Years since Kobe Bryant’s untimely passing, his impact and legacy continue to resonate not only with his fans but with his peers as well
Kobe Bryant was not simply a basketball icon. He was a cultural phenomenon who inspired millions around the globe to play the sport he loved. And not to mention, he is the reason why so many of us still shout “Kobe” to this day whenever we throw something into a trash bin.
It’s an understatement to say that his untimely death alongside his daughter Gigi and seven others aboard a helicopter on January 26, 2020, brought sadness to all who knew and looked up to him. No, it broke us. I remember the morning the news broke. I was woken up by my mother and instead of the usual ‘get ready for school’ spiel she had ready for me every day, it was the death of my real-life superhero that I heard first.
And going to school that day was not the same. There were no tears, and yet there was this overwhelming feeling of emptiness and sadness shared among everyone. And it didn’t matter whether or not you played or were a fan of basketball. From teachers to fellow classmates, they understood what the world had just lost. He was after all, even in his retirement, the face of basketball—the individual so many look up to and respect—the idol who left us in such an unexpected manner.
However, as a distant fan who has only been on the outside looking in, I can tell you about his most iconic game-winners and even give you details concerning his past and his upbringing, and yet, I was never there. I was and am a fan, but I didn’t know him—I can’t truly tell you the first thing about Kobe Bryant that wasn’t overheard or mentioned online. And as we remember him on Mamba Day, on 8/24, who better to tell the story of our beloved icon than those who shared the court with him?
Bryant’s work ethic has long since achieved legendary status; known for endlessly pushing his body to the absolute limit, and being the first one in the gym and the last one to leave. And for the four-time NBA champ and Golden State Warriors shooting guard Klay Thompson, hearing him praise the effort he puts into the game was a memory he would never forget.
In a podcast interview with fellow star Paul George, Thompson recounts the time in 2013 when he couldn’t sleep due to jetlag and went to the weight room to exercise where he saw the Lakers legend. Bryant later recounted the same event in 2016 during his retirement tour where he said:
“I remember playing him in preseason out in China and I wanted to go for a workout and it was like 11 o’clock at night. I went to the weight room in the hotel to lift weights and he was in there by himself lifting weights. And so when I see stuff like that, that’s when I know, he’s… the way he takes the game seriously.”
Towards his latter years in the league, Bryant was known for taking an interest in some of the new up-and-comers; having gone on workouts with Boston Celtics’ forward Jayson Tatum and even mentoring Kyrie Irving. At the time, Stephen Curry was not yet the superstar we know today, but he surely took Kobe’s attention.
In an episode of “Hot Ones,” Curry recounts when Bryant was closely guarding him throughout the length of the court. Bryant seemed to have the edge on him defensively, but in true Curry fashion, he pulled up from 30-feet away from the basket and nailed it right on his face. As they ran back the other way, Bryant is seen giving Curry a slight tap on the butt without the Warriors’ star giving much of a reaction. Curry later recounts that he was simply trying to act cool and that he even asked for a clip of the play to save on his phone.
Even the legendary Duke Men’s Basketball and USA Men’s Basketball Coach Mike Krzyzewski could not get away from Bryant’s staggering competitive mindset. In an episode of “The Old Man and The Three” Podcast with JJ Redick and Tommy Alter, Coach K talked about a conversation he had with Bryant ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. During their discussion, Bryant asked him if he could be assigned to guard every opposing team’s best perimeter player. He later added, “Coach, I promise you I’ll destroy him.”
At a later time, Coach K recalls when Bryant didn’t take a single shot during practice. He then called him in and said “I’ve seen you destroy teams offensively, will you shoot the fricking ball,” to which Bryant said that he was “the only coach ever to ask him to shoot.”
Bryant was a great amongst greats. And even for Dwyane Wade, a hall-of-famer who is regarded as one of the best shooting guards to ever play the position, he too looked up to the Black Mamba. In another episode of “The Old Man and The Three” Podcast with JJ Redick and Tommy Alter, Wade recalls an encounter with Bryant in preparation for the 2008 Olympics that further drove him to do and be better.
Wade remembers the time when he went to the gym along with fellow stars LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Bryant. After their workout, they went to bed and planned to get food before going for another round of training. When the trio got to where they were going to eat, Bryant was already there with ice on his knees, having already done a workout and gearing up to do another. Wade then thought, “I got to get my s*** together. Because this dude right here is on a whole different level than even I’m on and I’m supposed to be great. That’s the kind of person he was and that’s how he drove me.”
Bryant was infamous for his insane competitiveness; always seeking out any source of inspiration and motivation to do better. Chicago Bulls’ star DeMar DeRozan recalls a first-hand experience of this so-called “Mamba mentality” or even pettiness in this regard.
Prior to a game versus the Lakers, NBA legend Vince Carter asked DeRozan if he was going to wear a pair of Kobe shoes while playing against him. Convinced to do otherwise, DeRozan put on Jordans. Bryant then upon seeing him said, “The f*** you got on your feet.” Bryant later ended up hitting the game-winning shot against the Raptors and then said to DeRozan, “Yeah don’t wear them s***s ever again.” Now, DeRozan only wears Kobes.
LeBron James, the 2008 USA Men’s Basketball Team, and Pau Gasol
Bryant, because of his competitive spirit, will do anything and everything to have an edge against his opponents, and the whole world got to see that in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In the Netflix documentary called “The Redeem Team,” which details the events leading up to the USA Men’s Basketball Team’s journey towards a gold medal, many recall an incident Bryant had with fellow Lakers teammate Pau Gasol during their matchup versus Spain.
Prior to the game, LeBron James recalls that Bryant said in a team discussion that “[He] was going to set the tone at the start of the game. I’m running through Pau’s f*****g chest.” And he did, just as he envisioned it. Gasol then, describing the event that took place, recounted in the documentary, “He just went right to the middle of my chest, tried to get through me to send a message, not just to me, but to his teammates, saying, ‘Hey, this might be my brother. I play with him, we’re close. But I don’t care about anything else but winning.’”
Shaquille O’Neal, a four-time NBA champion is widely known to be the greatest force to ever play the game of basketball. Not even he can stand up to Bryant. During his eulogy at the then Staples Center in Los Angeles in honor of the recently departed, O’Neal recalled the time a young, hungry, and oftentimes cocky Bryant gained his respect.
O’Neal explains that there were some within the team that were unhappy with how Bryant was not passing the ball. In an effort to pass the message, O’Neal tells him, “Kobe, there’s no ‘I’ in team,” to which Bryant replied, “I know, but there’s an ‘ME’ in that mother******.”
Michael Jordan, the six-time NBA champion, and widely regarded as the G.O.A.T. (Greatest of all time) of basketball, is arguably the only one Bryant looked up to. During a special ceremony for Bryant, Jordan, in tears, remembered the many late-night calls coming from Bryant asking for advice concerning the game, family, and even business. And because of Bryant’s stubborn nature, the Chicago Bulls legend thought that he was being a nuisance. But what started as a feeling of annoyance, quickly turned into respect and even a love from an older brother. Jordan, looking back in admiration at Bryant’s immense passion, said:
“This kid had passion like you would never know. It’s the amazing thing about passion, if you love something, if you have a strong passion for something, you would go to the extreme to try to understand or try to get it… What Kobe Bryant was to me was the inspiration that someone truly cared about the way either I played the game or the way he wanted to play the game. He wanted to be the best basketball player that he could be. And as I got to know him, I wanted to be the best big brother that I could be.”