“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.” ~ J.R.R. Tolkien, in “Fellowship Of The Ring”
The world is still trying to make sense of the death of Kobe Bryant, 41, who died in a horrific helicopter crash on January 26th, with his daughter and 7 others.
Of course, I recognized Kobe as a casual fan, but I really didn’t look much beyond his celebrity as an NBA star. In a 20-year-career, all with the Lakers, he notched 5 championships, 2 gold medals, 18 All Star appearances, and retired in 2016 third on the all-time scoring list (though knocked back to fourth by Lebron James, ironically the night before his death.)
But only in reading about him after his death did I come to appreciate that there was much, much more behind these accomplishments than I ever knew. Kobe may have been born with a silver spoon (his father played 8 years in the NBA), but he turned that into gold through a singular drive to succeed, a philosophy which became known as his Mamba Mentality.
“Hard work outweighs talent every time,” Kobe explains. “Without studying, preparation and practice, you’re leaving the outcome to fate. I don’t do fate.”
I’m a big believer in “finding freedom through Christ-centered discipline”. It’s the motto behind Train Yourself Ministry. So I was inspired to dig deeper into this part of Kobe’s thinking.
What I learned was inspirational. And translates far beyond basketball. I know quite a few followers of Christ who would do good to bring a little Mamba Mentality to their walk of faith.
What is this Mamba Mentality? From what I read, it includes these elements:
For starters, when Kobe says hard work, he means it.
It’s not without reason he retired near the top of the scoring list. His practice regimen was legendary. He went straight from high school (where he eclipsed Wilt Chamberlain’s Philadelphia high school scoring records) into the NBA at the age of 17. Scouts pegged him as “borderline sensational”. But nobody worked harder than Kobe to turn that acclaim into reality.
“You always want to outwork your potential,” he said in a motivational video explaining Mamba Mentality (see here). “As hard as you believe you can work, you can work harder.”
Another facet of his work ethic was humility, manifested by an insatiable curiosity.
He knew for all his talent, he was nothing on his own. And for all his smarts, he had so much more to learn.
So early in his Laker career, he peppered all the great players around him with question after question about their thinking, strategies and emotions on the court. When he tore his Achilles tendon toward the end of his career, he sought advice from other athletes who had suffered similar injuries on how to recover properly.
After his retirement, Bryant at once plunged into writing and film production. Naturally, he reached out to world-famous authors and artists (including J.K. Rowling) to pick their brains on best practices for story-telling, sometimes calling them several times in a day.
A third feature of his Mamba Mentality was his wholistic pursuit of excellence beyond sports.
In an age when superstar athletes self-destruct once outside their athletic career, Kobe understood that life was so much more than basketball.
Friends couldn’t believe how effortlessly this man who lived, breathed and dreamed basketball, walked away from it after his retirement.
“It’s simple,” he wrote to someone. “I adjust to the reality of the situation…This isn’t a death to me so much as it is an evolution, a transformation, or as Joseph Campbell would say, ‘the new normal.’”
Kobe’s love for the arts goes beyond Joseph Campbell (whose book “The Hero’s Journey” he devoured to help him prepare for retirement.) Kobe was listening to Beethoven before Game 6 of the 2009 Western Conference Finals, then went out and thrashed the Denver Nuggets.
And (I didn’t know this), Kobe was part of the team which won an Oscar in 2016 for Best Animated Short, an adaptation of a poem he wrote for his retirement called Dear Basketball. Truly as Barak Obama said, Kobe was just getting started in “what would have been just as meaningful a second act.”
A fourth feature of his Mamba Mentality was his reaction to failure and fear.
Early in his career, he nearly ruined everything with an infamous rape accusation in 2003. Though the case was settled out of court, Kobe didn’t make excuses or try to pass the blame along. He publicly acknowledged committing adultery (not rape). “I’m furious at myself. Disgusted with myself,” he said. Then with his career and marriage teetering on the edge, he plunged into rehabilitating both.
All these years later, NFL linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said of Kobe after his death, ““I didn’t know him personally, but it was cool for me to see someone who had the passion and discipline to be great in so many different areas while realizing how important family was and place the same type of energy into being a husband and a father.”
As for facing his fears, Ramona Shelburne, a friend of Kobe who writes for ESPN, said Bryant told her once, “To a certain extent, every day I was vulnerable. You’re always dealing with fear, with something in your imagination. Something that you think can happen. But you just say, ‘I don’t know if I can do that. But I’ll give it a try.’”
A final aspect of Mamba Mentality is his recognition of grace.
The morning after his final game (where he electrified the crowd with a stunning 60-point finale) he went to church.
“I think after 20 years, it’s important to give thanks for having such a blessed life,” he said. “I wanted to make sure I went and paid my respects and just said ‘Thank you.’”
It wasn’t for show. I don’t know of the full depth of Kobe’s faith, but the morning of his death, Kobe attended mass with his family before he climbed into the helicopter.
I didn’t plan on reading for hours on the life of Kobe Bryant after he died, but I’m glad I did. I’m a better man, and husband, and pastor, and writer, because of it.
Bear Clifton, writer and screenwriter, is the pastor of BridgeWay Community Church in California, Maryland. His blogs, screenplays and devotionals can be enjoyed at his ministry website: trainyourselfministry.com and his writing website: blclifton.com. Bear is also the author of “Train Yourself To Be Godly: A 40 Day Journey Toward Sexual Wholeness”, “Ben-Hur: The Odyssey”, “A Sparrow Could Fall”, and his latest – “Living Under The Cross”, a collection of essays on the Beatitudes – all available through Amazon.