Get all of Andrew Sharp's columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
In 2005, Kobe Bryant arrived to Lakers training camp and announced that he'd been studying snakes. He compared his off–season regimen to a snake shedding its skin, and told the media he had a new nickname. "The mamba can strike with 99% accuracy at maximum speed, in rapid succession," he explained to ESPN: The Magazine. "That's the kind of basketball precision I want to have." After a few years, it caught on, and in 2014, he admitted to a reporter from The New Yorker that he actually got the inspiration after hearing the mamba described in Kill Bill: Volume 2. "I read up on the animal and said, 'Wow, this is pretty awesome.'" Then, in a 2015 Showtime documentary—a documentary that had to be re–shot after Kobe decided that he didn't want to use any interviews and would instead narrate the entire film himself—Kobe said that he coined the nickname to deal with the stress of the sexual assault trial that had dominated the season before. "I had to separate myself," he told us. "It felt like there were so many things coming at once. It was just becoming very, very confusing. I had to organize things. So I created The Black Mamba."
This is Kobe's career. At the beginning, it was contrived and corny as hell. Eventually, it was so weird that it worked. Toward the end, he started telling the truth, and it was actually pretty great. At the very end, he tried to attach a deeper meaning to everything that seemed awfully convenient, and probably wasn't quite what happened.
There are many, many tributes floating around the sports world this week, enough of them so you can't possibly need to read another. I won't take up too much time. It already feels like we've been living in a six–month Nike commercial. But there was something great about Kobe, and it's easy to miss as everyone pays their respects and tries to keep this respectful.
For most of his career, Kobe was a crazy person. A weirdo. A flat-out maniac. And I'll miss him, because maniacs make the world more entertaining. To that end, here are some memories that won't make it into the montages at Staples Center tonight.
1. This Facebook post, which he later admitted was written with a significant assist from Vicodin: "Maybe I should break out the rocking chair and reminisce on the career that was. Maybe this is how my book ends. Maybe Father Time has defeated me...Then again maybe not! It's 3:30am, my foot feels like dead weight, my head is spinning from the pain meds and I'm wide awake. Forgive my Venting but what's the purpose of social media if I won't bring it to you Real No Image?? Feels good to vent, let it out. ... One day, the beginning of a new career journey will commence. Today is NOT that day. 'If you see me in a fight with a bear, prey for the bear'. Ive always loved that quote. Thats 'mamba mentality' we don't quit, we don't cower, we don't run. We endure and conquer. I know it's a long post but I'm Facebook Venting LOL."
2. This Phil Jackson quote: "A part of Kobe desperately wants to be in the group, to enjoy the camaraderie of his teammates, basketball serving as his only true escape. But there is another part of Kobe which often wins out, a part that wants, perhaps needs, to be isolated from the group. To have it both ways is simply impossible."
4. Also, this is the only Kobe family photo you will ever need.
5. "What sets him apart from others is his thirst for knowledge," his friend Hilary Swank explained to GQ once. "He uses every way, and then some, to learn more about the art of life, getting his mind out of the way." Elsewhere in that profile, Kobe said he sleeps two hours-a-night and looks to Daniel Day-Lewis for inspiration.
6. "I’ll give you an example," Kobe Bryant told Arianna Huffington. "When you watch me shoot my fadeaway jumper, you’ll notice my leg is always extended. I had problems making that shot in the past. It’s tough. So one day I’m watching the Discovery Channel and see a cheetah hunting. When the cheetah runs, its tail always gives it balance, even if it’s cutting a sharp angle. And that’s when I was like: My leg could be the tail, right?" "That's amazing," Arianna Huffington said. "Inspiration surrounds us," Kobe said.
7. "Ship his ass out!" he said of Andrew Bynum.
8. "Mitch, these motherf***rs aren't doing s*** for me!" he said of his entire team.
9. "Any free agent that is afraid to play with Kobe Bryant is probably a loser," said a Lakers owner.
10. "We'll be on the plane," Ron Artest says. "Playing cards. Kobe will walk up, stop the game and say, 'Ron, come to the back of the plane.' Then, he'll show me some tape and say, 'Look at this. Here's what you need to do.' I'll go back to my seat, and then he'll walk up to Shannon Brown, stop the card game and do the same thing. And it doesn't matter if you're sleeping. He'll wake you up and show you things you've never thought about. He puts so much time and passion into the game. I have no problem following somebody who's worth being followed, who works as hard as me. I will follow Kobe anywhere."
11. “It’s horrendous. It's evil," said an NBA GM. "It’s a hard drug to quit when you’re winning. Kobe has cost the Lakers dearly in human capital. Kobe has hurt a lot of people. In some cases jeopardized careers.”
