Owning Kobe

By Sophfronia Scott

Since writing this essay I’m bewildered by how quickly we’ve all been called upon to lean on our Kobe legacy. Now is our chance to find focus and live beyond our fear to be our best and brightest selves. It is possible. We can still follow Kobe’s lead.”—Sophfronia Scott

The portion of Kobe that belonged to me is not the same as that of my friend who grew up in Los Angeles wearing Lakers jerseys and once wrote a letter to Kobe. It is not the same as the part Doc Rivers owned and grieved for in front of the heat of a multitude of camera lights after learning the NBA superstar had perished along with his 13-year-old daughter and seven others when his private helicopter crashed on a foggy Sunday morning in January. It is not the same as that belonging to the heart that leapt when Kobe won an Oscar, perhaps renewing someone’s dream that such excellence is possible for someone not necessarily connected to Hollywood’s creative realm.

My portion of Kobe wasn’t the kind that kept his name in my mouth on a regular basis, as it was for the people who follow basketball’s hustle and flow to the nth degree, people that range from the upper echelons of ESPN to my sister Jeanette discussing the NBA with her teenage son, himself a baller on the courts of Virginia high schools. I’m not saying my portion was larger or meager, glowing with worship or dark with ignorance. It was just different.

He floated around the edges of my mind, the way it happens when someone has hold of an awareness within you. I paid attention. I watched him because he struck me as a man awake in his life and living it with intention and intensity. He challenged me to think, “Wow, if he can do that, what can I do?” He showed me limitations where I thought I had none. He confirmed what can be done when you dismiss fear and do the thing anyway. Some part of me constantly asked, “What will he do next?” and awaited the answer with something beyond mere interest.

Something in me has shattered and fallen away because the answers will come no more.

Are you feeling broken too? Are you inexplicably, devastatingly crushed?

You owned part of Kobe. Really, you did. Don’t tell me you aren’t a basketball fan. Don’t say you could care less about Mamba Mentality, the philosophy derived from the Black Mamba, the snake moniker he took on after the deadly assassins called by that term in the Quentin Tarantino film, Kill Bill. If you don’t know the mentality, Kobe described it himself as “a constant quest to try to be better today than you were yesterday.” But do know the truth of the matter which is this: Kobe Bryant belonged to the world and the world belonged to him. I found it thrilling to watch a young black man, speaking multiple languages, crossing borders, dissolving boundaries. He displayed a personal freedom, within himself and without, that had the potential to release anyone struggling with their own perception of independence, of self-determination.

Of black men, Toni Morrison wrote in her novel Sula, “I mean, everything in the world loves you…It looks to me like you the envy of the world.” Sula knew the potential of such power. A black man who could embrace such power could change the world.

Kobe Bryant was such a man.

He made you think about rewriting stories. You could focus on the fact that you can’t shoot a basketball the way he did, or have the money, looks, or charisma that he had. But he made you look at other aspects of yourself. You can have vision. You can have commitment. You can be intense and loyal and loving and single-minded. You can be the best, even if it means you are the best dishwasher in a small-town diner. The part of Kobe that belonged to you made you want to find a better way of being you.

On the day he died I posted in social media, “Beyond his basketball career, he continued to demonstrate what it can look like to craft a life of creativity and excellence. We have lost many gifts he had yet to give us.”

You may not feel this loss yet. You haven’t hit that point in your life where you need a model for doing what Kobe was doing. You don’t have a child yet who will read the books he wrote for young people. That child is not yet tugging on you to explain, to ask you for more. You haven’t yet admitted to yourself how badly you want excellence, but fear what it will ask of you to pursue it.

That’s when you’ll go looking for your portion of Kobe. It will be there. Sadly, he can’t add to it so you’ll have to subsist on what he left behind. But he left so much—words, images, actions, achievements. Now it’s up to you to figure out what you’ll do with it. The world is no less yours than it was his. The question is, can you allow yourself to belong to the world as he did? Are you willing to give freely of what you have to offer? Such is your inheritance. Such is mine. May we all have the strength and grace to live up to this complicated and wondrous legacy.