On January 27th 2020, I had to get up extra early for my usual Monday morning basketball practice with my university team. Normally, everyone was busy shaking off the drowsiness, but our spirit on the court was usually high, as that practice, in the quiet of dark campus before any lectures started, was ours to enjoy and get better. That day though, it felt as if the death of Kobe Bryant sucked the air out of the gym. No one was warming up, barely any balls were bouncing, everyone of my teammates was in a state of stupor, aimlessly looking around as if they forgot what we were there for. Some were close to fighting off tears while others questioned whether we should call off the practice entirely. But it didn’t take long to realize that the only way was to move forward, to keep going and play the game we loved while trying to process the loss of a man none of us had even ever met, but felt so close to. A man we thought to be invincible.
Who was Kobe Bryant ?
Kobe Bryant played 20 years in the NBA, with the Los Angeles Lakers. During these two decades, he went from being a 17-year-old phenom to five-time champion, Nike signature athlete, League MVP in 2008, and retired in 2016 as a Hall of Famer. One of the greatest and most iconic global athletes of all time, he was only just beginning the second chapter of his life, a prolific period that was tragically cut short when a helicopter carrying Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven others crashed in Calabasas, killing everyone on board.
While we briefly got to know what his post-basketball career would mean to the world, Kobe’s legacy as an athlete is undoubtedly leaving a lasting impact. Beyond his on-court skills, he is and will be remembered for having one of the greatest work ethics and most brilliant minds the sport world has ever witnessed. A borderline obsession to be the best in every aspect of the game that pushed his mind and body to the limit others wouldn’t dare to venture.
Kobe was unlike any other. The almost cannibalistic fury with which he ate everything: the court, opponents, teammates, coaches, the audience, the ball. Whatever stood between him and his goal would be overwhelmed: the obsession with victory, the pursuit of perfection, that grin, the Mamba, the agonism that was aggression in full force, the ontological impossibility of defeat. "Leadership is loneliness," he said in an interview, and that is how he lived, above everything and everyone, irreducible, thinking only of victories and posterity, temporarily together with teammates and fans, ultimately alone.
Of course, when it comes to being labeled a smart competitor, one of the go-to examples is the fact that Bryant spoke three languages fluently and learned others purely in the interest of talking trash to opponents, getting into their heads and winning the mental battle even before the physical one began. Kobe lived in Italy for seven years during his childhood as his father was a pro-basketball player there. That’s where he first learned how to play the game and speak Italian, so for me, being Italian, seeing Kobe speak my language so effortlessly and talk to the media about his fond memories of growing up in Italy always gave me a sense of pride and joy.
But learning languages isn’t what made the cerebral, almost philosophical thinker Bryant was. For instance, when talking about shooting, he would reference Mozart. He waxed poetic about the beauty of a post-surgery scar on his Achilles tendon, comparing it to another legendary composer’s iconic ailment, Beethoven. He thought about the game in terms of science, turning to revolutionary new procedures to fix injuries and studying angles over pure athletics.
What is Kobe Bryant's Mamba Mentality ?
This mindset, his mindset, is called “Mamba Mentality,” a distillation of his focus that explained what everyone wanted to know: how he was able to accomplish so much, endure all the sacrifices, and remain so focused on being great at basketball. “I liked challenging people and making them uncomfortable,” he wrote in his 2018 book Mamba Mentality. “That’s what leads to introspection and that’s what leads to improvement. You could say I dared people to be their best selves.” Today, three years after his death, there are countless anecdotes about Kobe’s mentality, training methods and focus. The “Mamba Mentality” is a great way to gather all his practices in one single mantra.
The “Mamba Mentality” is for all, its main pillars are achievable to some degree or another. And despite the different roads or interests we may have in life, the guiding inspiration and focus on passion, obsession, relentlessness, resiliency, and fearlessness, are something we can and should all strive for.
Kobe Bryant’s Legacy
After Kobe Bryant retired, his focus pivoted to other interests – namely, making up for lost time with his family and daughters – as well as becoming an investor, writer, and storyteller. He won an Academy Award for Dear Basketball, an animated short film he wrote about his love of the game that defined his life up until that point. He also mentored younger basketball players, like Celtics guard Jayson Tatum, Nets star Kyrie Irving, and even LeBron James.
To me, his most interesting venture was founding the Granity Studios; a media production company created to work on a number of different projects, including books, films, and podcasts, with a focus on sports, storytelling and inspirational stories for teenagers. A passion for storytelling he shared with us in 2015, as he featured on our very own cover of Highsnobiety's 10th-anniversary print issue. “I’ve been very lucky [that I] started playing the game at six. First passions are easy,” Bryant told reporter Alec Banks. “I love telling stories that move and inspire people.”
Bryant was not liked by everyone, by those who resent the idea that individual will can be a self-sufficient source of progress. That it can even unhinge the rule of the natural order of things. A team game is, after all, a plural mission. So those who see evolution always, and only, as the product of the collective could have admiration for Bryant the player but couldn’t fully accept the validity of Bryant as one to draw universal maxims of life. Simply put, collectivists and the purists of selfless basketball, could not hang around the Mamba.
Kobe Bryant's death served as a direct message addressed to each of us. For fans around the world, the tragic end not so much of a young man, an athlete, a rock star, but what we thought to be an immortal, and somewhat invincible being, forces us to reckon with this earthly affair we are all in, and that as an incipit and epilogue.
While the days of early practices on a Monday morning are long gone, the universal language of basketball and the memory and legacy of Kobe lives in everyone I meet even remotely connected to the game. Whether it is in music, basketball, popular culture or through the countless testimonies from creatives and cultural pioneers, his memory, mindset and inspiration live on. They do so, because ultimately, Kobe's identity was shaped within his art; his art was in movement, improvisation, technique, the body and the mind as the only instruments. Kobe left us baskets, feats, games, the Mamba Mentality. They all stand there, in the great heritage of popular culture, forever. Kobe did not die a basketball player, he died a poet, he died a legend. His legacy, though, lives on in our culture.