Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/2296927-The-Black-Mamba
by Coco
Rated: E · Non-fiction · Sports · #2296927
A Journalism Piece about Kobe Bryant written in 2022

On January 26, 2020, the great Kobe Bryant passed away along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, shocking the world. Millions grieved, devastated by this news. Players paid tribute by running a 24-second shot-clock to honor Kobe's jersey: #24. News outlets covered this incident endlessly, and it seemed that sports fans everywhere stopped what they were doing and prayed for the Black Mamba. Only recently, cameras at Madison Square Garden captured endearing images of Kobe and his daughter sitting courtside, enjoying his hard-earned retirement. News of his passing flooded social media, and the price of Bryant’s shoe brand skyrocketed. His death had arguably more significance than that of any sports star in history. But why? Why was Kobe so influential?

Kobe Bean Bryant was born on August 23, 1978, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His father, former NBA player Joe Bryant, pushed Kobe to take up basketball early on. Bryant earned national recognition during high school, leading his team to a 77-13 record over a three-year span. His performance attracted the attention of many prestigious basketball-focused colleges.

Kobe decided to skip college, heading straight to the loaded NBA draft class of 1996. Beforehand, Kobe worked out with the Philadelphia 76ers and the Los Angeles Lakers, impressing both. Lakers Hall of Famer and manager Jerry West stated, "He played against both Larry Drew and Laker legend Michael Cooper, and he marched over these people."

However, the draft didn’t go as Kobe expected, as the teams favored players with college experience. Kobe was eventually selected as the 13th pick by the Charlotte Hornets but was immediately traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, as he reportedly didn’t want to play for the Hornets.

While Kobe had limited playing time as a rookie, he worked hard and showed glimpses of impressive talent. Kobe’s early success can be attributed to his ongoing relationship with Shaquille O’Neal, the 15-time All-Star who was also signed to the Lakers in 1996. Shaq would be essential to Kobe’s story, as they went on to win three consecutive championships.

Shaq, “The Big Diesel,” had a memorable first impression of Kobe. In a 2018 interview for TV’s Players Only, Shaq recalled that the rookie wasn’t shy about sharing his intentions, revealing that he wanted to become "the greatest player of all time.” Shaq chuckled and replied, “Alright, I got you.” Although Shaq didn’t take Kobe seriously back then, the duo would become one of the “fiercest tandems the league had ever seen.”

In 1997, the Lakers advanced to the second round of the playoffs, where they faced the Utah Jazz. The Lakers were out-gunned and soon fell to a series deficit. With many starters injured, Kobe had his chance to come off the bench and shine in an intense pressure situation. It almost seemed planned: Kobe seizing an opportunity and rising to stardom, leading his team in a comeback.

With eight seconds left, the game was tied 89-89. Kobe dribbled the ball up the court. He went right, pulling up a midrange fadeaway jumper. The fans held a collective breath. If Kobe made this shot, the Lakers would have a comeback chance. He let the ball fly. It seemed to move in slow motion, as the entire Vivint Arena fell silent. The ball zoomed towards the basket, seemingly on track, but at the last second, it was as if a bird suddenly had a heart attack in mid-air. Kobe shot a humiliating, heart-wrenching, ever-dreaded AIRBALL!

The young rookie went on to shoot three more embarrassing airballs as play extended into overtime. The Utah fans went crazy, mocking the supposed future phenom. It was apparent to everyone: the fans, the opponents, the coaches: Kobe wasn’t ready.

Teammate Byron Scott once remarked that at the end of the Utah Game, Bryant had a look on his face that said, “This will never happen again.” Kobe wasn’t afraid of failure; rather, he faced it with courage.

While his teammates rested afterward, Kobe got to work. Later, when Kobe was asked about his offseason, he replied, “I didn’t have an offseason. I went straight to Palisades High that night as soon as we landed. Knew the janitor; he opened up the gym for me and I was there until the sun came up.” While many athletes relaxed in the offseason, Kobe worked even harder.

Fast forward to 1997, Bryant’s second season in the league. An iconic moment occurred when young Kobe first faced off against Michael Jordan, a six-time champion and multiple MVP, often regarded as the best basketball player of all time.

Jordan is noteworthy for inspiring fear in his opponents. Two-time MVP Steve Nash spoke of it in a recent interview with Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson: “[He has] charisma on top of all the gifts and skills, and [mental greatness]. Playing against him, the one thing I think [is] that he was unlike any other player…there was a real fear playing against him.”

On December 17, 1997, a young Bryant, after a long offseason of hard work, faced the great Michael Jordan and the defending NBA champion Chicago Bulls. The game became a solo performance between the two future Hall of Famers. Although Kobe came off the bench, he still put up 33 points, and Michael scored 36. After the game, Michael had a lot to say about the rising superstar: "I remember when I was young like that. He certainly has a lot of skills, and you see that, and he's got a lot of confidence and I think it's just a matter of time for him.” Kobe's exceptional performance won Jordan’s respect.

