During a time in his life when Kobe Bryant was having some troubles, he created for himself an alter-ego: Black Mamba. So, when he was at home or in some social setting, he was Kobe. But when he was on a basketball court, he was Black Mamba.
Some of you may not know that the Black Mamba is an African snake that can grow to be 14 feet long. It strikes fast. One bite from it can kill a lion. This reptile is a formidable warrior. This quick striking creature is what Kobe became on the basketball court, and he did it time and time again.
As far as basketball is concerned, in researching for this short piece, I learned that there are roughly 900 teams in the collegiate ranks of the game. Each of these teams has about 14 players (counting those who are inactive.)
If you do the math, you will quickly find that the 360 or so players in the NBA represent less than 1% of the thousands who play college ball.
What this means is that an NBA player is the elite of the elite of all basketball players. And Kobe was elite among the elite.
Black Mamba could strike from anywhere – dunks, floaters, hooks, 3-pointers, or any shot you can think of. His first step would leave the best players in the dust. Fast. Deadly accurate.
I believe many people who see a player with Black Mamba’s skills think that it is simply natural talent – a gift. Not so. To be sure, the talent has to be there, but what is more important is the work ethic and the intelligence that burnish, hone, and sharpen that talent. This is true of all truly great athletes.
When Kobe, his 13-year-old daughter, and seven others were killed in that helicopter crash, I think the news first came out through social media. The first people who heard it wondered if it was true, or just “fake news.” As the news was confirmed, their wonder turned into questions.
How could the great Kobe Bryant be dead at age 41? Did his safe, durable helicopter suffer catastrophic failure? Was the weather too bad? Was it pilot error? What happened? Well, I’ll tell you. It’s a thing called death.
I think the only thing I wondered after the news had been confirmed was what did he do in the few seconds before the helicopter smashed into the ground?
Did he pull his daughter to him to try to protect her from the inevitable? Did he speak to her one last time? Did he pray?
My guess is the latter. It didn’t matter if he was rich and famous. In a situation like that, it isn’t likely a man would call on wealth or fame. He might, for a second, think of his wife and other daughters. He might, for a second, think of the 81 points he scored in a single game. As a Christian, though, I think we would have been calling on the name of God.
In the wake of his death, millions around the world mourned. I heard about one pro basketball game where each team walked to half court and stood to let the shot clock run out at 24 seconds – the number on Mamba’s jersey. Words of sorrow were tweeted from other great athletes and friends from the world of show business. People cried.
I suppose that is normal. After all, we love our stars, don’t we? In a way, they are like gods to us. Even though we may not really know much about them at all, their loss has more impact than the death of tens of thousands of people in some distant, war-torn part of the world, or the thousands of youth killed in inner-city conflict, or the thousands more who annually die in automobile accidents.
That’s how things are. In the end, though, the life of the legendary Kobe Bryant and the unfortunates who traveled with him to what was supposed to be a quick, fun trip to a basketball game, meant no more or less than any other.
Or yours or mine. Life gives us no guarantees.
I heard that, after scoring 60 points in his last professional basketball game, Kobe was interviewed on the subject of his retirement from the game. He finished that interview with just two words: “Mamba out.”