Posts Tagged ‘Los Angeles Lakers’

You have to dance beautifully in the box that you’re comfortable dancing in. My box was to be extremely ambitious within the sport of basketball. Your box is different than mine. Everybody has their own. It’s your job to try to perfect it and make it as beautiful of a canvas as you can make it. And if you have done that, then you have lived a successful life.
– Kobe Bryant

One month later, the words still don’t belong together, their syntax ghastly and incongruous, as improbable as a man suddenly floating upward toward the sky in defiance of gravity.

Kobe Bryant’s death.

Granted, if I were to cast my vote for anyone as “Most likely to defy gravity,” it would have been Kobe Bryant. And yet today, as the world looks on, 20,000+ mourners gather inside the Staples Center — known here in Los Angeles as The House That Kobe Built — to celebrate the life of Bryant and eight others, including his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, all of whom died tragically in a helicopter crash January 26 in Calabasas, CA, 30 miles northwest of where I now sit typing this.

Bryant’s untimely death generated shockwaves that continue to reverberate far beyond the sports world. Like so many others, my first response to hearing the news was total denial — there was no way it could be true, no way that Kobe Bryant, 41 years old and still in the creative prime of his life, could possibly be… dead? The news made no sense, and immediately I sought to dismiss it as the cruel hoax of a macabre, or at least misinformed, online troll. Kobe Bryant could not be dead.

And so, ever since that Sunday afternoon — an already gray and gloomy affair that quickly went dark around the edges — as reality set in gradually and painfully, I’ve been racking my brain trying to understand: Why has this affected me so much?

Why, for at least a week after the horrific news dropped on all of us like an anvil, did I feel so despondent? Why did I find it so challenging to shake off a heavy melancholy, as though I were wearing that same emotional anvil around my neck at all times? Why did I find myself shedding so many tears while watching tributes to someone I’d never even known or met?

Why would I find myself in the shower, my mind wandering off to some memory of Kobe as I quickly forgot which parts I had or hadn’t washed? Or likewise, while listening to a podcast on the run, my train of thought would switch tracks to some Kobe-related musing, only to realize moments later I’d lost the gist of the conversation. Why did I feel like a dog with 100 squirrels running around in its brain? And why do I still find myself stopping to take deep breaths as I write this?

For me this was never about hagiography — I don’t hero worship. Years ago, at a restaurant in the Bay Area, Katie and I saw Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry, his wife Ayesha and his tiny (at the time) daughter Riley sitting in a corner booth eating dinner. And while other diners apparently felt differently, we were happy to leave them alone to enjoy their meal in peace. Besides, we now live in LA, where celebrity sightings aren’t exactly blue moon events.

So then maybe Kobe’s death was a devastating reminder of life’s ephemerality, which as I approach the end of my fifth decade offers no shortage of shout-outs. Or maybe it was the sudden loss of a larger-than-life talent, a hometown hero and a global icon. Or could it be that the shock of his death affected me more than, say, the self-inflicted death of artists like Kurt Cobain or Heath Ledger in large part because Kobe was one of the greatest players of all time in the sport I’ve loved since childhood? After all, I’d once envisioned a future for myself as an NBA-caliber athlete before a disappointing growth spurt and limited quickness extinguished that short-lived dream.

No, there was more to it still than all that. And at last I realized what “it” could be.

Kobe and daughter Gianna attend a Lakers game at Staples Center Dec 29, 2019 (© 2019 NBAE, Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

For Kobe Bryant everything he did, he did at the highest level. Every challenge he tackled got his undivided attention and his best effort. Halfway was unacceptable, and failure wasn’t an option. Because in his universe, the one that for 20 NBA seasons revolved around a singular, white-hot passion for the game of basketball, there was no such thing as good enough.

Kobe articulated the secret of his success in the simplest of terms: “I’m chasing perfection.” Coming from most other people, such a mission statement might elicit a roll of the eyes or a bemused smirk. Coming from Kobe though, it just made sense.

It’s a mindset that fascinates me, one I admire greatly — and it manifested itself in the gravitational pull Planet Kobe had on coaches, teammates, opponents, fans and even the media. Maybe more so than all the points, wins and championships over two decades, that single-minded obsession with being the best is his enduring legacy for his millions of fans around the world.

It’s also a mindset I can relate to on a personal level. No, I’m not the fourth-greatest scorer in NBA history or an Academy Award winner, but since childhood I’ve tended toward perfectionism in much of what I do. Because as the saying goes, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.

If I have one guiding principle in life, that may be it. It may not always be the healthiest approach, but it’s served me well, first as a research scientist and now as an entrepreneur/small business owner. And like Kobe, two of my least favorite words in the English language are “good enough.”

It’s ironic, to be sure. As a lifelong Boston Celtics fan I once hated Kobe Bryant, first when he wore #8 and then later in his career when he sported #24 (both numbers now hang in the rafters at Staples Center). Hated what he did against my Celtics. Hated the five championships he won as the driving force of Boston’s bitter rival, and especially the 2010 title he won against my Celtics while playing with a broken finger. Hated to see his Lakers get the better of my team so many times across the years, as his Lakers slowly but surely crept toward the 17 championships my Celtics boast as the all-time winningest team in NBA history. (That 2010 title, his fifth and final trophy, was the Lakers’ 16th.)

