no I in the team”. Kobe replied, “I know, but there’s an ‘m-e’ in that, m*****f****r”.
Kobe in a recent interview said “If Shaq had his work ethics, Shaq would be the greatest of all time. Only if he went to the gym, I would have 12 rings”. Shaq cheekily replied, “I would have won more if you passed the ball”.
Eventually, the animosity of the superstars would end the dynasty. Lakers fell to the Spurs in 2003 playoffs. Subsequently, Lakers acquired Karl Malone and Gary Payton. Even though they were not at their prime but 4 Hall of Famers in a team should guarantee another chip. They lost the finals to Pistons. Lakers didn’t look like a team but a mere collection of stars who could not play together.
Everyone knew Kobe was the hardest worker in the room, no questions. On the other hand, Shaq lived his life king size. They were on the opposite ends of the spectrum where Kobe had to be pulled out of the gym and Shaq had to be pushed into the gym. Never before did their personal opinion came in the way of their camaraderie. There were verbal spats, calling each other out in media and even to the extent of physical altercation. You would have to be crazy to throw a punch at Shaq. The guy is 7’1” 325 pounds. I can literally be dropped dead getting hit by his shoe itself.
Shaq moved out to join the Heat and it was now Kobe’s team. Kobe could care less and kept working hard as usual. He was now the leader on the court and started performing like one. He started putting insane numbers and became a clutch performer. No one knew you were even allowed to take that many shots in the game before Kobe started pulling those off. I think every efficient scorer is an excellent mid-range shooter. His jumper was like a page out of Mike’s textbook. He became the king of the 4th quarter. You could not take the ball away from him, he would keep taking all the shots and sink them all, mostly.
Averaging 35 points in a season, all-defensive first team, consecutive scoring champions, all-NBA first team. 40, 50 point games became normal for him. Yet, he was still warming up. He scored 81 points in a single match. This is a record in the modern game, second to the great Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game.
Yet the team fell short on big occasions and could not reach the ultimate glory. It was frustrating for Kobe to not see his hard work reap the fruits he wanted. But he simply didn’t quit, it wasn’t in his dictionary. He was the kind of guy who would be the first to report at the training at 4 in the morning after winning the championship.
“I can’t relate to lazy people. We don’t speak the same language. I don’t understand you. I don’t want to understand you.”
Ever heard of Mamba mentality. Being better than yesterday. Doing simple things right. Hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard. Sounds simple, right. Nothing new. Then why is it so difficult. Because It is about doing all these things on a daily basis. Success brings complacency. Winners become smugs. Don’t talketh the talk, if you can’t walketh the walk. Obsessing over minor details. Being physically, mentally and emotionally strong. It’s okay to fail knowing you gave it everything. The regret that I could have done more should not exist.
Kobe didn’t preach this but he lived by it. There is a moment where Matt Barnes fakes pass the ball into Kobe’s face and the guy didn’t even flinch. He used to practice 5–7 every morning before school. Bulls travelled to LA to play Lakers. Jay Williams wanted to practice and reached the gym at 3 in the morning. Guess who’s already there sweating his ass off. Kobe rode his bike for approx 40 miles in the desert till 2 in the night after they just landed in Vegas for 2008 Olympics. The most mind-boggling thing, he was back to the practice at 7:30 with the team.
Kobe understood what it took to become Magic, Bird or Jordan. He lived to destroy the opponents on the court. One should figure that out after they realise you are nicknamed after a poisonous snake. You thought Michael was tough on his teammates. Kobe made his team suffer during practice. Michael would still meet you at the golf game after the match. Not Kobe. He would be the first in practice every day and didn’t care if his teammates liked him or not. If you strive to be the best, separate yourself from the rest. He wanted to dominate every game, every moment. You got every money worth whatever you paid to watch Kobe.
Kobe won the league MVP in 2008 but fell short in the Finals. Losing the Finals was bad enough, but watching Celtics hold the trophy, just rubs the salt into the wounds for Lakers. Everyone wondered if Kobe could ever succeed without someone like Shaq.
The Mountain didn’t come to Muhammad, Muhammad had to go to the mountain. 2008 Olympics turned the tide for Kobe’s leadership. Kobe didn’t participate in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics. USA lost in 2004 and like 1992, they had to call in their superstars to rescue them. In comes the “Redeem team”. Dream team or Redeem team, a tough choice, yet the same purpose at hand. Bring back what is ours. You could see the Mamba mentality rubbing off to his teammates. You had superstars in that team, yet Kobe would make sure they checked their ego at the door. Mamba and the squad got the taste of victory bringing home the gold.
In Pau Gasol, Kobe finally got his missing piece of the puzzle. Kobe could finally prove the doubters wrong and lay hands on the NBA Championship trophy after 7 years. He was deservedly named Finals MVP by putting performance not seen since Jerry West and Jordan. Great company to be a part of. Lakers continued their domination to meet the Celtics in 2010 Finals. This was a matchup worthy of the occasion. Lakers vs Celtics, the two most successful teams in NBA history. Kobe vs Paul Pierce, Fisher vs Rondo, Gasol vs Garnett. It was the time for the Mamba mentality to take over. Lakers won the series in Game 7 and the Finals MVP — you know who.
Kobe was now chasing the 6th title to possibly dethrone Michael as the greatest ever. The old teammates bid adieu and the replacements weren’t good enough. Being the toughest dude in the room had never been this easy for Kobe considering the low benchmark set by his teammates. Lakers were blown away by Portland in a game and he threw away the “Kobes” of Lou and Young in the trash saying “How can you be so soft playing in these?”
