Twenty seasons, five-time champion, Most Valuable Player, 18-time All-Star. Black Mamba, Lakers legend; creator, athlete, father. This past weekend, Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others lost their lives in a helicopter accident in Calabasas, CA. Bryant, along with other players and coaches, was en route to his daughter’s travel basketball game at the time of the accident.
What ensued was a whirlwind of turmoil, grief, shock, and renewed reverence. The Dallas Mavericks retired the number 24 posthumously and players such as the Nets’ Spencer Dinwiddie have given up their numbers (8 and 24, Kobe’s jersey numbers throughout his career) to preserve Bryant’s storied legacy. Teams across the NBA took intentional 8 and 24-second violations in honor of him. NBA legends such as Michael Jordan and LeBron James have made clear the gaping hole that Kobe’s death has left both in the game of basketball and beyond. Outside of the NBA, fans have covered the city of LA in commemorative murals and flooded social media with heartfelt condolences and tributes.
It’s easy to think about that helicopter until your head swirls, but the Mamba’s legacy is more than wreckage. Instead, I hope to reach back, to revisit what—or who—made an entire generation yell “Kobe” every time they aimed at the trash can.
November 3rd, 1996: Kobe’s NBA debut. After a summer in which Bryant exhibited flashes of brilliance, Kobe’s first game was nothing special—well, almost nothing at all. He scored zero points, grabbed one rebound, and recorded no assists. He would improve on that performance, with a single point against the Knicks a few days later. It took Bryant five games to post double-figures, and twenty-five to reach twenty points. A slow start to be sure, but far from any indication of the future.
The new millennium marked the start of one of the most dominant runs by any NBA team ever. Paired with freak-of-nature center Shaquille O’Neal, Bryant excelled, and the duo went on to win three consecutive championships. Given the looming presence of the 7’1’’ and 325-pound O’Neal, Bryant was free to posterize, snipe, and (occasionally) pass, shredding defenses. It was at this juncture in his career that his famed work ethic began to make itself evident, although not always in the kindest of ways. Cracks began to appear in Shaq and Kobe’s relationship off the court in the middle of their championship run. Tensions rose as Kobe attacked Shaq’s drive (or lack thereof) and Shaq responded by trying to excommunicate Bryant from the Lakers’ locker room. While Kobe wasn’t exactly kind, he did prove his desire. Amidst a three-peat, many players would rest on their laurels and marvel as their star center bullied grown men in the paint. But Kobe’s hunger wasn’t appeased; he witnessed Shaq sitting out during practice and scarfing down fast food and saw wasted potential. After an NBA Finals loss in 2004, O’Neal was shipped to Miami and Bryant became the de-facto alpha in LA.
Kobe’s lust for championships was only amplified by the five-year drought that followed. Through the rest of the 2000s, Bryant dragged mediocre teams to the playoffs, posting ludicrous scoring numbers and capturing his lone MVP in 2008. He scored 62 points in three quarters, 81 in a game against the Toronto Raptors (the most since Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 in 1962), and averaged 35.1 ppg in the 2005-2006 season. SportsCenter highlights consisted of wild fadeaway jumpers or vicious dunks, all courtesy of Bryant. It was then that the “Mamba Mentality” that had always governed Kobe’s basketball life reached the eyes and ears of millions. Stories of hours spent in the gym, thousands of shots taken before each game, and teammates cracking under the standard that Bryant set, circulated in popular culture.
Bryant even managed to capture two more championships, leading a strong supporting cast to victory over the Magic and the Celtics. As injuries began to impede his dominance and his numbers began to dip, the fire still burned. After tearing his Achilles late in a game against the Warriors, Bryant hobbled to the free-throw line and drained both his shots. Before the 2011-2012 NBA season, Bryant tore a ligament in his shooting wrist and failed to miss any of the team’s first ten games. Despite the Lakers occupying the bottom spots in the conference standings, Bryant would push his teammates to win, to assume the Mamba Mentality.
This article isn’t meant to argue that Kobe is the greatest of all time. Undoubtedly, Kobe is an NBA legend, but his legacy stands untouched. From his zero-point debut to his feud with Shaq and even his 60-point NBA farewell, Kobe Bryant has always been a cold-blooded artist, an unflinching (literally) fighter. In 20 years, Bryant spent thousands of hours in the gym and dominated entire teams armed with nothing but a nasty fadeaway and sheer will. Even post-basketball, Bryant’s hunger for excellence never abated: from producing an Oscar-winning short film to starting the Mamba foundation or even coaching his daughter’s basketball team, Kobe never stopped winning. He’s been an inspiration for kids everywhere—the prime example of hard work paying off. The Black Mamba will be sorely missed.