For 20 years Kobe was the face of the enemy, playing a role that at times felt crafted by a Hollywood screenwriter. So naturally, as any passionate sports fans would, I hated him for it.

And he certainly gave his haters ammunition — but then again that will happen when you’re forced to grow up, emotionally if not physically, in the unforgiving glare of the Hollywood spotlight and the nation’s second-largest media market. Kobe hit rock bottom in 2003 when he faced a sexual assault allegation brought against him by a hotel worker in Denver; the case never went to trial, and the charges were later dropped. But it was during this time that Kobe created the “Black Mamba” persona to help him separate his personal and professional lives.

For many non-basketball fans, the 2003 allegation is really all they know of Kobe Bryant, and understandably they treat it as much more than an asterisk on his legacy. In the immediate aftermath of his death, some writers even made the questionable decision to focus their pulpit on that ugly chapter of his life. For my part, as unsettling as it was at the time, I no longer view Kobe’s career through the lens of that period, and I’d be disingenuous to act as though I do.

So no, Kobe certainly wasn’t perfect, a realization that only drove him harder. In his 20 years as a pro athlete, through a ruptured Achilles tendon, a fractured knee, a torn rotator cuff in his shooting shoulder and myriad other injuries that would’ve derailed most careers, he never gave in, never gave up, never stopped battling, never settled for less than 100% effort. He was uncompromising in his demand for excellence, both from himself and from everyone around him. He pissed off, intimidated, and drove away many a teammate with his relentless will and laser focus.

And he never cared. Because in Kobe’s world there was no such thing as good enough.

“If somebody’s not obsessed with what they do,” he once told ESPN senior writer Ramona Shelburne, “We don’t speak the same language.”

Kobe is the only NBA player to have two jersey numbers retired by the same team (John Shearer/Getty Images)

He made it clear he had every intention of taking that “Mamba Mentality” into retirement with him when, despite a recent history of season-ending injuries, he scored 60 points on 50 shots in the last game of his career. To put that in perspective, his 60 points was more than twice as many as any other Hall of Famer had scored in their last game. (By contrast fellow Laker Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the league’s all-time leading scorer, managed just 7 points in a loss to the Detroit Pistons in the 1989 NBA Finals. Michael Jordan scored 15.) Because giving anything less than everything he had would not have been good enough.

Or, as former teammate Lamar Odom so eloquently put it, “That motherfucker is cold-blooded.”

On that same night he retired from professional basketball, Kobe thanked the fans, famously proclaimed “Mamba out,” and walked off the floor with a towel draped over his shoulders as he had so many times before. And for many pro athletes, that night would have signaled the start of a cold, hard reality check, of an unnerving transition into a day-to-day existence without the comfortable camaraderie of the locker room or the reliable adrenaline rush of game day.

But not Kobe. To him, “Mamba out” meant turning the page on one creative and productive chapter of his life and seamlessly moving on to the next. He was ready to reinvent himself, this time as a storyteller. It was an ambition he quickly turned into reality, when in 2018 he became the first pro athlete to win an Academy Award for his animated short film, “Dear Basketball.” (Matthew A. Cherry followed in Kobe’s footsteps this year, becoming the second pro athlete to win an Oscar while dedicating the award to Bryant just two weeks after his death.)

An Academy Award. And two months later, a Sports Emmy Award. Because if you’re going to be a storyteller, well then be the best storyteller. In Kobe’s world, anything less would not have been good enough.

Like an angry scab that’s been scratched away, his death lays bare an unsettling truth. If Kobe Bryant can die so suddenly and senselessly in the prime of his life, then so can any of us — today, tomorrow, maybe next week. As in everything he did, Kobe worked so hard to craft the lasting narrative of his life, to shape his personal legacy, and to tell the story he wanted to be remembered by once he was gone.

But the one thing he couldn’t craft was a happy ending.

And that, I think, is what hurts the most — that unlike so many pro athletes who happily ride into the sunset of retirement, Kobe refused to rest on his laurels, though he had every right to do so. Along with the other eight passengers on that ill-fated helicopter, he still had too much to offer the world. And now we’ll never know what might have been. Because all we’ve gotten is all we’re getting. And this time when Kobe says “Mamba out,” he means it.

Kobe Bryant was many things, but he was never complacent. And it’s both utterly amazing and deeply saddening to think that an 18-time NBA All-Star, 5-time world champion, 2-time Olympic gold medal winner, Academy Award winner, Sports Emmy Award winner, and father of four was just getting started on a second act that, by all indications, promised to be just as successful and entertaining as his first.

And that will forever have to be good enough.


Much love and respect Mamba, you’ll be missed… I know that somewhere you and Gianna are chasing perfection together, and that teacher has become pupil as Mambacita schools you on the intricacies of the fadeaway jumper.

Like Kobe, my fellow Stanford alum and ESPN senior writer Ramona Shelburne is one of the best at what she does, and I’d recommend her excellent profile on Kobe Bryant written in the immediate aftermath of his retirement.