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When I heard of the tragic passing of Kobe Bryant yesterday, I felt very strange. I am not one to be star struck or feel truly upset when a celebrity passes away. The only time I ever felt anything resembling grief for famous person’s death was in 2007 when author Kurt Vonnegut passed away.
That made sense to me. Vonnegut remains my all time favorite writer, I have read every book he ever wrote and I have a tattoo based on his works. He was very important to me, so when he passed, I felt some legitimate sadness.
What I felt yesterday was so much worse.
At first I thought this was because of the horrifically tragic way in which Bryant passed. Kurt Vonnegut was 84 years old when he died. He had a long, full life. Bryant was 41 at the time of his death. Being taken from us suddenly in a helicopter crash is inherently more dramatic and painful than a man of advanced age passing from complications after a fall.
The fact that eight other people passed in the crash, including Bryant’s 13 year old daughter Gianna, made it even more horrific.
Today, with a bit more time to process it, I know why this bothers me so much. “Mamba mentality” will never quite be the same and if you will forgive me being less than clever in my writing here, that just really, really sucks.
I have loved the game of basketball since I was six years old. 26 years later and it is still my favorite sport. Losing one of the greats of a sport that means so much to me hurts more than I could have ever imagined it would.
The strangest thing is, I was never even that big of a Bryant fan. Now, don’t get me wrong, I always understood how good he was. I always had nothing but respect for his skill level and over his 20 year career he did some things that were absolutely mind blowing. But during his playing days I was also the one in the basketball debates criticizing him for shooting too much, for not necessarily making teammates better, saying I would take LeBron James over him any day of the week.
Bryant retired after the 2015-2016 NBA season. After a farewell tour season, he retired as third in all time scoring, a five time NBA champion, a two time Finals MVP, a regular season MVP and a sure fire, Hall of Fame first ballot lock.
After he retired, I found myself missing him in the league. Strange, considering I was never his biggest fan, right? And then over time I realized why. Bryant had a drive and passion to win that was obsessive. Like his idol Michael Jordan, Bryant had to be the best. After he left the game, it dawned on me. Man, I missed “Mamba Mentality.”
The “Black Mamba” nickname was something that started floating around Bryant in the mid 2000s and I thought it was incredibly lame at first, mostly because Bryant gave the nickname to himself. To me, that was cheesy and at the time reinforced why despite his talent, he would never be one of my favorite players. “Mamba mentality” came to reflect the way Bryant approached the game.
“Mamba mentality” became part of the basketball fan’s lexicon over time. Other players mention it when talking about their own will to win, their own will to be the best on the court. Despite its somewhat contrived origin, it makes sense for basketball and the phrase will live on in the sport forever.
Basketball, more than any other team sport, can be dictated by an individual player’s will to win. The drive, passion and refusal to lose is what Mamba mentality is. Both Bryant and Michael Jordan had this look they would get in their eyes. It didn’t happen every single night (but certainly most) and it would usually happen in the fourth quarter. I used to point it out to friends while watching Laker games.
“There it is” I would say. When asked what “it” was I would simply explain: “that’s the Kobe look. The ‘there’s just no way I am losing this game no matter what’ look.”
That was what I missed about Kobe Bryant after he left the game. There isn’t a single player in the league today who has it. Even LeBron James, for all his greatness, has not consistently shown Mamba mentality. Some guys flash it for a night or two here and there. Bringing that drive every night is what I missed about Kobe Bryant.
One day there will be another player who truly has that passion. For now, the sport will have to get by without it. I personally can’t wait. I love this game and I have nothing but respect for a player who is going to give his absolute best, every night, just because he can’t play the game any other way.
We lost a legend yesterday but we lost something else as well. In the brief years we had Bryant post-retirement, he was transitioning to his next phase and one I was excited to see. Bryant was evolving into an elder statesman of the game who was going to give back to those who were still playing it.
On opening night of the 2017-2018 season, Gordon Hayward of the Boston Celtics suffered a devastating ankle injury. The next day, Bryant took to instagram to offer words of encouragement to the young star. Bryant closed his remarks with “Best of luck to you my brother, #mambamentality, always.”
Less than 24 hours before his death, Bryant was passed on the all time scoring list by LeBron James. In one of his last social media posts, Bryant wrote “Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother.”
That’s the Bryant we never got tot see the full promise of. The hyper-competitive Mamba-edge was softening in retirement. He was embracing the future of the game, encouraging it’s growth. We were all robbed of that. Michael Jordan has never been the most gracious of veteran ambassadors for the sport. Bryant was becoming the retired legend we deserved. One could imagine a future with an older Bryant on the sidelines of a Finals 30 years from now, much like we have seen from the league’s greatest retired ambassador, Bill Russell.
More importantly, we were robbed of what Bryant was and would be as a husband and father.
Given Bryant’s celebrity, his death will be talked about the most after yesterday’s tragic events. But we must not lose sight of the fact that we lost others.
Bryant’s 13 year old daughter, Gianna Bryant, herself a promising young basketball player will never get the chance to follow in her father’s footsteps.
Gianna’s teammate, Alyssa Altobelli was on that helicopter. Along with her were her parents, John and Keri Altobelli. In all of the concern being shared for the Bryant family, do not forget about the Altobelli family, which suffered an unspeakable tragedy yesterday.
Christina Mauser was an assistant coach who worked at Mamba Sports academy. She leaves behind her husband and children, as well as the promise of many other lives she would have touched as a coach.
Ara Zobayan was the pilot of Bryant’s private helicopter. He was both employee and friend to Bryant. He was also a flight instructor, who is fondly remembered by his former pupils.
Payton Chester was another of Gianna’s teammates. She and her mother Sarah were also on board the flight.
The family that is NBA fans suffered a loss yesterday but we must never forget the losses suffered by the Bryant, Altobelli, Mauser, Zobayan and Chester families.
And as basketball fans we should never forget what Bryant gave us. The alley-oop to Shaquille O’Neal against Portland in 2000. The time Matt Barnes tried to fake throwing a ball directly into Bryant’s face and Bryant did not flinch. The 81 point barrage against Toronto. The 60 point performance in his final game against Utah.
And countless buzzer beaters, smooth pull up jumpers and “Oh my god did you see that?!” plays that became routine for him.
A friend texted me last night saying the NBA should have cancelled games yesterday in light of what happened. After thinking about it, I realized that is the last thing Kobe Bryant would have ever wanted.
Aside from his family, there was nothing Kobe Bryant loved more than the game of basketball. So while it was clearly difficult for those players to lace them up yesterday, there is no better tribute to what Kobe Bryant stood for than continuing to play the game he loved so much.
And not just play it but play it with passion. Play to be the best. Play to win and leave it all out there on the court. Play every single possession like it might be your last. Because that’s what Kobe would have done.
Mamba Mentality. Always.