“The most important thing is to try and inspire people so that they can be great in whatever they want to do.” – Kobe Bryant
On Sunday, Jan. 26, a helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others, crashed in the hills of Calabasas, Calif. Everyone on board perished.
Among those killed were the Bryants; John and Keri Altobelli, along with their daughter, Alyssa; Christina Mouser; Sarah Chester and her daughter, Payton; and the pilot, Ara Zobayan.
Bryant leaves behind his wife, Vanessa, and three daughters: Natalia Diamante, 17; Bianka Bella, 3; and Capri Kobe, 7 months. The Bryants would have celebrated their 19th wedding anniversary in April.
Bryant was a man that pushed the idea of what is possible every day. He challenged those around him and encouraged everybody to improve or get out of the way. He attacked life in an uncommon way.
Bryant believed nothing was impossible. If he was told he couldn’t do it, a singular focus would lead him to a solution. Bryant lived life fast. What were considered insurmountable roadblocks for most people were simply minor speed bumps for Bryant.
It was this aspect of his personality that, ultimately, led to his death.
Many words come to mind when remembering Bryant. He meant something different to everybody that crossed his path.
It seems funny that, for a player with Bryant’s reputation — a gunner, and one of the purest scoring guards in NBA history — his first signature moment comes on an assist. But then again, nothing about Bryant was standard or ordinary.
The Staples Center in Los Angeles is at a fevered pitch, fans lusting for a championship. The game is about as big as they come. The Lakers battle the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals. A chance at playing for an NBA title is on the line, and both teams are brimming with all-stars.
After trailing by 15 points early in the fourth quarter, the Lakers storm back to take a four-point lead. With just under one-minute remaining in regulation, Shaquille O’Neal grabs a rebound off a Blazers’ missed shot.
Showing a level of trust rarely given to young athletes, the Lakers put the ball in the hands of a 22-year-old Bryant, a short four seasons removed from high school. Bryant, being defended by legend and future Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen, slows his right-handed dribble at the Laker logo near mid-court and surveys the defense.
With 45 seconds left, the young shooting guard makes his move. Using a crossover dribble, Bryant fakes right and goes left, right around his all-world defensive counterpart.
As Bryant nears the free throw line, O’Neal rolls to the basket and points skyward. “The Black Mamba,” as he would later come to be known, floats a perfectly placed pass, just over the outstretched fingers of Brian Grant, into the hands of O’Neal for a thunderous dunk.
The Staples Center crowd explodes, and Blazers fans are broken. 41.3 seconds remain, but they know this game is over. The Lakers would advance to the NBA Finals, where they eventually dispatched the Indiana Pacers for the first of three straight titles.
Bryant was the son of Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, a former NBA player himself. While at Lower Merion High School, he took pop star Brandy to his senior prom. He skipped college, opting instead for the NBA.
Bryant was drafted 13th in the 1996 NBA Draft by the Charlotte Hornets, who immediately traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers. Bryant was destined for a big city like LA. His star burned too bright to be stuck in a small market.
Bryant received his first taste of the NBA playoffs in his rookie season, 1996-97. It did not go well. After defeating the Trail Blazers in the first round, Bryant’s Lakers fell to the Utah Jazz 4-1. An 18-year-old Bryant shot four airballs from the end of regulation through overtime.
He sat in the Laker locker room and took all questions from the media. Sure, he was upset, but he took responsibility for what happened and said, “I had some good looks. I just didn’t hit the shot.”
No excuses, no complaining about officials or the crowd. He acknowledged that he needed to get better and he vowed to put in the necessary work.
As they walked off the floor that evening in Salt Lake City, O’Neal put his arms around the young rookie and told him to keep shooting.
“I said, ‘You know what, you might have shot four airballs … Just remember that when we meet these guys next year — then just hit it,’” O’Neal says. Later in his career, Bryant would go on to say those four airballs “helped shape me.”
Paul Marble, the assistant athletic director at Salt Lake Community College, looked back at Bryant’s early struggles.
“He learned a lot. Playing through a lot of pain and tough moments, it led to the fact that Kobe waxed more confident with every game that he played in,” Marble says. “The kid was just an amazing player and completely unguardable.”
In July 2003, Bryant was arrested and charged with sexual assault in Eagle County, Colo. after a 19-year-old Colorado woman filed a police complaint. It was a stunning charge against a popular young star.
He spent the 2003-04 season traveling back and forth from the Laker locker room to a Colorado courtroom as he faced the allegations. The criminal charges were eventually dismissed, and Bryant settled with his accuser for an undisclosed amount of money in a separate civil suit.
The damage was done, however. Certainly, Bryant’s reputation could never recover from this. And yet, somehow, it did.
Former Lakers coach Phil Jackson commented, “I’ve always seen Kobe as a truly great player, an intelligent and a remarkable person.”
In his lifetime, Bryant would win one high school state championship for Lower Merion High School, five NBA championships, two Olympic gold-medals, one NBA MVP, 18 All-Star selections, and one Oscar for an animated short film titled, “Dear Basketball.”
The head basketball coaches at SLCC reflected on Bryant and his achievements.
“He was completely unguardable and his will to win was ridiculous,” says Marcilina Grayer, head women’s basketball coach.
“His work ethic was unbelievable,” says Kyle Taylor, head men’s basketball coach. “Kobe Bryant was so passionate about being the greatest, that he went out and worked to be the greatest.”
In November 2015, Bryant released a poem on The Players Tribune announcing his retirement at the end of the 2015-16 season. After suffering a torn Achilles tendon in 2013 and breaking his kneecap while trying to come back from the Achilles injury, Bryant’s body couldn’t take the pounding of another NBA season.
Bryant made his final performance in front of the Staples Center crowd one to remember. On April 13, 2016, he wrapped up one of the greatest careers in sports history with a legendary 60-point performance against the Utah Jazz.
He hit threes. He dunked. At times, he looked graceful. At others, he looked every bit of his 37 years. However, in true Black Mamba form, he went out on top.
That night, Bryant earned the highest point total scored by any player in the league that season, leaving his fans wanting more.
When Bryant retired from basketball, he stepped away from the limelight of the NBA with no intention of returning. He wanted to focus on his family and other new career pursuits.
Two years later, his daughter Gianna started playing. Nicknamed Gigi, she showed a talent for the game and a love of basketball that Bryant remembered in himself.
Through Gigi, he returned to the game. He wanted to fuel her passion, and he pushed her to be the best.
A lasting memory for the world is a video showing Bryant and Gigi at a basketball game, with Bryant leaning in to offer some insight. Gigi cuts him off and finishes his sentence. Bryant smiles and nods approvingly. She clearly understands the lesson. Bryant beams with pride.
For all his faults, for all his greatness, for all his transgressions and repentances, Bryant succeeded in inspiring millions.
“To sum up what Mamba Mentality is, it means to be able to constantly try to be the best version of yourself,” Bryant said.