“I’m happy,” Bryant said then. “This is pretty cool. I’m looking around the room and seeing guys that I’m playing with that are tearing the league up that were, like, 4 during my first All-Star Game. It’s true. I mean, how many players can say they’ve played 20 years and actually have seen the game go through three, four generations, you know what I mean? It’s not sad at all. I’m really happy and honored to be here and see this.”
As he reflected for several days in this manner, Bryant made the most profound gesture of his retirement tour, big brother finally acknowledging and bowing to the greatness of the squirts. If you experienced that weekend in Toronto, you left certain that the bridge Bryant had helped build between the Michael Jordan era and the present was quite sturdy. You left knowing that Bryant — who, as he aged, often seemed like a renegade in a league gone soft — had made his impact and taught these kinder, gentler stars to compete.
As much as his 60-point, 50-shot finale, I think about those good all-star vibes when remembering the last days of Bryant as a player. It was a preview of the inspiring mortal he became after he took off his basketball cape, a man who had transitioned so gracefully until that fatal helicopter crash last month.
The NBA was charged with an enormous task for these all-star festivities this weekend in Chicago: Celebrate the game and the lives of Bryant and visionary former commissioner David Stern, who died Jan. 1. Celebrate the lives of Bryant’s daughter Gianna and the seven others who were killed in that horrible accident. Combine, somehow, mourning and spectacle.
There is no timeline for healing. The process may last forever, in some form. But in terms of honoring Bryant, the challenge was made easier by the fact that, in his death, it has become clear the current stars comprehended every cold-shouldered, jaw-jutted Black Mamba lesson that he taught them. At times, he was a perplexing loner, and always, he was willing to do whatever he deemed necessary to win. Unlike LeBron James, he had no Banana Boat crew. But it turns out he didn’t alienate his peers. He may have intimidated them a little. Still, they admired and learned from him.
Over the past three weeks, as millions have tried to make sense of his shocking death at age 41, this NBA season has progressed into one in which you can feel the Mamba Mentality taking over the league. He left us amid a season of enhanced parity and competitiveness. The superteam era appears over. Instead of elite players conspiring to build a few stacked rosters of three or more all-stars, we’re back to clusters of dynamic duos. It’s the Shaq and Kobe model again, and in a more balanced league, we’re seeing the full spectrum from superstars: their best, their warts and, most revealing, their strain and their willingness to keep striving.
Imperfection was a major part of the allure of Bryant. He bled. He bled plenty, and you saw him bleed. He aimed to be better than Jordan, knowing full well that many viewed Michael as a kind of flawless basketball deity. Bryant also knew there was no objective way to compare definitively the greatness of players from different eras, which meant he had to know he was chasing a ghost. And to him, that was the point. He set a standard so high, so impossible to reach, that the game consumed him and took everything his body could give.
That’s how he came to define the Mamba Mentality. Some players reference it as an explanation for why they take too many shots. But Bryant intended for the phrase to describe the dogged pursuit of excellence. On the court, he experienced pain and humiliation. But he rose. And he kept getting better.
In his “Mamba Mentality: How I Play” book, Bryant emphasized the mindfulness required to stay in pursuit for 20 seasons.
“If you want to be great in a particular area, you have to obsess over it,” he said. “A lot of people say they want to be great, but they’re not willing to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve greatness. They have other concerns, whether important or not, and they spread themselves out.”
The most significant tribute the players can offer to Bryant: engagement. They must stay locked in this season to help transform it from somber to thrilling come playoff time. They’re on the right path. Despite some of the load management debate from earlier in the season, you see their competitive fire. You see it in James’s defiance of Father Time, in Giannis Antetokounmpo’s refusal to lose, in Damian Lillard’s scoring binge and unwillingness to give up on a difficult season in Portland. You see it in the surgical manner that Kawhi Leonard operates, in the reemergence of Russell Westbrook in Houston, in the smug expressions of Luka Doncic whenever an opponent tries to get in his head.
It has been a rough season for the NBA, from the controversy over Daryl Morey’s Hong Kong tweet to the early-season concern over low television ratings to the heavy hearts after losing two of the league’s most influential figures in the same month.
But the sport keeps going. Mamba Mentality. The lows matter as much as the highs. It’s okay to be vulnerable. It’s okay to fall. It’s okay to fail. But get up.
In the first All-Star Weekend since Bryant’s tragic crash, that’s what the NBA is doing. It is rising. It is celebrating the game that defined Bryant, and it is allowing joy to dribble back onto the court.
The squirts are playing the way he taught them, too. Hard. Focused. A little old school. You’d like to think that, somewhere way up there, Bryant periodically takes a break from H-O-R-S-E with Wilt Chamberlain to grin that Kobe grin and nod approvingly.