May 23, 2024

“If you see me in a fight with a bear, pray for the bear.” – The late Kobe Bryant

Who says stuff like that? This guy told people that he would win in a fight with an actual bear AND PROBABLY BELIEVED IT. Was Bryant going to square up against a bear? Of course not. He was basically telling folks that he will not be beaten and reminding people that he was THAT type of competitor. I absolutely love it. Think about the amount of confidence, determination, and guts one must have to be in that kind of mindset. Hell, imagine having to guard Kobe Bryant. Your job is to stop him. Congratulations – you are now the bear.

Most basketball fans today passionately argue over whether Michael Jordan or LeBron James is the G.O.A.T. What about Kobe Bean Bryant? He won without Shaq.  Kobe was arguably the best player in the NBA for a good chunk of his career.  He played all 20 seasons for the same team – the Los Angeles Lakers.  Oh, and he was a huge factor in USA Basketball regaining the Gold Medal in the Olympics with “The Redeem Team” back in 2008.  The U.S. hasn’t given up the gold in hoops since!  I personally wouldn’t put Bryant ahead of Jordan, but I’ll save my GOAT rankings for another day.

I never became a huge Kobe Bryant fan but I  came to respect the hell out of him. Here are 12 reasons that made The Black Mamba GREAT:

#1 – The Black Mamba

Kobe Bryant developed an alter-ego, “The Black Mamba,” which was taken from the movie Kill Bill. The black mamba was a snake viewed as a deadly assassin. That was exactly how Bryant viewed himself on the basketball court. He became even more determined to be great and, more importantly, determined to win. It was difficult to stop Bryant as it was. When the “Mamba Mentality” was activated it was damn near impossible.

Bryant’s focus on the task at hand was unmatched. This clip from Game 1 of the 2010 NBA Finals shows that legendary focus.

This is one of my favorite Kobe Bryant clips. This is in Bryant’s latter years with the Lakers when they basically stunk. Kobe didn’t care. He wanted to win anyway. Look at how mad he was to see his teammates celebrate one win after breaking an eight-game losing streak. The Mamba was NOT impressed with one win.

#2 – No one worked harder than Kobe Bryant

A big part of the Mamba Mentality is outworking everyone. Kobe Bryant outworked EVERYONE. Some of his Lakers teammates, and even Head Coach Phil Jackson, would try to beat Bryant to the practice facility. It’s hard to do that when the dude gets there at 3AM! He could sometimes be found sleeping in his car at the practice facility ahead of getting in some early morning work.

This didn’t just happen in Los Angeles. Bryant would get to opposing arenas as early as he could to put up shots. Former Duke standout and Chicago Bull Jay Williams witnessed this during his rookie season with the Bulls. Williams thought he would get to the United Center early to work out. When he got there, he found Bryant on the other side of the court already in a sweat. After working out for an hour himself, Williams was amazed that Bryant was still putting up shots.

He asked Kobe why he was working so hard to which Bryant replied, “because I saw you come in. I wanted you to know it doesn’t matter how hard you work. I’m willing to work harder than you. You inspire me to be better.” That’s just one story about Bryant’s work ethic. There are hundreds more where that came from. Thanks Google!

#3 – Bryant modeled his game after Michael Jordan

If there’s one player to model your game after, one can only do worse than Michael Jordan. Like Jordan, Bryant had the ability to do ANYTHING on the basketball court if needed. Scoring, passing, defending – chances were that you weren’t going to beat him. Kobe also took pointers from Jordan when it came to the mental part of the game. Bryant talked his share of trash but also backed it up. He was able to intimidate opponents AND even did the same with teammates.

Kobe pushed his teammates in practice the same way MJ did. He wanted them to be prepared when it came time for the playoffs. There was also the time he hung his gold medal from the 2008 Beijing Olympics in teammate Pau Gasol’s locker to motivate him. Gasol’s Spanish team lost to Bryant’s USA team in the Gold Medal Final. It must have worked because Gasol helped Bryant and the Lakers win that season’s NBA Championship.

Jordan once said that the only person who might be able to beat him in a game of 1-on-1 is Kobe Bryant, because he “stole” all his moves. Bryant even asked Jordan how to be effective with his patent turnaround jumper! It’s obvious that Kobe studied all of MJ’s moves. This clip shows the uncanny resemblance of their basketball talents.

