Tragically and unfathomably, Kobe Bryant is gone, dead along with his 13-year old daughter Gianna and seven others aboard a helicopter that crashed en route to the Mamba Sports Academy, a training facility he opened in Thousand Oaks, California. Since the news hit on Sunday, two words have been inescapable in tributes to Bryant: Mamba Mentality.
What is the Mamba Mentality, exactly?
"I never wanted to be like Kobe, but I always wanted to have that laser focus, that nothing was getting in the way of what I wanted to do out on the floor," Kevin Durant said at Brooklyn Nets practice on Tuesday. "And that's what I think the Mamba Mentality is for him. It was just like, whatever I want to do, I'ma put my mind to it and do it. We all -- no matter if you played basketball or not, if you watched and knew who Kobe Bryant was, you took that from him. His mindset, just everything about him, just touched so many people around the world."
Durant's teammate, Spencer Dinwiddie, grew up in South-Central Los Angeles. He idolized Bryant, and on Tuesday he changed his jersey number from 8 to 26 as a sign of respect. The day Bryant died, I watched a grieving Dinwiddie stand up from his locker and walk away from a throng of reporters with tears in his eyes. He had played in a game that virtually no one was interested in, that only took place because canceling it was too complicated. He said that Bryant was "everything to my generation," that Bryant "was our childhood."
"The lessons of hard work and, as cliche as it may sound, the Mamba Mentality, right, that's part of the reason I am who I am today," Dinwiddie said. "The mentality of consistent work and pushing through boundaries and playing through injury and never giving up, never falling, just continuing to push through -- shooting the free throws [after rupturing his] Achilles, all types of things that he did, the game-winners, all that stuff, he was everything to a lot of kids. And I was one of them."
The Mamba Mentality is about obsession. It is about prioritizing your professional goals over having a normal, balanced life. It is about playing without fear, mastering your craft and wanting not only to win, but to dominate. It's Bryant airballing all those 3s against Utah in the playoffs, then working on his shot all night in a high school gym. It's Bryant approaching his first matchup against Michael Jordan thinking that he's going to destroy him. It's Bryant, furious that Allen Iverson had gotten the best of him, reading every article about Iverson and watching every game A.I. had played, searching for weaknesses to exploit.
Bryant built his singular 20-year career on a foundation of unwavering self-belief. He self-mythologized even more effectively than Jordan did, and the mythology resonated: His name is a shorthand for relentlessness, confidence and dedication. To live Bryant's way is to live with a purposeful intensity, to fully commit, to fend off the self-doubt, fear and worries we all have.
It's the unsubtle art of not giving a f---. He even put out a book on the subject.
The Mamba Mentality cannot be separated from its origins: Bryant gave himself the nickname "The Black Mamba" in an effort to rebrand himself in the aftermath of a sexual assault case. All of his sponsors except Nike had dropped him.
"My vision was to build a brand and do all these things," Bryant told the New Yorker's Ben McGrath in 2014. "Now everybody is telling me I can't do it. The name just evokes such a negative emotion. I said, 'If I create this alter ego, so now when I play this is what's coming out of your mouth, it separates the personal stuff, right?' You're not watching David Banner -- you're watching the Hulk."
Bryant issued a public apology as part of a settlement in the civil suit, and the criminal charges were dropped because the accuser chose not to testify. As the New York Times' Kevin Draper wrote, there was no clear resolution.
Bryant got the idea for his alter ego after watching Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" and doing some research on the deadly snake. A squeaky-clean public persona wouldn't work anymore, so Bryant went the other way, casting himself as an assassin who didn't care whether he was loved or hated. The Black Mamba was one of the most successful image-rehabilitation campaigns in recent memory. It is impossible to imagine anyone trying the same strategy today.
Much of the appeal of the Mamba Mentality lies in its unapologetic gestures toward alpha maleness. To what degree is it about resilience and to what degree is it about plain old machismo?
