BY HUNTER DONELSON
The white cloth with maroon lettering reading, 33. The gold cloth with purple lettering reading, 8. The purple cloth with gold lettering reading, 24. Each jersey framed on my bedroom wall. From Lower Merion High School to the Los Angeles Lakers, Kobe Bryant bled greatness. He bled competitiveness. He bled poise and dedication. Over the last two decades, Bryant has appeared on posters, murals, and people’s bedroom walls just like mine. When he came into the league back in 1996 it brought immediate excitement, a certain energy. But now, there’s a sense of emptiness. Like the sports world is missing something. Let me rephrase that, the sports world IS missing something.
On the morning of January 26, 2020, Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant passed away in a tragic helicopter crash. With him was his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna Bryant. When the news broke it was like the world had stopped right where it was, like everyone had hit pause on whatever they were doing to gather around their television and see it for themselves.
The tragedy had the world wishing they could hit rewind. Fans were so shocked that they didn’t believe it was real. Because it didn’t feel real. Kobe couldn’t have died. Not so soon. Not after retiring from the NBA just four years ago. Not after getting both of his jerseys retired by the Lakers. Not after having his fourth daughter just a summer ago. Not after congratulating LeBron James for passing him on the all-time scoring list via Twitter just 16 hours prior to the accident. It couldn’t have been possible, not Kobe Bryant.
There’s something different about Kobe’s passing. It hits a little harder. Perhaps it’s because the world watched him grow up. Not only did we see him grow as a player, but as a man off the court. At 18-years-old, he became the youngest player to ever step foot on an NBA floor. From that point, we saw him go through 20 years of life. We saw him make mistakes, we saw him grow from a petulant teenager to a grown man raising a beautiful family and everything in between. But on the court, we saw the unparalleled, relentless “Mamba Mentality” take full effect.
Mamba Mentality… it changed everything. It changed everyone.
Mamba Mentality is something that Kobe established early on, starting with the greatest player of all-time, Michael Jordan. “You know I can kick your ass one on one,” Kobe told MJ the very first time they met. If Mamba Mentality could be squeezed into one single quote, that’s the one.
For those that don’t know, Mamba Mentality is about attacking the challenge in front of you using all the passion you can find in yourself. But not only that… doing it without fear or the idea of quitting. There is no quitting. That’s not an option. This was something Kobe lived by, and it set him apart from any athlete to ever play sports. It’s something people try to emulate to this day, and they always will try. Yet it will never be the same.
This mindset, instilled at a very young age, led to the many successes we know today. Five NBA Championships, two NBA Finals MVPs, the 2007 NBA Most Valuable Player…and a laundry list of other achievements too numerous to count.
But it wasn’t these awards that made Kobe, it was certain moments that made Kobe Bean Bryant. Moments where we saw Mamba Mentality completely take over. For instance, the 81-point performance against the Toronto Raptors on January 22, 2006. Bringing his team back from an 18-point deficit, Bryant outscored the Raptors 55-41 in the second half (yes, he scored 55 points in one half). He would finish the game shooting 61% from the field, 54% from three and, if you still don’t believe it, 81 points. It was like something out of a Hollywood action script where our hero decides the only path to the end is by single-handedly dismissing mob after mob of villains.
That wasn’t it. On April 12, 2013, the Lakers faced off against the Golden State Warriors. Entering the fourth quarter, Kobe had tallied 32 points. As he drove to his left against Harrison Barnes while drawing a foul, he went down. Clearly in pain, Kobe was holding his Achilles. As he got up he could barely walk, at that point, it was apparent that he had torn it. But Kobe didn’t walk to the bench or into the locker room. Kobe walked to the free-throw line, to shoot his foul shots. He made them both and walked off the court for what some believed could be the last time. As we all know, it wasn’t.
But when Kobe did walk off the court for the final time, he left us with the most Kobe-esque performance possible. The last stop of his farewell tour was at home, the Staples Center, the house that Kobe built. In one of the most anticipated games of the season, the stars came out. Celebrities ranging from Jack Nicholson to Kanye West, George Lopez, and many more all made sure to be there. The Lakers played the Utah Jazz, who were fighting for a playoff spot. In the 65 games of his final season, Kobe averaged just 16.9 points per game. When the Lakers played the Jazz just two weeks prior to this game, Kobe scored just 5 points. But under much different circumstances, Kobe put on a show. Six minutes went by before Kobe attempted his first shot. Then he gained traction. With his team down by 10 points with 2:36 left in the game, Bryant went for 13 unanswered points giving him 60 for the game. It had been seven years since Kobe scored 60+ in a single game. In fact, the last time he reached that feat was on February 2, 2009 against the Knicks when he set the record for the most points scored at Madison Square Garden.
“I challenged him to get 50 [points] and that motherf***er got 60,” said Shaquille O’Neal after his former teammates’ performance.