He could only carry his team so much before his body gave up. He suffered a torn ACL against the Warriors. But as something only Kobe could, he stood his ground to make free throws before heading to the locker room. Kobe could never be his self again and was reduced to a mere shadow of his game. Lakers kept on piling up the defeats. The Mamba was running on an empty tank and decided to make 2015–16 his farewell season.
Even though the team registered the worst-ever record in the regular season, he made sure he left every fan with a memory to cherish forever. Shaq asked him before the match if he could give us 50. He didn’t just oblige, he did one better. In the trademark Mamba style, he scored 60 against Jazz. A great player is not just admired by his fans but also respected by his opponents. While Kobe was taking the free throw to score 60th point, Gordon Hayward stepped in the lane to get a possible violation and offer more free throws to Kobe in case he missed that one.
Jordan, Bird and Reggie were the best trash talkers, but Kobe took upon himself to be the best in this department as well:
- Kendrick Perkins was guarding Kobe with 5 seconds on the shot clock. Perks was like “Al’ight, let me see you Kobe”. Kobe pumps fake, shoots a three. Kobe says while walking down the court “Don’t make me tear that other ACL”
- In 2006, 76ers played Lakers and Andre Iguodala played great defence on Kobe. Kobe had a poor night and the Lakers lost. Kobe marked the date on the calendar for the next matchup that season against 76ers. Comes the date, Kobe walks into the 76ers dressing room and tells Lou Williams “Where’s Dre? Tell him it’s 50 tonight”. Kobe scored 49 with 6 minutes remaining in the game.
- Iman Shumpert was guarding Kobe in The Garden and had multiple steals from Kobe. He was feeling a bit cocky and then the 4th quarter starts. Kobe says “You HAD a great game, young fella”. Shumpert looked at the clock like crazy “Bro, there’s 12 minutes, what you talking about”. Kobe went off. Shot fake, threw it off the glass, caught the ball and passed to Pau. Midrange jumper off the glass. Pulled up from 35 feet like Steph. D’Antoni took a timeout and looked at Shumpert. He was speechless.
- Kobe played Reggie and the Pacers in 2002 and had an all out brawl resulting in 2 game suspension for both. In 2006, a kid in Sacramento asked who won the fight that day. Kobe said, of course he won. Another kid in the back said “Yeah but you can’t hit 3 threes in a row like Reggie.” The next day against Sacramento, Kobe scored a layup, jumper and then 4 threes in a row.
- President Obama is a Bulls and Jordan fan. He said to Kobe that the Bulls point guard Derrick Rose “may have your number”. Kobe replied, “If he calls that number, I’ll be sure to pick up after the 5th ring”.
The one standout memory for me is the 2003 All-Star Game. It was Michael’s last all-star appearance. You could see Mike and Kobe going back and forth. But the one thing which you could notice was a sign of respect and the onset of a brotherhood. These two as brothers would surely be annoying as shit. The baton of greatness was passed in the safe hands. Michael always thought of Kobe as the younger brother. Kobe wouldn’t shy back and called his big brother at odd hours in the night like only he could to seek advice and discuss the game. What would we have given to see a possible finals matchup between these two?
For someone who has achieved everything on the court, he seemed much content in his personal life post-retirement. He started playing a bigger role in the media industry. He wanted to change the world and inspire the younger kids associated with this game. He wrote a book on The Mamba Mentality. He wrote a beautiful short film “Dear Basketball” and won the Academy award. Take that, Shaq and Jordan. He loved Harry Potter and Disney movies, latter because of her daughters.
His legacy is bigger than the game of basketball. He didn’t just shut up and dribble. With the help of Mamba academy, he wanted to train young athletes to be their best version. He was a basketball savant and a curious learner. He spoke multiple languages including English, Italian, Spanish. He was an advocate for WNBA and could be seen on the sidelines coaching her daughter and her team.
I remember seeing him in a few Laker matches this season with her daughter Gigi. You could see him explain the nuances of the game. He was always eager to learn. He even trash talked Doncic in Slovenian at a Lakers game. He would have been 42 last Sunday. Taken too soon from us. His daughter would have surely been one of the legends of this game as well. He will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this year. NBA has named the All-Star MVP trophy in his honour.
I feel privileged and somewhat emotional writing this time. For my generation, who missed out on the Jordan era, we got something closest to him. We can always picture a “Kobe” or “Bryant” in purple and gold pulling up from the mid-range.
When commentators, experts, former players rank the greatest players ever, Kobe hardly makes the cut in the top 5. But when it comes to the ethics, training, practice, discipline, Kobe is the GOAT. He is already on the Lakers’ Mt. Rushmore. When the history talks about the legends of this game, Kobe Bryant’s name will always shine bright.
We always desire an athlete’s life. Fame, money, endorsements, expensive cars, everyone’s admiration. Who would not want these? But we want to enjoy the fruit without the labour. No one talks about waking up early for several years. No one talks about training day in, day out with mental and physical abuse. No one shows us the failures and the hardships to overcome.
“I don’t want to be the next Michael Jordan, I only want to be Kobe Bryant.“
So, the next time, before you imagine your name being cheered in a stadium full of thousands of people, remember the Mamba mentality.
Remember the name — Kobe Bryant.