Saturday, February 1, 2020

KHAN: In Many Ways, Kobe Bryant Personified The American Dream

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In the wake of Kobe Bryant’s sudden death, makeshift memorials abound for the NBA legend, and rightly so. Bryant was a bona fide American icon who transcended the game he played to near perfection for some twenty years. So many of us grew up witnessing him will himself to victory countless times on the hardwood. His patented fadeaway has been mimicked a million times and counting all over the world in gyms, schoolyards, even offices.

Unlike so many other athletes though, Kobe dispelled our dogmatic notions of black and white. His intrepid spirit defined him as patently American in the vein of so many mavericks before him. In doing so, he shunned the many stereotypical trappings associated with athletic stardom.

Bryant traveled alone and had no entourage. He held no interest in appearing hard or tough off the court. Instead, he presented himself as an intellectual and an autodidact with a voracious thirst for knowledge on and off the court. He spoke several languages. The man even taught himself to play the piano to save his marriage.

Perhaps, most importantly, Kobe Bryant began to exemplify fatherhood to a generation in desperate need of such examples. In fact, fatherhood became his primary focus after retiring from basketball.

As Yahoo!Sports explained:

Kobe Bryant died being a father. This isn’t a surprise, because being a father had long ago become the most important thing in his life, even more than lifting the Los Angeles Lakers to five NBA titles and earning international fame.

He even took on a paternal role to the many younger players in the NBA seeking his guidance and approval. When Gordon Hayward suffered a gruesome, potentially career-ending injury in 2017, Bryant immediately reached out to him with words of wisdom and encouragement:

It’s a long journey but if you focus on the mini milestones along the way you will find beauty in the struggle of doing simple things that prior to this injury were taken for granted…You see the belief within you grow with each mini milestone and you will come back a better player for it. Best of luck to you on this journey my brother #mambamentality always.

Of course, Kobe’s preternatural work ethic and competitive spirit is now the stuff of legend. He never relied solely on his God-given talent nor did he waste precious time among the various distractions that hound so many professional athletes. He also didn’t focus on failure except as a means to improve and grow.

Kobe shot four air balls in a crucial playoff game his rookie year. Instead of wallowing in defeat, he used that pivotal moment as motivation to propel him forward.

As legend Jerry West recalled to the Daily News in 2016:

That was a defining moment in his career. If somebody would have shot an air ball on our team and they had shot a second one, they would only shoot a third one. He was fearless. I think that’s one of the things that spurred him to greatness. He wasn’t going to allow himself to fail.

This vigilance and focus allowed Bryant to lead Team USA to gold in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He led by example and his teammates followed suit as reported in a piece by Bleacher Report:

That Bryant was so famously obsessive when it came to practice would prove valuable. He led Team USA to gold, imparting his “Mamba Mentality” on his teammates long before such wisdom had its own tagline. Ten years later, that performance remains as memorable as ever. And it was largely of Bryant’s doing.

Kobe Bryant’s legend continues to grow as many now eulogize him around the world. Of course, no man or woman is ever perfect. Such an attribution is a kind of pop idolatry that too often infests our modern mindset. However, that some in the media immediately sought to deride him even on the very day of his passing is nothing short of foul.

The Washington Post and NPR immediately began running hit pieces detailing the 2003 rape allegations even though the charges were later dropped after Bryant’s accuser refused to testify against him. Many in the media still insist on trying to retroactively stamp a #metoo hashtag on the incident almost twenty years later in the wake of his death. It’s gross but, sadly, par for the course in this day and age.

The story of Kobe Bryant will remain unfinished and imperfect, as is true for all of our lives. One hopes though that worldly success atop any proverbial mountain signals a demand to finally aspire toward higher, heavenly abodes in all of us. I think, finally, Kobe Bryant began to understand this as the shoreline from his monumental NBA career began to recede into memory.

In her piece on Kobe Bryant’s retirement in 2016, ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne recalls that on the morning after he ended his legendary career, having just scored a staggering 60 points in his final NBA game the night before, he did not sleep in or rest or even workout. Kobe Bryant woke up bright and early and simply went to church.

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