Bryant soon developed into one of the league's best shooting guards, named to the All-NBA First Team in 2001-02. His averages jumped to 25.2 points, 5.5 assists, and 5.5 rebounds, a big improvement from 7.6 points, 1.9 rebounds, and 1.3 assists during his rookie year. With Bryant’s contributions and Shaq’s experience and talent, the Lakers won three straight championships from 2000-02. Things were looking good for Kobe, but as with many successful journeys, good fortune would prove ethereal.

Kobe’s trajectory to stardom halted abruptly during the 2003-2004 season. Kobe was arrested and charged with sexual assault against a 19-year-old hotel employee in Eagle, Colorado. Bryant admitted to a sexual encounter with the accuser but argued that the sex was consensual. Although the case was eventually dismissed, it left significant marks on Kobe's life and career.

In his documentary, Muse, Bryant explains that he created the Black Mamba around this time. "I hear everything the crowd is saying. I hear it." Bryant says following a clip during which Boston Celtics fans can be heard chanting, "Kobe sucks!"

"I had to separate myself,” he continued. “I felt like there were so many things coming at once, and it was just becoming very confusing. I had to organize things, so I created the Black Mamba."

While Kobe was addressing these charges, the Black Mamba played ball. “It was just f*** everyone. I’m destroying everyone that steps on the court. I had all this pent-up frustration that I just needed to let out…There was nothing that was going to get in the way.”

In a later Washington Post article, author Kent Babb revealed that Kobe’s iconic Black Mamba persona originated in the action film Kill Bill, in a scene where an assassin used a black mamba to murder another character.

"The length, the snake, the bite, the strike, the temperament," Bryant told Babb, who noted that Bryant was well aware that snakes shed their skin. " 'Let me look this s*** up.' I looked it up — yeah, that's me. That's me!’"

Babb added, “Creating an alternate persona, he says now, was the only way he could mentally move beyond the events of Colorado."

It was now 2004; after consecutive playoff disappointments, tensions brewed among the Lakers. Injuries prompted Shaq to miss practice, and he was out of shape. Kobe had zero tolerance for this.

"I can't relate to lazy people. We don't speak the same language. I don't understand you. I don't want to understand you.”

Recovering from injury as an aging and out-of-shape player, Shaq could no longer rely solely on his physicality to dominate the paint. Kobe viewed this as lethargic and made fewer passes to Shaq, often taking matters into his own hands.

The growing Kobe-Shaq beef could not be dismissed, and in the summer of 2004, Shaq requested a trade, ending up on the Miami Heat.

Afterward, the Lakers experienced disappointing seasons in 2005, 2006, and 2007, never getting close to touching the floor of a finals game. Without another star player on the team, Kobe put up impressive stat lines that established his place among the league's most elite players. One of the most impressive performances in NBA history occurred on January 26, 2006. Kobe's game against the Raptors would be seen as the best scoring performance in modern history.

"Not even in my dreams," Bryant said. "That was something that just happened. It's tough to explain…. It turned into something special." Kobe ended up filling the stat sheet with 81 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals. "That was incredible, remarkable," said starting Lakers’ center Lamar Odom. This game would forever prove to fans that miracles can happen.

After the Lakers’ consecutive losses in the first round of the playoffs in the 2005-2006 and 2006-2007 seasons, questions were raised: Could Kobe win without Shaq? Was Kobe just a player that put up good stats? Would he ever be the greatest?

After losing to Phoenix yet again in the first round of the 2006-2007 season, Kobe began the following season with a slightly different identity. Switching his jersey number from 8 to 24, he embraced the new season with a clean state.

"Then 24 is a growth from that [8]. Physical attributes aren't there the way they used to be, but the maturity level is greater. Marriage, kids. Start having a broader perspective being one of the older guys on the team now…Things evolve." As the Mamba aged, he couldn’t solely depend on his athleticism, and evolved into a more mature and intelligent player who relied on footwork, shooting, and experience.

After two consecutive first-round losses in the 2005-2006 and 2006-2007 seasons, Kobe realized that he couldn’t win on his own. Rather than trying to make every shot, Kobe stopped chasing big numbers and focused on elevating his teammates.

The 2008 season was the next major opportunity for Kobe to compete for a championship. The Lakers completed a trade for Paul Gasol, bringing in a secondary star to pair with Kobe. With this new dynamic, Kobe put up one of the best seasons of his career, winning the 2008 NBA Most Valuable Player award. Everything seemed to be back on track. After cruising through Denver, Utah, and San Antonio, the Lakers were going to the finals.

Kobe later stated, “It's a dream come true. It's such a blessing to share with a group of guys that are like brothers to me. It's an unbelievable feeling.” After two years of disappointment, the Lakers would again face the Boston Celtics in the 2008 NBA finals.

The Celtics had recently acquired three of the NBA’s best players: Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett, forming “The Big Three.” Slaying the three-headed monster wasn’t going to be easy.

