Open Letter: How ‘Kobe’ Bryant Became a Verb

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Today marks a tragic day in not only sport but life as we mourn the loss of one of the greats Kobe Bryant, and his daughter. In this open letter, we take a look back at his storied career, exploring how he became the embodiment of greatness.

Kobe “The Black Mamba” Bryant — it’s a name we all know and won’t soon forget.

Maybe you’ve heard it loud, cascading through an arena like a heartbeat from fans in unison, or maybe you’ve glanced at purple stitched lettering against the iconic Lakers yellow sitting above the number 8, or later 24 on the backs of so many — most of whom have never stepped foot in LA — as though a uniform of belonging, a concise statement: we choose you.

But if you’re like me, you probably heard it most echoing off school yard pavement, as a backdrop to the sound of chain nets clinking as the rock swished in triumph, or crumpled up paper falling into a trashcan as young dreamers crossed over imaginary defenders, shooting their shot, hoping for greatness — yelling “KOBE!”

Sometimes it was a battlecry, or a prayer, even a wish, but unequivocally at its core it was always a homage. Some things need an explanation, or a definition — but this has never been one of them.

In the realm of hero worship, few followings rival the devotion of sports fans. In rare instances athletes have become so famous they need no explanation beyond the name itself. But even fewer transcend the name, letting it take on a definition of its own — it is in that small margin where true legends are born.

‘Kobe’: the name offers nostalgia, familiar to many of us. It recalls almost instantly the ‘96 draft, or the iconic alley-oop to Shaq in Game 7 — which eventually led to the first title of many for what would become one of the league’s most dynamic, albeit controversial, duos.

That was only the beginning. The endless string of 60-plus-point games that followed were equally impressive but perhaps less talked about, like the 2002 game against Dallas where Bryant — half-player, half-demigod — scored 62 points in just 32 minutes. 

For myself, growing up playing basketball in Toronto, it’s hard not to think of his 81-point show stopping performance that led to a 122-104 win against the Raptors in ‘06. Kobe was the player I hated to love but to deny his tenacity and skill level was an impossible task. Coming to school the next day in a Bosh jersey, only to be met with a sea of yellow was a lesson in itself.

People loved their city, but they loved him more.

Was he a good player? Sure, that much was always true. The statistics can tell you that story. But this was much more than that.

[Via BR/Street Lecka]

With three championships behind him, the symbolic change of the number 8 to 24 in 2006 marked the end of an era — but it also signified growth, more maturity, a self-awareness that he had to adjust his game to stay at the top. He wasn’t just a champion anymore, he was a father to two. More was on the line.

With each game, the legend grew and the definition evolved.  The list got longer: MVP awards, five championship rings and an Olympic Gold medal, to name a few.

And with this, a whole new generation of kids yelling “KOBE!” More dreams of “I want to be like him when I grow up” continued to breathe life into an ever-growing legacy.

But while the list of wins was long, so was the injuries: fingers, knee, shoulder, and most notably the achilles. People watched half in agony, half in awe during a 2013 game against Golden State where Kobe tore the tendon. As if rewriting Greek mythology, he managed to stay in the game making two free throws to tie it at 109.  It’s those very moments that define players, separating good from great, and by definition Kobe was determined.  He didn’t join the league and take part — he took over. No matter what.

In spite of his age and the achilles injury, the Lakers still extended a two-year contract extension worth $48.5 million in 2013.

Jim Buss, Lakers executive vice president of basketball operations explained the move in a USA Today article saying succinctly: "You pay the guy."

And so, as Kobe the player evolved, so too did the neologism. ‘Kobe’ no longer only meant great ability in the game. It now took on the definition of a legend itself — being known for what you have done in the past regardless of your future potential, however limited.

He had earned the title as one of the greats, and nothing was going to change that.

His storied career culminated in his final game as a Laker in 2016. Bryant, his body now older, hit the court with hunger and played with a style reminiscent of his younger days, ultimately scoring 60 points — his highest of that season. If anyone ever needed a reminder why his name had morphed to represent the embodiment of greatness, that was it.

“One of the main takeaways was that you have to work hard in the dark to shine in the light. Meaning: It takes a lot of work to be successful, and people will celebrate that success,” Bryant wrote, in his book The Mamba Mentality (2018).

The toughness, determination and undeniable talent that hit the court on Nov. 3 1996, was left out on the floor for all to see that final night. And celebrate, they did.

Kobe Bryant: ‘The Player’ was a role model for many, and likely the inspiration for a number of today’s players to ever pick up the rock in the first place. I remember growing up, playing basketball in the OBA for an unsuspecting team called the Scarborough Blues. Our gym was often next door to the boys team, they  would filter in, donning jerseys of their favourite players with multiples of “Bryant” visible in the crowd. The sounds of them firing up pre-practice shots, trying to get past their defenders to put up a fadeaway while occasionally chanting out to their hero “KOBE!” would travel lightly under the doors. Today, some of those very players who found the game all those years ago in that dingy school gym in Scarborough, now don jerseys of their own in the league with names like ‘Olynyk’ and ‘Joseph’ etched on the back.

It’s players like Kobe who made us all fall in love with the game as kids, and for some, helped inspire their own path to greatness.

But Kobe Bryant: The Person; the father, the author, the mentor, the investor, and yes, even the oscar winner, broke the barriers and borders of sport. The narrative of athletes being one-dimensional should cease to exist if for this reason alone; you can be great both on and off the court.

In retirement he opened the Mamba Academy, a training centre for young athletes; he embraced fatherhood, frequently sitting court-side with his daughters visibly walking them through the game. Sports teach leadership, a lesson Bryant had mastered. Kobe: The Person, was evolving too. Life didn’t stop after basketball, it was just beginning.

If you close your eyes, you can probably hear the screech of sneakers against the hardwood as the ball shifts from palms, up into the air with the flick of a wrist so accurate it’s an art form few have perfected — after all, there can only be one Picasso of the court. But it will never stop countless children filled with hope and young players eager with determination to practice, repeat, and replicate each move Kobe made look so effortless, while calling out his name for years to come.

Thank you Kobe for inspiring us, teaching us what hard work looks like and for allowing us to love the game with you, and because of you.

Kobe: The Legacy, will always continue.

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