#4 – Kobe attacked and could score at will

Yes, Bryant was a ball hog at times and especially after Shaq was traded. Then again, if I had Chris Mihm, Smush Parker, and Phil Jackson’s favorite space cadet, Vladimir Radmanovic, as my go-to teammates I’d be a ball-hog too! “The Black Mamba” was often the Lakers’ best offensive option. Bryant averaged at least 30 points per game three times in his career and won back-to-back NBA scoring titles (2006, 2007).

Bryant would sometimes be double, tripled, and quadruple teamed but still was able to get his shot off. He could score in different ways – off the dribble, in the post, beyond the arc, and was an 83.7% free throw shooter. Kobe had 25 games of at least 50 points in a game, including a four-game stretch where he scored at least 50 in each game. He scored 60 or more points in a game six times. The man could do it all. He put up some legendary scoring performances including:

– 65 points vs. Portland (March 16, 2007)

– 61 points vs. New York (February 2, 2009): This was a Madison Square Garden record at the time until Carmelo Anthony scored 62 points in a 2014 Knicks win.

– 62 points vs. Dallas (December 20, 2005): Kobe did this in just THREE quarters

– 81 points vs. Toronto (January 22, 2006): Bryant’s career-high and 2nd most points in an NBA Game!

#5 – Kobe Bryant was FEARED in crunch time

Kobe Bean Bryant is one of the most clutch players in NBA history. If you could pick one player from NBA history to take the game-winning shot for your team who would it be? Bryant’s name must be mentioned. He often came through for the Lakers in the clutch taking tough, contested shots. See for yourself.

The main reason that he was successful in the clutch was because…

#6 – Bryant possessed the ability to make impossible shots

Many of the shots Kobe took in that last clip were beyond difficult. I’m sure that he practiced taking shots with a high degree of difficulty to prepare him for late game situations. “The Black Mamba” has made some of the most difficult shots I have ever seen. I believe that Kobe Bryant is the best tough-shot maker (especially jump shots) in the history of the NBA. Here is some visual proof.

The first time that I was wowed by Bryant’s shot making ability was in the early 2000s. The Lakers took on the Portland Trail Blazers in a late season matchup. The Blazers’ Ruben Patterson was a good defender and was even dubed “The Kobe Stopper.” Bryant makes not only one, but two of the most difficult and contested 3-point shots I have ever seen. Kobe Stopper, huh? The first shot forced overtime. The second won the game for the Lakers.

#7 – Bryant lead the “Redeem Team” in re-establishing U.S.A. Basketball as the world’s best

The rest of the world was catching up by the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. In 2002, the chase was complete. The United States finished eighth in the FIBA World Championships in Indianapolis, despite again having a roster full of NBA players. EIGHTH! I feel that doesn’t get talked about enough.

The U.S. Men’s Basketball Team won the Bronze Medal in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, which was the first time they won anything other than the gold since the 1988 games. The “embarrassment” forced USA Basketball to revamp its program for the 2006 FIBA World Games. They would be led by Director Jerry Colangelo and Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski. Team USA lost in an upset to Greece in the Semi-Final and had to settle for the Bronze once again.

Enter Kobe Bryant in 2007. The Mamba has not been able to compete in the Olympics due to his wedding in 2000 and trial in Colorado in 2004. Bryant’s leadership and work ethic pushed his teammates. He helped lead “The Redeem Team” to a Gold Medal in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Some later debated whether “The Redeem Team” could beat “The Dream Team,” including Bryant. I’ll give you one guess on who he thought would win. Fast-Forward to 5:08 to see where Bryant joined Team USA.

Bryant also helped in leading Team USA to another gold in 2012 Olympic games in London.

#8 – Kobe Buried the Hatchet with Shaq

Kobe and Shaq were often at odds after the Lakers won the NBA Championship in 2000. Kobe wanted to keep winning and was willing to train like a maniac. Shaq, who at 7’1’’ and 325 pounds, was the most dominate force in the NBA at that time and maybe in NBA history. Instead of maintaining his MVP-level fitness, O’Neal would relax in the summers and show up to training camp overweight. He would use the regular season to get in shape for the playoffs. This often led to Shaq getting injured and missing games which drove Kobe nuts.

The most important thing to Kobe Bryant was winning. He and Shaq had differing approaches on how to win and would often butt heads. Kobe was trying to push Shaq as hard as he worked, or at least harder than what he worked at the time. If Shaq was in his 2000 MVP Season shape every year, the Lakers would be even MORE dominate and THEY could win more. Instead, they feuded and were barely able to co-exist. O’Neal was traded to the Miami Heat in 2004 after the Lakers chose to invest in the younger Bryant.

