On Jan. 26, sports icon Kobe Bryant died at the age of 41, along with his daughter, Gianna, and seven other people in a tragic helicopter accident in Calabasas, California. I have grieved over a man I never met but who has affected me arguably as much as a close friend. Tributes from strangers all over the world attest to the breadth of Kobe’s impact. Those from individuals who knew him — as teammates, opponents, business partners, friends, family members — evince its seeming bottomless depth. It is so difficult to comprehend that Kobe is no longer with us precisely because of his embodied superhuman greatness — the kind that shoots free throws in the middle of a game with a torn Achilles tendon,1 that wins an NBA championship with a broken, arthritic shooting hand,2 that scores 81 points in a single game3 and 60 in a retirement game,4 that wins an Oscar after leaving basketball.5 Kobe’s feats — achieved with such consistency that he made the incredible seem commonplace — were matched only by his unparalleled work ethic and grit, described self-referentially as the “Mamba Mentality.”6–7
Through the hours I have spent reading and watching the extensive coverage of Kobe’s legacy since his passing, I am struck by how deeply the Mamba Mentality has resonated with people, affecting their attitudes and actions in life-defining ways. A common refrain beginning with, “Kobe inspired me to … ” is echoed by a number of athletes, many of whom are playing at the highest level of professional sports today.8–9 But the Mamba Mentality allowed Kobe’s influence to transcend sports and permeate the world at large, helping ordinary people identify their passions, overcome trials and achieve their goals. That my life bears the marks of Kobe’s influence is not unique, but how it does this may well be.
I was obese throughout childhood and overcame my struggle with weight when I was 14. I did it in order to play basketball. To emulate Kobe Bryant.
In 2002, the Los Angeles Lakers, led by Kobe and his teammate, Shaquille O’Neal, completed a “three-peat” (winning the NBA championship three years in a row). At that point, the most basketball I had ever played was vicariously through my classmates in elementary school. I could not play basketball because I had severe low back pain from carrying too much weight. I sat out recess regularly and resorted to watching my friends play basketball from the sidelines, because I could not even walk without pain. Though I was only 9, I used a back brace and medicinal patches, and took analgesics regularly. Even when I wanted to prove to myself and others (especially those who bullied me) that I could play, I was not allowed to — my pediatrician strictly prohibited it, and my teachers enforced his orders.
I wanted to play basketball so, so badly. I wanted to play because Kobe dazzled me. When he played, my eyes did not leave the television screen, and I marveled at his heroics. My parents bought me a Little Tikes kids’ basketball hoop, and I would perform slam dunks and shoot fadeaway jump shots at the buzzer, imagining that I was Kobe, or at least that I was playing on the Lakers with him.
The other kids were not shy to point out that I was obese, and they often teased me for it. The most popular guys at school were also the best basketball players, and I admired them. But how could I be where they were? I was simply too overweight, too unathletic, too unconfident.
My weight reached its peak at age 14, and my love for basketball was growing — primarily from following Kobe and the Lakers. Near the end of elementary school, my back had improved enough for me to play a bit in the local kids’ league, but I wanted to take it a step further and compete for the middle school team. Recalling the weight-related difficulties I faced in elementary school, my parents disallowed it. It was too great a liability, they reasoned — since I was so overweight and unathletic, I was likely to be injured.
Being forbidden from even trying out for the middle school basketball team was the final straw for me. I was determined to no longer allow my weight, or the limitations placed upon me by others because of it, to prevent me from doing what I loved. Over the next year, I successfully shed 30 pounds by committing unwaveringly to my health through strict nutrition and exercise. Never had I sacrificed so many short-term pleasures, often begrudgingly, to chase after a distant goal. But the dream came back into focus whenever I turned on my television after a day of willful self-denial to see the greatness of Kobe and his Lakers on display. By the end of the year, I made the junior varsity basketball team at my high school. The subsequent year, I helped us win the league championship as our team’s co-captain and — most meaningfully to me — “most improved player.”
Kobe’s imprint lasted much longer than that, however. The obsessiveness with which I monitored what I ate, and how I exercised and tracked the changes occurring in my mind and body during my weight loss journey, nurtured my budding interest in human health and well-being. I discovered the human body to be utterly fascinating in its malleability, versatility and vulnerability, and I sought to learn more — ultimately leading me to study medicine.
Fortunately, the same Mamba Mentality that I had to cultivate in order to overcome my struggle with weight and to play competitive basketball also empowered me to strive for my best academically. Even when I somehow stopped following the Lakers in college (that’s a different story), the Mamba Mentality never dissipated from me. I am now in medical school, pursuing my goal to be a healer of bodies because of my painful experience with my own body, an experience redeemed by my zest for the game of basketball, a zest inspired by Kobe Bryant.
I share my story as a tribute to a man I never met but whose example shaped the trajectory of my life to the present day. The same day that Kobe died, acclaimed sports journalist Bill Plaschke wrote a poignant column for the Los Angeles Times titled, “How Can Kobe Bryant Be Gone? His Legend Wasn’t Supposed to End This Way.”10 Plaschke ends the article with the following line: “Kobe Bryant is gone and, so, too, is a little bit of all of us.”
Many of us can probably empathize with Plaschke — Kobe’s life has been cut short, and those of us who have benefited from his inspiration feel like we have lost a part of ourselves. But I think there is another way of looking at it, too. Kobe Bryant’s Mamba Mentality is still very much alive, for it has spawned in people like me around the world in meaningful and life-altering ways. It persists through anyone who works just a little bit harder because of Kobe — athletes, businesspeople, educators, scientists, nurses and, yes, even future doctors.
This is my way of celebrating and remembering Kobe Bryant.
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