Mamba Mentality: Kobe Was The Last Of An Extinct Breed, Not Found In Modern NBA

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“He was a guy who was competitive, a shark who was seeking blood in the water. His arrogance coming into the game was almost rude. I remember watching him in his first All-Star Game, and I thought he was disrespectful in how he approached the game. But he was always challenging, always trying to go after the biggest fish in the water.”

2018 – Phil Jackson on Kobe Bryant via The California Sunday Magazine

When the “Black Mamba” retired following the 2016 season after playing 20-years in the National Basketball Association, he was the last of a dying breed of players that is now extinct. As the bright lights of the Staples Center in Los Angeles finally shut off it became obvious that the league was turning a page and beginning a new chapter, while ushering in this modern era of players that are interested in so much more than just basketball. 

It can be said that all good things eventually come to an end. That reality came full circle after the event of Kobe Bryant’s departure from the sport he’d given everything to since entering the NBA draft as a 17-year-old out of Lower Merion High School, in the Philadelphia suburb of Ardmore. Deemed with the notion that he was a clone of all-time great Michael Jordan, the tenacious Bryant walked away with five NBA Championships, an unheard-of 18 All-Star Game appearances, and two NBA Finals MVP awards. 

Earlier this week he appeared on the debut podcast of Ledlow & Parker, which is hosted by Kristen Ledlow and Candace Parker. During the podcast, both of the women asked Bryant many questions regarding his life after basketball, which includes writing children’s books and training his daughter’s youth basketball team at the newly-opened Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, California. 

As the interview progressed, the ladies asked Bryant if he’d return to the NBA to play on a super-team under the notion he’d be playing for a guaranteed championship. Much like himself, the answer was a “classic” throwback statement for the ages. Taking a shot at current NBA players and the “buddy ball” culture in which they embody, the Mamba said, “No. No. No. No no no. I like my rings the hard way. I like fighting for them and earning them. I don’t like jumping to the easier route, so I wouldn’t take it.”

Despite the fact that it simply just isn’t his style to take the “easier route”, Kobe did mention that he was intrigued by the Clippers/Lakers rivalry and that he wished he was able to compete in what is being coined as  “The Battle of LA”.

“It’s awesome. As a competitor, this is a competitor’s dream to participate in something like that,” Bryant said according to CBS Sports. “It’s fun, and I’m enjoying it just like everybody else. Both teams are great, but you got some great teams around the league, too, that are playing  well.”

The declaration made by Bryant brings to light the notion that the NBA player of today isn’t concerned with fitting into the fraternity of basketball legends that ultimately struggled en route to being crowned champions. Instead of partaking in the age-old ideology of “baptism by fire” and perseverance by means of “blood, sweat and tears”, this generation of professionals seems more focused on establishing themselves as social icons in the business realm of being a “star” player in the league.

The movement of players from one organization to another is occurring more frequently than ever before in the history of the game. By jumping ship regularly and moving from one team to another, this era of players is being defined with the notion that they would rather join forces and form juggernaut squads in savvy media markets, which results in the oppression of lesser teams in smaller, less financially-capable markets.

For years since the retirement of Michael Jordan, a Hall-of-Famer widely considered the G.O.A.T, the true measure of success as a competitor in the NBA has been driven by the idea of building a collection of “rings”. Those rings are awarded annually to each championship squad, providing a physical symbol of accomplishment to all those involved with winning the final game of the season. Jordan managed to earn six, which is only one ahead of Bryant’s five. The record for most titles all-time is held by the Boston Celtics’ legend Bill Russell, who won an unprecedented 11 championships throughout his 13-year career.

“Kobe is the closest thing to Michael. Everybody has been compared to Michael. LeBron [James] has been compared to Michael. I don’t think LeBron is Michael at all. He’s a very different player with a different mentality and mindset. Kobe has a different mindset and mentality that MJ had.”

2017 – Steve Kerr on Kobe Bryant via The Mercury News

This current “millennial” generation of players, including the trendsetting LeBron James, grew up in an age where Jordan’s career was exploited as a highlight-reel marketing campaign to sell whatever product that corporate America deemed necessary. As a result, the former Chicago Bulls guard has been legitimized as a basketball immortal. In essence, these players are chasing a ghost. Because they maintain identities as the most driven competitors on Planet Earth, this group will forever be on a ring-gathering quest fueled by the fantasy that they can dethrone M.J. for his crown.

Instead of putting in the work expected of a superstar while their respective teams build a roster around them over long periods of time, the current stockpile of NBA “stars” are attempting to accelerate the process of becoming a champion by means of joining forces to manufacture championships. Subsequently, their accomplishments have received less merit than that of their predecessors, and instead give off the feeling that their banner-raising efforts are nothing more than artificial, lab-created manipulations of the journey to greatness.

Bryant is a sweat-bearing advocate for an older generation that strived for greatness. Instead of pursuing championships by means of modern “win-now or bust” methods, the two-time Olympic gold medalist appreciates the trials and tribulations of the process. During an interview on the Jim Rome Show in August 2016, he addressed Kevin Durant’s decision to team up with a 73-win Golden State Warriors team and said, “I would have thought less about myself if I looked at that move and said, ‘That’s unfair.’’’He also added, “If you’re a real competitor, you look at that and say, ‘OK, lace ’em up. Let’s go. I don’t care how many players you have over there; we’re still going to take you down.’’’

Phil Jackson is perhaps the greatest coach in the history of the NBA. He amassed eleven championships while coaching both Bryant and Jordan, a total that is good for the most in league history. Witnessing greatness first hand for the majority of his career, the zen-like Jackson attributed the work-ethic and drive of Bryant in a 2018 interview with Steve Kerr, written by Kat Richlis published in The California Sunday Magazine by saying, “From then on in his career, it was all growth to a point where we saw a guy that did some things that were miraculous. It was dedication.”

During the session, Jackson also added, “I often went to work at 8:30, and if we had a late-night, that’s pretty early. I’d pull into my parking spot, and Kobe’d be there taking a nap in his car. He’d been there since 6:30 working out. He had a remarkable drive towards getting better. I’ve never seen another player attack his personal habits the way he did.”

“I would have thought less about myself if I looked at that move and said, ‘That’s unfair.’ “

“If you’re a real competitor, you look at that and say, ‘OK, lace ’em up. Let’s go. I don’t care how many players you have over there; we’re still going to take you down.’’’

2016 – Kobe Bryant on Kevin Durant joining Golden State via Jim Rome Show

Phil’s comments are a testament to the reputation Bryant built for himself, as he was obsessed with eclipsing his idol, Jordan. The Lakers’ great would often stay late after both games and practices to put in extra shooting and conditioning work. At one point, the vigorous Bryant claimed that he would take 1,001 shots every day, regardless of whether or not he played a game or practiced. His main reason for the abundant amount of shots was surpassing the 1,000 that Jordan took on a daily basis.

Bryant patterned his game after Jordan’s and studied the six-time champion relentlessly. Instead of focusing on building relationships with other NBA players he may possibly team up with to challenge Jordan’s ring total, the Oscar winner reveled in a state of solidarity with an intense focus and obsession to destroy his peers in a manner much-like “His Airness”. As a result, the “Black Mamba” managed to bridge the gap between two eras with a Jordan-esque dedication of resiliency, determination, and arrogance. The trio of Jordan, Bryant, and James should be carved into a Mount Rushmore of transcending skill and personality. Perhaps, Kobe’s likeness will bear a giant, shit-eating grin because he is absolutely the last, great remaining O.G. the National Basketball Association will ever see lace up a pair of sneakers.