This is surreal to even write: basketball legend Kobe Bryant passed away at age 41 in a helicopter crash. He, along with his daughter, Gianna, went down in a helicopter accident after flying in low altitude and difficult visibility conditions. The crash took place on the morning of January 26 in the suburbs of Los Angeles.
As I gazed at my phone sitting at my carrel in Case Library, life seemed to pause. Everything went in slow motion. Kobe Bryant is dead. It felt unnatural to be on Twitter once the news first broke — this had to be fake news at its fakest.
The spread of information among my circles back home in LA was frantic. Group chats trying to translate what this all meant.
There was a fundamental part of every person that felt something when they learned this was confirmed, 100 percent real. That question was on an endless feedback loop for days: How is this real? How can this be possible?
At 9:45 a.m. on Sunday January 26, a helicopter carrying four passengers crashed into the mountains in Calabasas, CA. The group was on the way from Orange County to Mamba Sports Academy Basketball farther north up the 101 freeway.
This is an area I am familiar with intimately. I attended AE Wright Middle School, within eyeshot of the crash site and no more than two miles away. The hills are steep and the fog rolls in thick, affecting the navigation of helicopters and airplanes.
Nine people died in the crash, including Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna. She was about to be the next torch-bearer of the Bryant family legacy. She displayed her excellence on the basketball court with Bryant’s Mamba Academy basketball team.
Her fadeaways and post moves went viral, evoking images of a young Kobe on the court at Staples Center for the Lakers.
Kobe is one of those players who was so great that he transcends sports journalism’s mandate of full impartiality. If you watched Kobe play, you had certain feelings about him that influenced the way you analyze him. If you listened to him speak, there was an innate response in your psyche that commanded you to smile or scowl. You could be the one praising his greatness, in genuine awe of his presence as if he were sent directly from the basketball gods above.
On the other hand, you could easily cast him in an evil shadow. He was so good, at many points it was infuriating. One of the most incredible things about his personality was his unrelenting competitiveness and ability to take up real estate in opponents’ minds.
He would use this psychological edge to exploit the physical loopholes in the game and impose his will as a prolific scorer.
Whether one rooted for or against Bryant, the outpouring of grief and love in the wake of his death was enormous. Every recognizable personality in this country seemed to come out of the woodwork and express their sorrows regarding Bryant’s passing. It was an unprecedented moment with unprecedented responses —the entire NBA community mourned his passing with video tributes and personal testimonials posted on social media. He was so great in his time that he transcended the game of basketball.
Kobe began his career as a 17-year-old kid from Lower Merion High School in Philadelphia, and he concluded it with unanimous recognition as one of the greatest of all time. Drafted 13th overall by the Charlotte Hornets and then immediately traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, Bryant landed in the situation of his dreams.
Make no mistake about it—Kobe was no Zion Williamson or LeBron James character who was evangelized from the second they entered the league.
In the late 90’s, he waited for his time, doing his work as any patient NBA talent could and getting noticed as a blossoming scorer off LA’s bench. In the following years, he affirmed his aspirations at basketball greatness.
In 1999, the Lakers hired the legendary Phil Jackson to lead the team into the next century and help them christen their new home, the Staples Center. Couple this with the arrival of elite center Shaquille O’Neal, and you had the recipe for a dynasty.
From 2000 to 2002, the Lakers won three straight championships. In the following years, Bryant entered into the stratosphere. Shaq and Kobe complimented each other on the court to make the Lakers into an offensive juggernaut. When Shaq departed, however, it unleashed the venom of the Black Mamba.
From 2002 on, Bryant made the All-NBA First Team almost ten years in a row. He was a rugged warrior on defense and a cold blooded killer on offense. In January 2006, he executed a performance for the ages against the Toronto Raptors in which he put up 81 points, helping the Lakers to a comeback win. It still stands today as the second-most points ever scored in an NBA game by an individual player.
By the end of 2010, Bryant had a championship ring for every finger. In 2009 and 2010, he silenced any doubt that he could lead a Lakers team to the title as the sole superstar with back-to-back finals MVP efforts against the Orlando Magic and Boston Celtics, respectively. His finals record of 5-2 remains one of his most impressive career achievements, especially relevant to those who compare him to greats like Lebron James and Michael Jordan. Add to all the championship hardware an MVP award in 2008, two Olympic gold medals, 18 All-Star appearances, two scoring titles, and an Oscar that he won for basketball filmmaking— you’ve got arguably the most decorated athlete of the 21st century.
These illustrious career achievements have established Kobe Bryant not just as a basketball icon but an entire brand in himself. His decades-long partnership with Nike has extended his image and likeness across the globe. Since his death, murals and other works of art have consecrated the Bryant legacy beyond Southern California.
He was one of the world’s most recognizable faces of sport, a permanent fixture in our modern culture of self-determination and perseverance. Mamba Mentality has become a battlecry for pushing oneself to the limits of their work, asking each person how bad they want their goals.
Like many of his contemporaries, Bryant has experienced dark moments in his career. In summer 2003, he was accused of sexually assaulting a woman at a hotel in Colorado. The two had differing accounts of the events, with Bryant maintaining that the engagement was consented by the two of them. The hotel employee ended up dropping the charges, as she refused to testify.
Kobe Bryant’s legacy is not pristine. His unforgiving personality was not always a cheerful portrayal of basketball excellence. Nonetheless, the impact he had on the community and endeavor to make the world better for those around him accentuated the philanthropic side of his ultimate-competitor personality. He became lauded as the model for a “girl dad,” raising his four duaghters with a love so loud and inspiring that you would not believe it was the same Kobe who tore up the basketball court in seven different NBA Finals.
Bryant’s final game on April 13, 2016 illustrated the Mamba Mentality in its purest essence. In a meaningless game for the Lakers having already been eliminated from playoff contention, Bryant called on the spirits of the 2000’s to execute a vintage performance: 60 points, the highest for anyone in the NBA that season. After the past few years of injuries and frustration, it was a glorious way to close out a career with no shortage of glory.
The passing of Kobe Bryant was a moment in time no sports fan will ever forget. If you are from LA, Kobe was more than a great player or popular face you’d see around—he was a folk hero. Bryant’s Mamba Mentality encapsulates what it means to have a vision for your own success and pursue it so tenaciously that when the final goal seems to have been achieved, the drive remains unbroken. Bryant continued this mentality in his post-basketball life, etching a place for himself in greater American society bigger than basketball. His contributions cannot be overstated. We will miss you Kobe. Taken from us far, far too soon.
“I have self-doubt. I have insecurity. I have fear of failure. I have nights when I show up at the arena and I’m like, ‘My back hurts, my feet hurt, my knees hurt. I don’t have it. I just want to chill.’ We all have self-doubt. You don’t deny it, but you also don’t capitulate to it. You embrace it.” – Kobe Bryant, 1978 - 2020.