Learning to love Kobe Bryant

I hated Kobe Bryant.

If you were an NBA fan back in the mid-2000s, you either loved or hated Kobe. There was no in-between. His greatness elicited intense passion. You can’t feel mildly about him. Whatever you felt about him came from the gut. It was an emotion that came from deep within.

When I was growing up and learning to love the game, I was drawn to watching point guards. I enjoyed watching them break down the defense and make the decision between attacking or creating for their teammates. I loved point guards that made their teams better. I appreciated the games of Bibby and Nash, two floor leaders that ran their teams so well in the mid-2000s.

The Kings and the Suns both played a free-flowing offensive game. It was a democracy where Nash and Bibby shared the wealth and everyone got their say. That’s why it was always jarring to watch Kobe’s authoritarian rule over the Lakers back then. It felt like the entire team bowed down to his rule. They were relegated to standing around the corners while their “leader” jacked up shots.

Even with the stylistic differences, I only disliked the Lakers. I couldn’t hate them. They were just along for the ride. But Kobe? I hated Kobe.

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What I hated most about him was how condescending he looked. He knew he was the best player on the floor and had no qualms about letting everyone know it. He didn’t hold back, showing how disappointed he was when his teammates made mistakes. He would stand with his head tilted and his hands on his side, looking like a parent waiting for an apology from a their child. When he did end up saving the day (which was often), he looked so pleased with himself.

The peak of my hatred was during the 2006 Playoffs when my Suns faced the Lakers in the First Round. I couldn’t believe how Kobe was single-handedly carrying a less-talented squad to a series lead against the stacked SSOL Suns. When he hit the game-winner in Game 4 and hammed it up for the cameras by pulling his jersey to reveal his “heart”, I was incensed. I wanted nothing more than to wipe that smug look off Kobe’s face.

Even if I hated Kobe, I was also enamored by him. That’s another thing about his greatness. You just couldn’t ignore it. You were drawn to it.

And that’s where I found myself, more than two years later. I was drawn to Kobe as he was single-handedly trying to bring the Lakers back to life in the 2008 Finals. 

The Lakers found themselves facing a huge hole in Game 6 of that series. No one was playing well, not even Kobe. But that didn’t stop him from trying. He played all 12 minutes of the third quarter, trying as much as possible to chop down the Celtics’ lead. It was a futile effort. Kobe lost the game and the championship. But also, he won my respect.

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There was something about his defiance during that game that resonated with me. How he tried to drag his team back from an insurmountable deficit was raw and very real. It looked like it was his basic instinct, to rebel against failure. That mindset, to me, was the definition of Mamba Mentality. I was witnessing it first hand, way before it was a catchy marketing line. I realized that everything I used to hate about him were just manifestations of his unrelenting nature. 

Kobe refused to lose. It was simply a reality that he just wasn’t willing to accept. And he did everything in his power to avoid failure. I really believe that he hates losing more than he loves winning. It’s as if winning was just a byproduct of his refusal to lose. Kobe was stubborn that way. He didn’t allow himself to be conquered by anything or anyone, not even by his own body.

Just like in Game 7 of the 2010 Finals. At that point, Kobe had already battled the Celtics in six grueling games. He was spent by the final game of the season. But with the game, championship and a chance for revenge on the line, he didn’t balk. With 25 seconds left in the season, Kobe threw his body into a sea of Celtic defenders, earning a foul and two crucial free throws for his team.

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Or in 2013 when Kobe injured his achilles. He literally tore the tissue that connected his foot and calf muscle. Did he ask to sub out? No. He pinched his calf muscle, got up, limped to the free throw line and drained two clutch shots. What many forget about that game was that the Lakers ended up winning, which helped their final push for the Playoffs that season.

During the dying minutes of his final game in 2016, Kobe was fully exhausted. He really looked like a player who has spent 20 years in the league. He was trying to catch his breath and was bent over clutching his shorts. But he didn’t back down. There was no way he was going to allow the final game in his career to be a loss. So, instead he gave us all a game for the ages.

When Kobe had nothing left to give, he kept on pushing forward anyway. He worked so hard, and mastered his craft to the best of his ability so that he could battle mediocrity, so that he could fight failure. His spirit was truly indomitable. And that’s what I loved about him.

Kobe was inspiring to so many people because he wasn’t an untouchable demi-god like Jordan or an unreal freak of nature like LeBron. He was more human than any of the legends that played the game. What he had was an untouchable work ethic and an unreal determination. What Kobe did on the court inspired people beyond basketball. He proved that going through the constant grind will be worth it in the end. He proved that we can all work towards our own greatness.

That’s why it’s so weird to say “Rest in peace, Kobe.” Partly because I still can’t believe he’s gone. But also because knowing Kobe, he’s not resting. He’s probably already working up a sweat, training hard with Gigi.

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I don’t know why it took me so long to write this tribute. I also didn’t know that I would be writing it too late. I wish I wrote this to celebrate one of his achievements. Scoring 60 in his final game. Getting both his numbers retired. Not to mourn his passing.

There’s no time like today to appreciate the ones you love.

I love you, Kobe.


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Eight Memorable Mamba Moments

It’s never goodbye

The arbitrary value of Kobe Bryant

The unifying force of Mamba Mentality