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Mourning the Black Mamba

Kobe Bryant leaves behind a legacy on and off the basketball court as well as a legend for future generations to follow.

For those of us who are still trying to process the devastation of losing Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter in such a tragic manner, we are left with the countless memories he left on the basketball court. Whether it was his scoring 81 points over the Toronto Raptors, winning the 1997 Slam Dunk contest, tossing a lob pass for Shaquille O’Neal to throw down over the Portland Trailblazers in 2000—Kobe’s highlights live on in our minds and on YouTube clips. 

Yet Kobe so clearly resonated with so many fans worldwide because it was very evident how much he truly loved the game of basketball. He wasn’t the biggest guy on the court, not the best shooter, or the strongest, but he was the hardest working player, with his early morning training the stuff of legend. This was captured perfectly in the 2017 animated film, Dear Basketball

Based on a letter Bryant wrote to The Players’ Tribune on November 29, 2015 announcing his retirement from the NBA, this animated picture was directed and animated by veteran Disney animator Glen Keane with music from legendary scorer John Williams. It was done in partnership with Granity Studios and Believe Entertainment Group. In it, Bryant recalls how his love for the game began, rolling up his dad’s socks while fantasizing hitting game-winners for the Lakers in their old home, the Great Western Forum.

This love affair saw the 6-year-old Kobe watch video tapes of NBA games in the 80s even as he lived in football-loving Italy where his dad, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant was playing. “You asked for my hustle, I gave you my heart,” Kobe narrates as his young self weaves through an obstacle course of chairs on the way to the hoop. 

He would go on to say that he did everything for the love of basketball even as highlights of some of his greatest plays and wins are shown. Bryant comes to realize, however, that he can’t love the game as obsessively for much longer as age and injuries have started to catch up to him. “My heart can take the pounding, my mind can take the grind, but my body knows it’s time to say goodbye,” he laments. 

In light of his tragic demise, the latter part of the short film becomes even sadder when Bryant states, “We both know, no matter what I do next, I’ll always be that kid with the rolled up socks, garbage can in the corner, five seconds on the clock, ball in my hands, 5-4-3-2-1. Love you always, Kobe.” The image of an animated Kobe looking down then looking up at the stands before walking off the court of the Staples Center thus becomes all the more poignant. 

It’s a bit ironic then that countless thousands of individuals have rolled up paper or socks or other similar items, tossed those at a garbage can, and yelled, “Kobe!” over the past few decades. As the “Black Mamba,” Bryant was the embodiment of the Mamba Mentality, being fearless in anything you do while being the best version of yourself possible. Several players, including Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Kyle Kuzma, Devin Booker, and Trae Young (supposedly Gianna Bryant’s favorite player) have never been shy about talking about how they’ve idolized and emulated Bryant. Irving was so upset about the news that he couldn’t even play for the Brooklyn Nets in their scheduled game for the day. For their parts, Booker and Young were clearly in tears during warmups before their game started.

The film won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film at the 90th Academy Awards, the first Oscar win for any professional athlete. Upon his winning, it seemed as if Bryant was on his way to trying out more animated or filmmaking projects, particularly because of his celebrity status and his close proximity to Hollywood. 

Although Bryant was not the first professional athlete to star in a motion picture, he was the first to produce an animated short and receive such prestigious recognition for it. In recent years, Kevin Durant has become more involved with YouTube and is now in partnership with Brian Grazer’s Imagine Television to create a basketball-themed scripted drama for Apple. Part of the reason why LeBron James signed with Bryant’s Lakers in 2018 was also to maximize those Hollywood connections even as he co-stars in the sequel to Space Jam set for release in 2021.

In the aftermath of his passing, several current NBA players and coaches have lauded Kobe’s intensity and competitiveness as reasons why they loved having him around the league. From the generation that directly followed Bryant into the league, there was palpable sadness on the faces of Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade. It had not yet even been 24 hours since James passed Bryant for third place on the NBA’s all time scoring list and the current Lakers were on the team plane heading home from Philadelphia when the news of his passing broke. Mere hours after James paid tribute to Bryant as one of his heroes as a teenager and trying to follow in his footsteps, seeing James in tears after getting of the plane painted a sad picture. 

Within the Laker family, former Laker General Manager Jerry West, the man who drafted Bryant out of high school and acted like a surrogate father to him, tried to stay composed even as his bloodshot eyes betrayed his tears. Magic Johnson, someone whose basketball career and post-career success Bryant wanted to copy, posted several Tweets expressing his shock and disbelief over the tragic circumstances. Former Lakers Brian Shaw and Byron Scott acted as mentors to him in his early years in the NBA and they too lamented the heavy loss of Kobe and his teenage daughter.

Every NBA follower expected Bryant to be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame later this year, his first year of eligibility, and join Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan in arguably the most star-studded Hall of Fame class ever. Now, we are robbed of that moment and the chance to hear the eloquent Bryant leave a speech urging future generations to embody the Mamba Mentality or, more importantly, just love the game of basketball as much as he did if not more so. That is evident in the final Tweet that Kobe sent after James’ accomplished his scoring feat: “Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother.”