For all the successful athletes Bryant has inspired to work while no one's watching, how many have failed by modeling his brashness and stubbornness without his Hall of Fame-level skill and smarts? How many coaches, at all levels, have had to plead with young players to perfect more basic moves before advancing to turnaround fadeaways?
Bryant himself was maniacal about getting the fundamentals right. He was consumed by details, from his posture defending the post to how the barcode is integrated into the back cover of a children's book. He could bend a defense to his will and control a game like a point guard. He could also take ridiculous shots over double-teams, to the consternation of his coaches.
At the 2011 Sloan Sports Conference, Henry Abbott delivered a presentation called "Bad decisions in sports skew macho." Bryant's crunch-time shot selection was one of its case studies.
Bryant evolved as a leader over the course of his career, but he was always demanding. Like Jordan, the player he modeled his game after, he could be a bully, and his ego alienated some teammates (and potential teammates).
"Does my nature make me less enjoyable to play with? Of course," Bryant told Chuck Klosterman in a GQ feature in 2015. Bryant then contended that he didn't want to play with anyone who was intimidated by him, anyway.
Bryant retired from the NBA in 2016, but he never really went away. You could see him everywhere: the footwork of DeMar DeRozan, the earnest quotes about the purity of the game from Kyrie Irving, the Instagram story LeBron James posted from the Los Angeles Lakers' practice facility in May with a timestamp of 4:48 a.m. In death, too, his influence will endure.
Five years ago, I asked DeRozan, a Compton-born Kobe acolyte, about the way he was calmly getting to his spots. "I think I kind of got that from Kob', so to speak," DeRozan said. "Kobe, he just told me what he did when he was young in his career. He watched so much film to understand every rotation, where he could pick and choose to get his shots off or pick and choose to get somebody an open shot." Through studying Bryant, when DeRozan found himself in a new position on the court, he felt like he'd been there before.
In that same interview, DeRozan said his confidence came from a "sickening work ethic." He had recently returned from his first serious injury, and he had leaned on his favorite player when he was at a low point. Bryant told him to bring an "aggressive approach" to rehabilitation. The Mamba ethos dictates that even a torn tendon is an opponent to be attacked.
DeRozan and the San Antonio Spurs hosted the Toronto Raptors on Sunday. Before the game, his coach consoled him and his former teammates commiserated with him. Afterward, he hugged his best friend and conducted a heartbreaking media scrum.
"Everything I learned came from Kobe," DeRozan told reporters, via Sportsnet. "Everything. Take Kobe away, I wouldn't be here. I wouldn't have the love, I wouldn't have the passion, the drive. Everything, everything came from him."
DeRozan, Dinwiddie and Durant are just three of a seemingly endless stream of players to whom Bryant has offered encouragement and made himself accessible. Even his post-career work with ESPN, including an X's-and-O's show called "Detail," reflected a desire to pass on his knowledge. Bryant is not solely responsible for the NBA's culture of year-round training and early-morning summertime workouts, but I wonder how pervasive it would be if this generation had looked up to someone less extreme.
"I think Kobe introducing some of those younger players to the mindset he approached the game with, and the greats before him approached the game with, was really important because it's a true competitor's mindset," former rival Raja Bell said on CBS Sports HQ on Monday. "It is an alpha mindset. It is a I-want-to-be-the-best mindset. And, ultimately, when you're playing a sport, it's competition. That's what you're there for. You're there to win; you're there to try and conquer."
Late Sunday night, tennis phenom Naomi Osaka wrote a letter thanking Bryant "for randomly texting me 'You OK?' [because] you know how f---ed up my head is sometimes." Three-time NHL All-Star P.K. Subban told reporters on Monday that Bryant was "always willing to make time," via Sportsnet. The Times ran an op-ed by former New York Liberty center Talia Caldwell on Monday about his support of women's basketball, opening with an anecdote about a grainy video message wishing the Cal Golden Bears luck in the 2013 Final Four.
Hours after Bryant's death, the New York Knicks' Taj Gibson and Marcus Morris both described him as a superhero. The Black Mamba seemed larger than life, almost indestructible. Unfortunately, Kobe Bryant was only a person.