On Sunday, in the hills of Calabasas, California, nine people died in a helicopter crash. Mothers, fathers, daughters and coaches were ripped from their families and friends far too soon.
Sunday should have been a day filled with the sights and sounds of competition. Basketballs snapping through crisp, white nets and parents and fans screaming in support of their team.
Instead, Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna Bryant; Orange County College baseball coach John Altobelli, John’s wife, Keri Altobelli, and their daughter Alyssa Altobelli; mother Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton Chester; Mamba Academy basketball coach Christina Mauser; and pilot Ara Zobayan, died in a helicopter crash Sunday morning.
While those closest to the deceased mourned, the sports world grieved with them.
In arenas and on courts across the country, athletes were shocked and heartbroken. Disbelief is what I felt first. Surely not Kobe. Not Kobe … not Kobe. As dread welled up in the back of my throat, I hoped with all my heart TMZ had callously run a prank story. Then, one news source after another, it was confirmed. With the rest of the basketball community, I felt my heart break for the man who was basketball personified, his budding superstar daughter and the other victims of the tragic crash.
There is no doubt that the world of sports lost one of the greatest athletes of my lifetime, and arguably of all time.
From the time Kobe picked up a basketball at Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, the expectations were high. Everyone expected the 17-year-old son of former NBA player Joe Bryant to enter the league and tear it up, and that’s exactly what Kobe did. It’s very rare for a young player to enter professional sports and live up to extreme levels of hype, but Kobe was rare. He not only lived up to the hype — he surpassed it.
In his 20 seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, Kobe was the heart of the city. He dominated the first decade of my life with five NBA championships and countless other accolades. It was a storied career, one that will undoubtedly place him in the history books as one of the greatest to ever play the game. The name Kobe Bryant will forever be spoken in the same reverent tones as Michael Jordan, LeBron James and the future legends of basketball.
What set him a part was his mindset. Kobe “The Black Mamba” Bryant was different.
Black Mamba snakes are deadly, not only because of their venom but also because they strike without provocation, making them an unpredictable and formidable threat. Kobe earned his nickname, and the Mamba Mentality was coined for the intense way Kobe obsessed over his goals, played through blood, sweat and tears, and always seemed to win. He was a killer on the court.
The Mamba Mentality is a concept that has been adopted or sought after by athletes in every sport. A whole generation of kids grew up tossing items in the trash and yelling “Kobe!” when it went in. Kobe was synonymous with winning.
While I didn’t know him personally, Kobe had a massive influence on my life. His death felt devastating to me.
My freshman year of high school was the first time I seriously picked up a basketball. I was awful, I was slow, sloppy with my form and all-around a bench player. It was a humble beginning, but I wanted to be great. I wanted to be like No. 24, taking the game-winning shot and making it for my team. I knew what I had to do if I ever wanted that chance. Kobe showed me.
Even as an NBA starter and later as a star, Kobe was in the gym at 5 a.m. putting in work, always grinding to get better. So, I adopted the Mamba Mentality and got to work. Every morning I set my alarm for 4:45 a.m. and drove to the gym to train with my dad before school. When I got tired and the thousands of reps didn’t seem worth it, I’d remember Kobe. This was his recipe for success; I’d make it mine.
I spent years training with the Mamba Mentality, studying the handles and shooting form of No. 24, and eventually, it all paid off. I got that thrilling time on the court and got to feel the intensity of playing in the state tournament. I have Kobe to thank for that. His work ethic and determination made a young woman’s dream come true. It also made hundreds of thousands of other young athletes around the world dreams come true.
However, Kobe’s impact reached far beyond the basketball court, and that is what I think compounds the pain of his loss.
In the years following his retirement, Kobe’s presence in the media transitioned from basketball highlights to touching moments with his four daughters and his wife, Vanessa Bryant.
Basketball no longer was the highlight of his life — his family was.
Kobe’s Instagram is covered in photos of Vanessa; Natalia, 17; Gianna, 13; Bianka, 3; and Capri, who was born June 2019. It was clear that his girls were his world. Videos from media and fans alike showed Kobe teaching the game to Gianna, not only as her coach for her Mamba Sports Academy basketball team, but as a father eager to share his love for the game with his daughter.
Gianna shared Kobe’s love for basketball, and her dedication to the game was so stunningly similar to Kobe’s that the Mambacita was no doubt destined for greatness in the Women’s National Basketball Association.
Kobe told Extra in July 2017, “[Gianna]’s pretty fierce. She loves playing, she loves shooting. She came to me last summer and asked if I would teach her the game a little bit, so she really just started playing, but she picked up things innately.”
The pair’s bond surpassed just blood. It was rooted in a deep love for the game that Kobe dominated for years.
To lose a basketball legend and his young prodigy who seemed destined to take the WNBA by storm one day hurts. What hurts more is the world losing a father and a daughter.
The sports world will ache and grieve, and that’s OK. We lost an icon, a mentor, a legend, and the Bryant family lost their father, husband, daughter and sister.
However, even in the most challenging circumstances, the game keeps going. Like Kobe with a torn Achilles’ tendon, we have to limp back out to the free-throw line of life and keep playing.
Kobe once said, “Have a good time. Life is too short to get bogged down and be discouraged. You have to keep it moving. You have to keep going. Put one foot in front of the other, smile and just keep on rolling.”
Mamba Mentality forever.