Why Heroes Matter and What Symbols Mean
How the humanity of Kobe Bryant inspired the hero in me
I could never pick up a ball and be Lebron James. I could never pick up a mic and be Jay Z. I had never even dreamed I’d run for office and become POTUS like Barack. These icons represent historical plateaus I could not fathom. Kobe Bryant was no less creative, accomplished, or genius, yet he represented something different. Something attainable. I could never Be Like Mike. Michael was god. Kobe was not. And that’s what made me love him.
Kobe Bean Bryant died at 41, achieving so much in his short life, yet having so much left to give. I took inspiration from many of his feats, including championships, MVPs, Olympic Gold Medals, a New York Times Best Seller, an Oscar, and many remarkable moments.
Kobe had an unshakable confidence in himself that was quite contagious. His on-court exploits were cinematic in the way he consistently conquered that which seemed impossible. After 20 years of hearing Kobe reflect on those times, it’s clear to me that he didn’t believe he was a hero with super powers. It also seemed that he believed that I was capable of being the greatest in whatever I wanted to do in life. Even at the age of 10, I began to want to carry myself with the audacious swagger of the skinny 17 year old who would soon inspire the world.
“Once the epitome of precocious arrogance, he evolved into being a true champion for others.” — Jemele Hill
More impactful to me than the 11,719 career made field goals were the record 14,481 missed field goals, because they were the real statistic that pointed to the passion transmuted into what we have come to know as The Mamba Mentality. He could miss a game-winning shot. He wouldn’t care. He could lose and that was only a small set back, because simply winning was not the standard. It was excellence — a process, not a product. It consumed everything. To me, his flaws didn’t detract from his greatness. They simply proved to me that I could do anything and everything that I wanted to do in life if I believed in myself and worked hard enough.
Kobe’s foibles and missteps were as public as his triumphs. Yet, as Jemele Hill affectionately remembered, his growth as a human being is a great showcase for anyone who wants to be better. “Once the epitome of precocious arrogance, he evolved into being a true champion for others.”
In 20 years, he went from arrogant airballs to a record-setting curtain call, ironically against the same franchise. From a cheater and accused rapist to a devoted father of four girls and staunch advocate of women’s sports. From stepping out of bounds with comments on the death of Trayvon Martin to coming through in the clutch discussing the frailties of the American justice system after the extrajudicial killing of Michael Brown. From hurling a dangerous and hurtful slur at a referee to speaking out against homophobia using his own past as a teachable moment on his own platform. Kobe showed us that our faults can be a powerful force for change.
While in a stupor of sadness, I considered Kobe’s evolution from a young player who was intent on proving how good he was to empowering others to do their best and be good. At some point it became apparent to me that demeaning people for engaging in “hero worship” might be a misappropriated admonition.
Heroes matter. Symbols matter, and the things that these people represent leave a deep impact on others around the world.
If Kobe had simply expressed private remorse for his failures and not publicly attempted to correct the record, he would have forever given a tacit endorsement for things he came to understand as unjust and unfair.
As this private man let few into his inner sanctum, he showed us all how to overcome obstacles, including the self-inflicted kind. He was the quintessential example of drive, determination, and focus. He gave an entire generation permission to get back up no matter how hard the fall. An imperfect man inspired me to do what greatness requires in all aspects of life.
I don’t believe that anyone is above accountability, criticism, or justice. I think it not only fair but right to contend with his 2003 sexual assault case, the truth of which we may never know. However, I think it’s also incumbent upon us to consider the whole person, and people are complicated. We’re not the worst of what we say or do.
Kobe would want us to take his sins, whatever they may be, and allow those key learnings to accelerate our own growth. I know this because this is the legacy he left in sports. This is the legacy he left in life. This is is exactly what he’d want. Ramona Shelburne shared as much in her allusion to her story about his “basketball death.”
The death of Kobe Bryant, Gigi “the Mambacita,” and 7 other beautiful souls has been a heavy load for us all to process. Personally, I’ve felt like there has been a cloud of death following me, as I’ve lost several close friends and family members in the last couple years. None of these have affected me as deeply as losing my brother to suicide. Notwithstanding, Kobe’s passing moved me in a way I cannot describe.
All the people that I’ve lost in the last couple years has been tragic and traumatic and losing a hero has oddly felt that familiar. I have always been inspired by Kobe’s diligence and focus, but in hard times and times of mourning I would draw strength from his straightforward brand of wisdom. He would say things like, “Life is too short to get bogged down and be discouraged. You have to keep moving. You have to keep going. Put one foot in front of the other. Smile, and just keep on rolling.”
Those things would energize and uplift me, keeping me “in the game” when I otherwise felt like giving up. If we had ever met, I would only want to tell him that he succeeded in inspiring me to want to embrace the process of greatness, not the product of such. He was the most fundamentally sound player the game had ever seen, and being great at the small details is something that can translate to anything you want in life.
As an entrepreneur, my admiration for Kobe is deep. His business empire is expansive and will be a constant study for me as I continue my own endeavors. As a creative, he’s been a worthy muse. He was a true Renaissance man, whose intellect and curiosity knew no bounds.
If you ever felt that you were alone and misunderstood because you focused on the work, you knew that Kobe was somehow with you. Though he had fears, he was not afraid to fail. This is how I’ve designed my own life. In his successes, I lived vicariously through him, and in mine, he through me. To perform at a high level in the face of fear and failure always meant that you were Kobe.
Only a man, the way he bent the world to his will was quite remarkable. So much so that Lamar Odom said that he “just knew if [Kobe] was in a helicopter crash he would have been the one to survive. Somehow he would have jumped out and landed on his feet.” Survive, he would not. Bean was mortal, after all.
We’re talking about a man who played through an estimated 141 career injuries. He did not have the size of Shaq, the strength of Lebron, the athleticism of Jordan, or the length of Kevin Durant. The thing that made him special was not his god-given talent, but the way he married that talent with an otherworldly work ethic. He would not quit. It seemed he’d always overcome.
Though he was in a helicopter, his fateful route was rather demure. Kobe, the great was being Kobe, the dad, taking his daughter, her teammates, and families to an AAU game. The Black Mamba, in those terms, was once again all of us. Faithfully exercising the duty of a father and family man. His death also reminds us that we, too, are super heroes in our own right when we live with purpose on purpose in all that we do. Every moment of our lives.
That Mamba Mentality.
It’s not about a sure vision of a preferred future. It’s about being crazy enough to believe that you can somehow author it yourself against all odds. It’s about being present in each moment and demanding the most of yourself, especially when no one else is watching.
He saw weakness as an opportunity to make us better and to inspire others to do the same.