Things didn’t work out for Kobe’s Lakers. "The Celtics are embarrassing the Lakers," Mike Breen, the legendary sports commentator, exclaimed in game 6. The camera zoomed in on the scoreboard, with the Celtics at 131 to the Lakers at 92. Under the roaring sounds of celebration, the gold-and-purple squad was overwhelmed by green.

The loss to Boston was devastating to Kobe, but it taught him one thing: "After we lost to the Celtics, Michael called me, and he said, 'Listen, you have all the individual tools. Now you have to connect with each one of those guys and bring the best out of those guys. It’s not just about passing the ball... That's not it. You have to figure out how to touch the right buttons to make them want to be the best versions of themselves.” Kobe took his mentor’s words to heart. He was committed to becoming a true leader.

After a long season, Kobe and the Lakers were Western first seeds. They cruised to the finals, beating Oklahoma in six games and Utah in four, and finally getting revenge against the Phoenix Suns.

The Lakers would end up meeting the Celtics in the finals again. The 2008 loss had left a bitter taste. "Losing to Boston hurt. A lot. You know, watching them celebrate, do the Gatorade bath, up by 30 in the last quarter. We had to sit there listening to the fans yell at us," Kobe remarked.

Approximately 25 million viewers tuned in to watch on ABC. Fans couldn't wait to see if the ending would be a great comeback story or a show of utter dominance. The Lakers had made multiple roster improvements, like adding Ron Artest. However, the Celtics had top point guard Rajon Rondo. This was going to be a close game.

The Lakers weren't about to concede. The roar of the crowd thundered through the stadium, and all eyes were on one man: Kobe Bean Bryant. Going into the third quarter, the Lakers were down 34 to 40.

During a timeout, the camera panned to the Lakers’ bench. The starters were returning to the court while Kobe remained on the bench, breathing heavily, a towel over his head. It seemed as if the game was too much for him. He was tired. However, as Kobe looked up at the scoreboard, every spectator could see it in his eyes: Determination. Hunger. Aggressiveness. He was the Black Mamba. He was not going to lose.

Back on the court, he pulled up right from the three-point line and knocked down a three. Kobe whipped the team to life. Under Kobe's lead, the game turned around, and every Lakers player on the court seemed to be giving it everything they had. The world started to see the true power of the Lakers. It wasn’t the scoring of Kobe Bryant or the defensive play of Paul Gasol, but rather the chemistry and the championship DNA of every player on the roster. This time, the Lakers were a mature team, truly understanding that basketball is a team sport. Kobe had grown. He had found the missing variable of his game.

After a long season of grinding, the Lakers had to dig deep one last time. “When you fight a battle against tough opponents, you just get stronger and stronger,” Kobe explained. However, the Celtics tenaciously held on. At the start of the third quarter, the Celtics were up by four points. Everything the Lakers had worked for was now in jeopardy. But once again, the Lakers fought back. They needed someone to pull them out of the abyss.

With one minute, 18 seconds left in the game, Kobe had the ball on the left wing. He drove to his right, but in his way were Ray Allen and Rasheed Wallace. Kobe looked to his right and passed to his teammate, Ron Artest.

"Artest, that’s a three! BANG!!!!!." The crowd went crazy. Kobe’s assist to Artest had just given the Lakers a six-point lead. The score was 79 to 73 with one minute left. The Lakers had the championship in their grasp. Down the court, Rondo passed to Ray Allen for a three. He made it! “Another three!” legendary commentator Mike Green shouted. The Lakers were up 79 to 76 with 40 seconds on the clock. Kobe dribbled the ball at the 3-point line, putting a three. “Bryant for three, won’t go, but GASOL THE REBOUND! Gets it back to Bryant! To the basket! And he’s fouled!” After two free throws were knocked down, the game was over.

The Lakers have won! The Lakers have won! The Lakers have won! “The Los Angeles Lakers have captured their second straight World Championship! Their sixteenth of all time! And they’ve done it at the expense of their archrival from Boston!" The Lakers’ quest was complete. Kobe’s transition to the Mamba, to a more experienced player who elevated his teammates, helped his team win a championship. His crucial pass to Artest and chemistry with Gasol were the two most important aspects of the game.

When someone asks me what makes Kobe Bryant different from other athletes, many answers come to mind. His loyalty to LA, his unique skill set, and his GOAT status all matter, but what truly makes him amazing is what we call the Mamba Mentality. From playing as a backup to winning championships as a secondary star to learning to lead the team, and finally back to winning a championship again, Kobe never stopped persevering. He never backed down from any challenge (even when facing intense personal obstacles). He was a true warrior, a champion. To his true fans, the Mamba Mentality is a way to live life: to have a clear goal, sacrifice everything and grind towards that goal. When challenges arise, the Mamba Mentality always points you in the right direction, leading you to overcome your troubles and grow from your failures.

Throughout the years, Kobe's story has inspired millions across the globe. His mentality has influenced a generation— not just one of basketball players, but people of all kinds.

Rest in Peace, Mamba.
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