Kobe “Bean” Bryant was one of the youngest players to enter the National Basketball Association (NBA), at 18 years of age. He played 20 years for one of the greatest sports franchises in the history of professional sports, the Los Angeles Lakers. He was a five-time NBA World Champion, two-time Men’s Basketball Gold Medalist, twice the Most Valuable Player of the NBA Finals. He was voted the NBA’s Most Valuable Player in 2008. He became one of Nike’s greatest ambassadors, next only to Michael Jordan. During his years as a global icon, Kobe still found time to support close to a dozen charities ranging from advocating for after-school programs, bringing attention to the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles, and supporting transitional shelters for young adults, among other important causes.
And, after retiring from professional basketball, he won an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film, Dear Basketball (2018), while also launching a basketball sports academy for middle and high school boys and girls. And my personal favorite, he was a father to four girls!
What could have been? At just after 12 PM PST on January 26, 2020, I asked myself that same question. By this hour, news had quickly spread around the world that the great Kobe Bryant, his beautiful 13-year-old daughter Gianna Bryant, and seven other wonderful souls had perished in a tragic and senseless helicopter crash in Calabasas, California.
To expect? No, to demand, that there could’ve been so much more for a human being to accomplish when so much had been done by age 41 is an absurd demand. And that’s the very point I want to make about the late, great Kobe. He was just getting started.
As the Executive Vice President of Programs for After-School All-Stars, a national non-profit providing free after-school programs for 80,000 elementary, middle, and high school youth across the country, I had a front-row seat to the mind and being of Kobe Bryant.
Starting in 2009, After-School All-Stars was blessed beyond measure in naming Kobe Bryant their National Ambassador. From Los Angeles to Las Vegas, Chicago, Orlando, New York, Miami, Kobe visited school classrooms, basketball gyms, blacktops, and auditoriums inspiring young people to be disciplined, to work hard, to be the very best at whatever they wanted to pursue. To be tenacious. In other words, to have the “Mamba Mentality.” He was sharing that mindset long before Nike transformed that philosophy into a global symbol for the relentless pursuit of greatness!
When Kobe spoke to our students about this mentality, as if he was playing defense against the best athletes in the NBA, he got low to the ground, met youth where they were, gave them a look of eternal optimism and courage, and passed that “Mamba” mindset on to them. An immediate legacy moment right there in the making!
In 2011 and 2012, I had the unique opportunity of holding center-court, one-on-one interviews with him. Both occasions took place inside packed school basketball gyms where we casually talked about his worldwide travel, him growing up in Italy, and his fascination with China, its culture and its people.
Kobe supported an international exchange from 2011-2014 between students from the Los Angeles chapter of After-School All-Stars and youth from various provinces in China. Through the Kobe and Vanessa Bryant Family Foundation, high school youth from Los Angeles spent 16 days in China to understand its people, cultures, traditions, food, and student life. Many of my questions centered around this experience. When asked about why this mattered to him, he always had the same philosophy: “I want young people to learn more than just the world that surrounds them on a daily basis. It’s usually youths from lower socio-economic areas that have the least opportunity to learn about the world outside of their own communities. When you learn about an entirely new culture…it cultivates worldliness, tolerance, and respect for other individuals who are not like you.” —Kobe Bryant / DoSomething.org blog / July 2011
And there it was. Kobe’s mind and makeup displaying a hunger for wanting more out of life. It just happened to be that basketball was the platform for that drive!
In my conversations with him, he would insist that youth go after their passions with everything they had! For them not to sell themselves short. To not kind of do things, but really commit to greatness. Greatness in all things. He proved that as Kobe Bryant the Laker. Following his retirement, he was coming out for a curtain call that would’ve lasted for another decade and beyond!
At age 41, with this mindset, what could have been? I look around the professional sports universe, and there are very few, if any, individuals whose second act would have to be greater than their first. A recent Washington Post article reminded us of this fact: “When he retired from a championship-studded, two-decade reign in the NBA, Kobe Bryant made one thing crystal clear: he was not done competing. Bryant’s second act revealed the basketball legend to be a savvy entrepreneur, whose tireless work ethic and wide-ranging interests propelled him to success as an investor, author, and film and podcast producer.” –Washington Post / January 28, 2020
When looking back at his time with After-School All-Stars, our students, schools, and communities fed off of Kobe’s simple and inviting determination. It’s as if he asked you to play basketball on a warm summer night, on some blacktop with a chained basketball hoop, and made it feel like it was Game 7 of the NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics!
He would’ve wanted you to have fun. But he also would’ve pushed you to leave it all on that simple blacktop. To create something greater than yourself. With Kobe, it was all about BEING!
What I’ve come to grips with, especially as a father to a 13-year-old girl of my own, is that Kobe’s true impact was being who he was. Yes, a flawed individual, with challenges in his past, that re-invented and rededicated himself to BE a certain type of individual. Basketball did not define him. It just put on full display who HE was all along.
-An attentive and dedicated parent. We can BE that.
-A coach to budding athletes. We can BE that.
-An individual wholly committed to their craft. We can DO that.
-A storyteller. We can BE that.
-An individual who found and expressed their creativity. We can DO that.
-An individual with a strong and curious mind. We can BECOME that.
-An advocate who voiced and championed the needs of those in need. We can DO that.
-Someone hungry to live life to the fullest. We can DO that.
What could have been? No, it’s more like, “What can still be.”
For breakfast, I had a bagel and lox.