It sometimes got ugly. They would trade shots at each other in the media. Bryant and O’Neal once almost fought before their Lakers teammates intervened. Shaq once even insulted Bryant during a freestyle rap with, “last week Kobe couldn’t do it without me,” after Bryant’s Lakers lost to the Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals. “The Big Diesel” followed that bar with, “Kobe tell me how my ass tastes.”

Then in 2009, the former teammates finally buried the hatchet. Bryant and O’Neal were teammates once again, this time for the Western Conference during the 2009 NBA All-Star Game and both even won co-MVP. In 2018, they sat down for a cordial one-on-one discussion for NBA TV. One of the biggest what-ifs in NBA History is how much would the Lakers have won if Kobe/Shaq stayed together.

#9 – Kobe Bryant was a tough S.O.B.

One must be crazy in thinking you could beat a bear in a fight. One must be tough too. Kobe Bryant was a tough S.O.B. (and probably a little crazy too). Only Bryant could dislocate his finger, have the trainer pop it back in, and not miss a beat.

Only Kobe Bryant would stay in the game to shoot two free throws after tearing his Achilles’ tendon.

Would you flinch if a 6’7’’ dude faked throwing the ball in your face? Bryant didn’t.

#10 – Kobe often played through pain

Bryant often played through injuries that would have other players out for weeks. Load Management? Using those words consecutively in Kobe Bryant’s vocabulary wasn’t possible. He only sat out when it was impossible for him to play, such as when he broke his wrist in 1999. Having an uncanny ability to tolerate pain must have been part of the Mamba Mentality because Kobe did that A LOT. The Lakers were glad that he did.

If Bryant didn’t play through an ankle sprain in the 2000 NBA Finals they may have lost a critical Game 4 to the Indiana Pacers. He often played through “minor” injuries, even if they slightly healed and he managed to reaggravate them. Bryant tore a ligament in his shooting hand during the 2008 season that was supposed to end his season. He later injured his back during the playoffs and refused to sit out. The Lakers made it to the NBA Finals that year before losing to the Celtics.

In 2010, Kobe broke the index finger on his shooting hand to the point that it required surgery. It was supposed to anyway. Of course, the Mamba declined the surgery and played through the pain. He also had his right knee drained multiple times during the 2010 playoffs. Despite the injuries, Kobe Bryant led the Lakers to the 2010 NBA Championship.

#11 – “Mamba Out.” Kobe Bryant’s final game.

Kobe Bryant announced that the 2015-16 NBA Season would be his last. His final game was be on April 12, 2016 in Los Angeles against the Utah Jazz. The 37-year-old Bryant barely made it to that point with all the injuries – including recovering from a torn Achilles and injured shoulder (twice). Despite his age and the toll that the injuries took on his body, Kobe Bryant gave Lakers fans at the Staples Center one last hurrah. Shaquille O’Neal requested that Kobe get 50 in his final game. “That M-Fer” (according to Shaq) instead scored 60 points in a remarkable performance. The Lakers came from behind and beat against the Jazz.

#12 – Bryant’s Basketball resume speaks for itself

In 2004, Kobe Bryant was probably at the low point in both his basketball career and his personal life. He could have easily fallen off the radar, made his millions as an all-star level player, and retire without anyone caring about his legacy. Instead, he rebounded in both arenas and put together a LEGENDAY basketball resume in the process.

– 5-time NBA Champion

– 2-time NBA Finals MVPs

– 2007-08 NBA Most Valuable Player

– 18-time NBA All-Star

– 15-time All-NBA Team Selection

– 12-time NBA All-Defensive Team Selection

– 4-time NBA All-Star MVP

– 33,643 points – 4th all-time NBA History

– 20 seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers (most with one team)

– 2-time Olympic Gold Medal Winner

The Los Angeles Lakers retired both numbers Bryant wore during his 20 seasons with the Lakers: #8 and #24. His stats wearing each number are eerily similar.

Those 12 reasons why I respected Kobe Bryant on the basketball court. He appeared to rebound in his marriage and commitment to his family, which includes four daughters. He also founded The Mamba Sports Academy (later changed to The Sports Academy) in 2018. Bryant helped launch the facility to provide a modern training facility for both youth and professional athletes. He was also involved in other projects which led him to winning an Academy Award for the Best Animated Short File titled, “Dear Basketball.” Dude won an effing OSCAR!

Kobe Bryant, like many of us, had big plans and dreams for the future. He proved that he could take on all challengers no matter the odds. It’s a shame his life and those of the other passengers on that helicopter ended way too soon.

Rest in peace, Kobe. I was never your biggest fan. But I sure respect the hell out of you. 

Photo Credit: Depositphotos