I remember 20 years ago saying his name. I remember talking about his exploits with the other children at the table. I remember talking about wanting to meet him, how he was the greatest of his generation at his craft.
We all loved basketball. We imagined being NBA players, being seven feet tall, jumping like we could fly, and dunking in dramatic fashion. We had heard of a man called Air Jordan, who jumped and jumped again while seemingly suspended in mid-air. But none of us had seen him, we only heard him spoken of in subdued reverence almost as a demigod. He was not really real, he was a legend. Not someone we imagined being, but a ghost hovering over our ambition, inspiring our competitiveness and the desire to outmatch each other in feats of athleticism.
On that screen we saw one of the people we wanted to emulate. The intensity and the fire and the indomitable will that showed through his eyes looked right into the part of ourselves that wanted to be great. And drew it out like a magnet. He was not a ghostly figure from the past, but a person, a man that we could be like if we had the same fire and drive ourselves. There were others like this, not just Kobe. There was Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Shaquille O’Neal, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, Allen Iverson, and others. There were also football players, baseball players, hockey players, all kinds of figures to inspire greatness.
We had them on our bedroom walls, on our lunchboxes, on our clothing. We watched them in the evenings, pretended to be them during recess, imagined being them in the future, and debated which game would be the best. But the game we played in the gym was basketball. The most accessible. You didn’t need to be skilled, you just needed to run up and down the court and dribble the ball. A few of us were serious about working hard and maximizing our skill. We could be like Kobe with enough practice.
I knew I wasn’t as athletic as Kobe. I knew dunking the ball would never happen. But I could shoot. I could practice over and over again. I could perfect the spinning mid range jump shot, the three-pointer from the top of the key, the baseline jump shot. I could be an assassin of the court, the one who crushed the hopes of my opponents with an unguardable repertoire of shots. I could also apply that mentality to other areas. Crushing the other students in exams, studying harder, longer, and with more intensity then any of my peers. And then I could be like Kobe.
I had deliberately chosen the best to emulate in my basketball skills. I modeled my mid range jump shot on Larry Bird, my spinning fade away on Dirk Nowitzki, my drives to the basket on Tracy McGrady, and my play under the hoop on Dwight Howard. But the mentality I wanted to emulate was Kobe’s.
As I aged, and my health declined, and I could no longer do a jump shot, run and dribble, when my legs would fail me trying to pivot and guard during friendly games at my church gym, the mentality did not fail me like my body did. It found other outlets, either through being the best at my studies, to wanting to be successful in business and in life. Failure is not an option. And I will keep pushing myself to the limit to achieve what I know I can, until I am on my knees or on my back. And even then I will crawl forward. There is only one player who had a will like that. And that was how I could be like Kobe.
Now he feels like a man outside of time, a ghost who touched me and many other young men and departed when the fullness of his example could be clearly seen by everyone. We will not talk about him like a man, but a spirit who inspires us. The icon fades into the past, but the Black Mamba mentality will be passed as an example to our children. We will speak of him with near reverence and in subdued tones. We may try to be like Kobe, but we will never match him. Death took an icon, but gave us a legend.