Being such a fierce competitor has its moments of greatness, but it also comes with a fiery attitude and, for Kobe, a little bit of pettiness. I’m talking about Round 1, Game 7 of the 2006 NBA Playoffs. The seven-seeded Los Angeles Lakers faced off against the two-seeded Phoenix Suns. In Game 6, Bryant scored 50 points on 20-for-35 shooting, however, the Lakers failed to come away with a victory. With the loss forcing Game 7, Kobe began to face criticism for being “selfish” and a “ball hog”. In response, Kobe refused to shoot the ball. Stubbornly trying to prove a point; that the Lakers couldn’t win without an offensive-minded Kobe Bryant. It was the ultimate cutting off the nose to spite the face move. He would go on to score 18 points in the second quarter, but that’s about all we’d see from him that night. In the second half, Bryant attempted just three shots… three. He would finish the game with 24 points on 8-for-16 shooting and the Lakers would get blown out 121-90.
Each of these attributes when fused together, good or bad, wired Kobe Bryant. It gave the people someone to look up to, someone to idolize. Not even just “people”… the whole world.
The impact of his death was felt across the entire planet, because Kobe left his footprints across the entire planet. International athletes such as Lionel Messi, Neymar, Nick Kyrgios, and many others all recognized Kobe’s death. Bryant spent years abroad while his father played basketball in Europe. He learned several different languages and developed a respect for the many unique cultures across the world. He was a polyglot with a unique way of connecting with everyone. His death affected more than just his fellow athletes. Fans across the world paid their respects by painting murals, building commemoration walls, and some even getting Kobe Bryant photos tattooed on their bodies. The Eiffel Tower in Paris, France and the CN Tower in Toronto, Canada were lit up purple and gold in honor of Kobe. ESPN’s Mike Greenberg proposed on his show, Get Up, that the NBA should make an award named the “Kobe Bryant Award” and give it to the player that has had the most influence on expanding the NBA worldwide.
Even here, in Independence, Missouri, the home of exactly zero professional basketball teams, the Silverstein Eye Centers Arena shone purple and gold. His impact is everywhere. His legacy is everywhere. Kobe Bryant is everywhere. Including Truman High School. Patriots guard Kaimen Lennox will change his number to 24 in Friday night’s game against Lee’s Summit to pay his respects.
“I grew up watching him. I always wanted to wear Kobe’s shoes when I was a kid. His jersey is even hanging up in my room. When I first found out, it was surprising. I didn’t believe it. It all just felt like a dream. All I could think about was how he’s impacted so many basketball players and athletes around the world, including myself. Just his grit and competitive drive, I tried to take that from his game and apply it to my own. I want to go out there on Friday and play hard for Kobe. With his number on my back,” said Lennox.
The force of his death was also felt around the NBA. In nearly every game since Kobe’s tragic accident, each team has taken either a 24 second violation or an 8 second violation in remembrance of the jersey numbers worn by Bryant. But it goes much further than that. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told the media that there will never be another Maverick to put on a jersey with the number 24.
Brooklyn Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie has stated that he will be changing his jersey number from number 8 to number 26. This led to many players informally retiring Kobe’s number, following in Dinwiddie’s footsteps. In their game on Sunday, Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young came out with the jersey number 8 (he normally wears number 11) to honor Bryant. In that game, Young and Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker combined for 81 points, shooting 24 shots each. Strange, right?
In Monday’s game, the Philadelphia 76ers honored Kobe before the game with his Lower Merion High School jersey framed up and rang the Liberty Bell during a moment of silence. Bryant grew up in Philadelphia and played high school basketball in Philadelphia. 76ers’ star Joel Embiid wore number 24 for the entire game Monday night as he went for… 24 points.
These honors show the kind of respect that the players, coaches, and organizations as a whole had for Kobe. But the ultimate respect could be coming from the league and commissioner Adam Silver. As everyone knows, Lakers legend Jerry West is the current NBA logo. But even West has made it clear that he did not want to remain the NBA’s logo. This has led many fans and sources around the league to believe we could see a Kobe Bryant silhouette take his place as early as next season.
Kobe gave the numbers 8 and 24 a different meaning that will never go away or be forgotten. They aren’t just jersey numbers anymore. They symbolize an icon. They symbolize what it means to be a competitor. Achieving goals to the fullest but still walking into every practice, every game, and every day with the mindset that it can always be better, that’s what Kobe did. What he left behind are moments in sports history we will never forget and a mentality we’ll never match. Heroes come and go, but legends are forever. Kobe died a legend, but more importantly an amazing father to his four daughters.
Thank you Kobe, for literally changing how we go about our days. Thank you Kobe, for inspiring a generation of basketball players and athletes. Thank you Kobe, for unforgettable moments that we will pass on to future generations. Thank you Kobe, for showing us what it truly means to fight with everything we’ve got to live our dreams. Gone, but never forgotten. Rest in Peace.