12. Do you remember exactly where you were when Kobe announced a return-date from his Achilles injury and the Lakers released the Seasons of Legend video?
13. There is also this video, which is probably the coolest NBA tribute on YouTube. And this commercial, which is up there with any Nike commercial of the past 10 years. And this tweet, your reminder that Kobe on social media was so much better than anyone could have imagined.
14. Also seen on Twitter: Kobe has dropped at least 40 on every team in the NBA.
15. This Suns game, in which Kobe hit the game-tying lay-up to send it to overtime, and the game-winning jumper in OT.
16. This Suns game, a week later, in which Kobe refused to shoot in the second half of a Game 7.
17. This Suns game, in which Kobe went for 37 to end the Suns era for real, on the way to his fifth title.
19. Kobe vs. Matt Barnes.
20. In Shaq's autobiography, he tells some stories. “I’m going to be the number one scorer for the Lakers, I’m going to win five or six championships, and I’m going to be the best player in the game," Shaq remembers Kobe saying. “I was like, ‘Okay, whatever,’" Shaq writes. "Then he looked me right in the eye and said, ‘I’m going to be the Will Smith of the NBA.'” ... Elsewhere, Shaq quotes himself, to Kobe: “If you ever say anything like what you said to Jim Gray ever again, I will kill you."
21. "Every time we acquired a new guy," Tyronn Lue remembers, "He would play those guys one-on-one after every practice just to show them, like, ‘I'm the man, I'm the man.'"
22. "That whole day we went head up," Chris Douglas-Roberts remembers of his first practice against Kobe. "At one point it damn near came to blows because Bean will do anything for an edge. So he was elbowing me on the low for separation and I couldn’t let that go as a competitor. As a man. The refs were too scared to call the foul bc he was intimidating them all practice. But at then end it was all love. The respect is mutual. Gave me some pointers that are priceless. It’s a misconception on Bean. Ppl think he’s a sucker…hard to play with. It’s just that he expects the most of his teammates because works so hard. Easily the realist hooper I’ve met. He never lies and I respect that."
23. Kobe and that 40-mile bike ride through the desert.
24. "Kobe talked to Dwight in a way that I don't think anyone one had ever talked to him – not in Orlando, not here, not in his life, I'm betting,"one witness in the room told Yahoo! Sports. "He's been coddled, and Kobe wasn't going to coddle him."
Most of all, apart from the desert bike rides and the death threats from Shaq, I will remember Kobe for the arguments he inspired among basketball fans. On one side, there were Lakers fans who talked about him like some kind of religious figure, capable of winning on the sheer strength of his will, with #RINGS as the ultimate proof. On the other side, he spawned an entire genre of internet writing dedicated to poking holes in the myth, trolling the believers, and crusading toward a moment of clutch gene clarity.
What's great about Kobe is that everyone is basically telling the truth. All the worst criticism and anecdotes about his cruelty to teammates, all the craziest praise and the legends of his work ethic, it's all true.
He is a Laker for life, and a Laker who broke up the one of the greatest teams ever, then demanded a trade to the Clippers. If you think he's overrated and he's been a toxic influence in L.A., then sure, that meeting with Dwight Howard is proof. If you think anyone who wouldn't play with Kobe is a loser, Dwight Howard proves that, too. If you think he's cost the Lakers some wins the past two years, you are absolutely correct. But then, he's also the single biggest reason the team was in position to sign a 20–year, $3 billion local TV contract in 2011. If we're considering the costs and benefits of Kobe loyalty, let's look at everything.
There's been a movement in recent years to claim that Tim Duncan had a more impressive career than Kobe. The correct answer there depends on why you watch basketball. If you're watching strictly to see who wins, then sure, Duncan and the Spurs have won more than anyone over the past 20 years. But if you watch for the characters, and the story, Kobe's highs in L.A. were much higher than anything San Antonio did, and his lows were more interesting.
It's a paradox—and possibly blasphemous before the Mamba religion—to say that we'll remember the most ruthless competitor of his generation for something other than winning. Kobe is so much more than rings, though. He is the villain who lived long enough to become the hero, and the hero who stuck around so long that even his fiercest believers are ready to move on. He was Alex Rodriguez who turned into Derek Jeter, and then he was Denzel Washington at the end of Training Day, going down in a hail of think–pieces and advanced stats. He was the champion who slept two hours a night, studying the Discovery Channel and trading life advice with Arianna Huffington and Hilary Swank. He was the captain of a lottery–bound Lakers team who couldn't resist cursing out Dwight Howard.
Now it's over, and all year long, he's painted himself as the lovable veteran passing into history, smiling through blowout losses on a four–month farewell tour of the NBA, complimenting a new superstar every other night. It's been weird. It's felt both carefully rehearsed, and completely out of control. It's Kobe.