Black Athlete Spotlight: Kobe Bryant

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Austin Dykstra, Writer

On a foggy Sunday morning,  the professional sporting world was staggered by the loss of a basketball icon.

Former Los Angeles Lakers’ guard Kobe Bryant, 41, was among nine victims who perished in an untimely helicopter crash in Calabasis, Calif.. Among the victims of the fatal Jan. 26 accident was Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna “Gigi” Bryant.

Bryant’s focus, toughness and sheer determination to win exemplified what became known as the “Mamba mentality.” His unmatched work ethic allowed him to become one of the most decorated players in NBA history, collecting 18 NBA All-Star appearances, the 2008 NBA MVP award and two Finals MVP awards en route to five NBA Championships.

Bryant’s NBA career began in 1996 when he was drafted 13th overall by the Charlotte Hornets, who immediately traded his draft rights to the Lakers in exchange for Vlade Divac. Bryant would spend his entire 20-year career in Los Angeles.

During a pre-draft workout, the then 17-year-old Bryant caught the eye of Lakers legend Jerry West who, at the time, was serving as the Lakers’ general manager. West was taken aback by Bryant’s work ethic and skill set, offering glowing reviews for the high school talent out of Lower Merion High School.

“He’s better than anybody on our team right now,” West said of Bryant.

That same offseason, superstar center Shaquille O’Neal signed a lucrative seven-year, $121 million contract with the Lakers. The duo would spearhead one of the most iconic and decorated dynasties in the history of organized team sports, winning three consecutive NBA between 2000 and 2002.

Although the Lakers experienced tremendous success during the O’Neal-Bryant era, the team traded O’Neal to the Miami Heat in 2004, prematurely ending what was arguably the NBA’s greatest modern dynasty.

However, one thing became clear: the Lakers became Bryant’s team.

Bryant put up video game-like numbers in the wake of O’Neal’s departure. During the 2005-06 regular season, Bryant posted a career-high in points per game (35.4). In a game against the Dallas Mavericks, Bryant scored 62 points over just three quarters before scoring a career-high 81 points in a single game against the Toronto Raptors, the latter being the second highest single-game point total in NBA history behind Wilt Chamberlain’s legendary 100-point effort.

Though Bryant achieved great individual success, his legacy was in question; would he be the player who played second fiddle to O’Neal or could Bryant deliver another championship to the Lakers and prove himself as an all-time great?

The doubters surfaced after O’Neal, now a member of the Heat, captured the 2006 NBA Championship alongside Dwayne Wade. Meanwhile, the Lakers missed the playoffs in 2005 before losing in the first round of both the 2006 and 2007 playoffs. It wasn’t until 2008 that the Lakers would return to prominence, scratching their way to the 2008 NBA Finals before falling to the Boston Celtics in six games.

However, the loss to the Celtics served as the turning point for Bryant and the Lakers. Over the next two seasons, the Bryant-led Lakers captured two consecutive NBA Championships, with Bryant collecting two Finals MVP awards along the way. Furthermore, those two championships–so elusive for so long–proved that Bryant was a superstar absent of O’Neal.

Though Bryant never won another ring, his place among the NBA greats was cemented and his Black Mamba persona was on full display.

In one of the most memorable moments of a storied career, on March 7, 2010, Bryant and Orlando Magic forward Matt Barnes engaged in a series of heated exchanges before Barnes would feign a pass at Bryant’s face. In an iconic response that has since been cemented in NBA lore, Bryant remained unperturbed, staring down Barnes until he diverted his attention.

The 2012-2013 season did not go as planned for the Lakers. After acquiring Steve Nash and Dwight Howard during the offseason, the Lakers had championship aspirations. An injury-plagued season put a damper on the Lakers’ hopes of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy, but that didn’t prevent Bryant from putting the team on his back during one of the most underrated seasons of his career.

The Lakers were scheduled to play a home game against the Golden State Warriors as they struggled to secure a playoff spot in the hotly contested Western Conference. Two nights prior, Bryant, then 34 years old, put on a legendary performance against the Portland Trailblazers, scoring 47 points while playing all 48 minutes.

Bryant suffered a heartbreaking Achilles tendon tear late in the fourth quarter against the Warriors, essentially ending the Lakers’ title aspirations. Nevertheless, Bryant stayed in the game, knocking down two pivotal free throws to help the Lakers win the game and secure a spot in the playoffs.

After his Achilles tendon tear, Bryant never re-discovered the dominance that defined the majority of his career. In fact, Bryant never returned to the playoffs. However, he would leave NBA fans with a final lasting memory.

In an emotional final game that concluded a legendary 20-year career, Bryant scored 60 points against the Utah Jazz to will the Lakers to victory one last time.

Bryant continued his legacy after retiring by using his platform and outreach to inspire people around the world. Bryant had a tremendous impact on women’s basketball, supporting and bringing awareness to the women’s side of the game while mentoring superstar players like Diana Taurasi, Jewell Loyd and Sabrina Ionescu.

Bryant opened the Mamba Sports Academy in 2018 in an effort to train and inspire the younger generation to play the game of basketball.

“MAMBA Sports Academy is a natural expansion of my commitment to educating and empowering the next generation of kids through sports,” Bryant said. Bryant went on to explain that the Mamba Mentality means, “to be able to constantly try to be the best version of yourself. It’s a constant quest to try to be better today than you were yesterday.”

Bryant’s last public message was a congratulatory tweet to LeBron James, who on Jan. 25 passed Bryant for third place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.

“Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother #33644,” Bryant wrote.

After learning of Bryant’s passing, teams around the NBA honored the Lakers’ legend by taking 24 and eight-second violations, representative of the two numbers he wore throughout his NBA career.

The Lakers paid tribute to Bryant before their first game after his death. LeBron James gave a heartfelt speech to honor his longtime friend.

“So, in the words of Kobe Bryant, ‘Mamba out,’ but in the words of us, ‘not forgotten.’ Live on brother.”