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It was supposed to be a normal retirement Sunday on January 26, 2020 for Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant. The only reason for him to be on the news that day was because LeBron James had passed him on the NBA all-time scoring list the previous night in Philadelphia. Instead, the universe had other plans and tragedy struck.
The world was shell-shocked when Bryant was confirmed to have died in a helicopter crash on that fateful Sunday—along with his daughter Gianna “Gigi” Bryant and seven other passengers. He was taking Gigi, a rising basketball star who had famously announced that she would continue her father’s legacy, to her basketball game at the Mamba Sports Academy.
There was an outpour of instant grief, with fans around the world expressing their heartbreak through memorials, murals, and more. Fans immediately gathered at the Lakers’ stadium, Staples Center, in memorial. The Grammys were held that same night in Staples Center—The House That Kobe Built—and the awards show centered around the loss of the cultural icon. Host Alicia Keys began the night by bringing on the Boyz II Men to sing “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye” and Lizzo shouted “tonight is for Kobe!” as artists in the crowd wiped tears from their eyes.
Bryant, son of the former NBA player Joe Bryant, was touted as a future superstar since high school. He was recognized as the top high school basketball player in the nation when he attended Lower Merion High School in Philadelphia. He was so talented that he elected to skip college and enter the NBA Draft after graduating high school. Bryant was picked 13th as an 18-year-old by the Charlotte Hornets, who promptly traded him to the Lakers. As a rookie, Bryant didn’t receive much playing time, but he nonetheless became a fan favorite after winning the 1997 NBA Slam Dunk Challenge.
Despite the phenom taking the national stage, his first season wasn’t all smooth sailing. In the Lakers’ Game 5 playoff matchup against the Utah Jazz that year, Bryant was forced to step up when ejections saw the starter Shaquille O’Neal leave the game. The Lakers ultimately fell to the Jazz 4-1 in the series, with Bryant missing many crucial shots toward the end of the last game, including a potential game-winner.
In his second season, Bryant demonstrated his prodigious talent. Despite not starting for the Lakers, he became the youngest All-Star starter. In his third season, Bryant vaulted himself into the Lakers’ starting lineup and signed a $70 million long-term contract with the team. Bryant certainly played well in his first three seasons, but his skill amounted to nothing as the Lakers fell short in the playoffs each year. But Bryant’s luck was changing.
In the next three seasons, from 1999-2002, Bryant, O’Neil, and the Lakers were bent on world domination. With new coach Phil Jackson’s implementation of the triangle offense, the Lakers flourished and won an unprecedented three straight world championships. Bryant, despite being overshadowed by the team’s MVP O’Neal, carried the Lakers on his back in clutch time to help them to three championships in three years.
After the Lakers’ triple crown, they failed to win the NBA Finals again for seven years despite having a star-studded lineup. Bryant publicly feuded with O’Neil, Karl Malone, and Ray Allen. Some older players thought he played selfishly and argued about positional roles. All the while, Kobe did what Kobe did best: play basketball. He continued to mesmerize fans around the world with his play and cemented his legacy with a ridiculous 81-point performance on January 22, 2006. This was, and still is today, the greatest number of points put up by a Lakers player in one game. Bryant’s enormous scoring spree ranks only behind Wilt Chamberlain’s historic 100 point performance. Despite this rather short title drought, Bryant wasn’t finished making his mark on the league.
In the 2007-2008 season, Bryant earned his first MVP Award, and led the Lakers back into the NBA Finals. The Lakers weren’t able to finish the job, however, falling to the Boston Celtics in six games. The next year, the Lakers refused to fall short again, defeating the Orlando Magic in five games with Bryant winning the Finals MVP award. At this point, Bryant had become a household name and the “Kobe!” jumpshot was beginning to catch on.
Bryant and the Lakers went on to win another championship in the 2009-2010 season in seven games against—you guessed it—the Celtics. Bryant went on to win another Finals MVP award, firmly establishing himself as one of the greatest players of all time.
He continued to steal the hearts of basketball fans around the world in his last six seasons, despite not winning a sixth championship with a weak supporting cast. Despite battling injuries in the latter part of his career, Bryant was the leader of the Lakers, which was largely devoid of talent. The squad aside from Bryant was so weak that, in the 2015-2016 season, the Lakers finished with a franchise-worst 17-65 record.
The last game Bryant ever played in the NBA was on April 13, 2016, and he went out with a bang. He put up an incredible 60 points against the Jazz at 37 years old, becoming the oldest player to do so in the NBA.
Bryant will forever go down as an NBA legend, not only because of his incredible skill on the court, but also his revolutionary Mamba Mentality. Today, the Mamba Mentality is the ultimate mindset for basketball players and non-athletes alike. Even after his retirement in 2016, Bryant’s name is ubiquitous on courts around the world. What started as a meme became a basketball mainstay as amateur and professional players alike often shout “Kobe!” when taking a jump shot.
Despite Bryant’s untimely death, it’s important that we make sure he lives on in all of us. Bryant, known around the world as The Black Mamba, described his revolutionary killer mentality as “the ultimate mantra for the competitive spirit,” which centers on having trust in your hard work and the process. Just as monks may say that Nirvana is the goal state of mind, athletes across all sports aim for Mamba Mentality.
Walking down Chambers Street, I hear a basketball bouncing, followed by a whoosh of air and the swish of the net. “Kobe!”