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Five lessons from Kobe's brief but storied life

Sandeep Gopalan (Tribute)
Filed on January 27, 2020 | Last updated on January 28, 2020 at 09.39 am

The basketball legend will live on in history for his brilliance, unyielding spirit, and inspirational leadership.

Kobe Bean Bryant is no more. Many play sport and a few achieve greatness in sport, but only the rarest of the rare transcend sport to illuminate the human condition.

Kobe was one of the rarest - achieving first-name recognition the world over, a la Oprah, Barack, and Beyonce. Kobe Bryant's 33,643 points, 18 All-Star appearances, 5 NBA titles, and the $320 million he earned directly from basketball are not the defining parts of his legacy. Black Mamba's impact on the world was beyond anything that could be measured in dollars or rings: for millions of people as distant from the City of Angels as the Philippines to China, to Italy and India, he exemplified the highest aspirations and potential of the human spirit on the court and off the court since his retirement in 2016. Here are some of the lessons from Kobe's brief but storied life.

Talent without hard work accomplishes little. As Henry W. Longfellow wrote so memorably in The Ladder of St. Augustine: 'The heights by great men reached and kept, Were not attained by sudden flight, But they, while their companions slept, Were toiling upward in the night.' Kobe was synonymous with hard work - he possessed an almost maniacal commitment to labour and was determined not to be beaten because of a lack of preparation. Whereas other precocious talents only flattered to deceive, Kobe extracted every ounce from his talent by dint of bone-tiring work. As he wrote in his poem, Dear Basketball:

You asked for my hustle; I gave you my heart, because it came with so much more.

I played through the sweat and hurt, not because challenge called me, but because you called me.

I did everything for you, because that's what you do when someone makes you feel as alive as you've made me feel.

Winning. The world of elite sports, like much of life at the very top in disparate professional disciplines, is a cruel zero-sum game. There are winners and there are losers. No matter how good the losers were, history pays them scant acknowledgement. Often it is mere inches that separate the twain, but the gulf may as well be in light years in terms of rewards and no one writes paeans about losers.

Kobe had an intuitive understanding of this reality. Hence his win-at-all-costs mantra.

Often this unrelenting existential desire to win and dominate the opposition had a dark side - his teammates and opponents were on the receiving end of whiplash when they fell short of his high standards. Even other elite teammates such as Dwight Howard who did not possess that same fire were treated with contempt. But Kobe's results validated his philosophy - to the victor belongs the spoils.

Resilience and determination. Kobe's life arc had three distinct chapters - the child prodigy who was 'clean' and beloved; the despised villain; and the champion elder-statesman. The second chapter began with the 2003 accusation of rape and Kobe endured a public humiliation that was unprecedented. Although the criminal charges were dropped and the lawsuit was settled, Kobe was subjected to vile abuse and chants of 'Kobe sucks' in various arenas. He was everyone's hated villain for years.

One can only imagine the emotional toll that extracted on him and his family. But Kobe exhibited character that is illustrative - he met taunts and abuse with a cold stare and nod whilst pushing himself to excel at his craft. He would frequently nod at his abusers in the stands almost taunting them sarcastically whilst making impossible shots and defeating their teams. A lesser man would have collapsed under the strain but Kobe's resilience allowed him to triumph against all odds and he eventually turned the haters into his fans through the sheer genius of his work and commitment to winning. In many ways, his silent nod and clenched fist directed at his enemies alongside his self-appointed moniker of 'Black Mamba' were as powerful as Winston Churchill's "we shall never surrender" speech in the Commons on June 4, 1940. It communicated to his opponents just as unyielding a spirit and a refusal to be extinguished - deflating them and inspiring him to soar higher.

Learning. No leader can achieve greatness without an inexhaustible thirst for learning. Kobe lived this idea and not just in basketball. Whilst he drew from his idol Michael Jordan in honing his craft on the court, Kobe pushed himself to learn about business, entertainment, and the arts. He was curious, humble, and possessed of a brain that soaked up knowledge from every source. This transformed his leadership from its early take-no-prisoners style to considerate and encouraging of those who were lesser than him. The results were seen in his last two championship runs with the Lakers. Outside the sport, his learning and self-improvement were manifested in the Oscar win in 2018 for in the short film category, and his highly successful Wizenard children's book series.

Mentorship and giving. Kobe's third phase saw him generously transferring what he had learned to a swathe of athletes in basketball and outside. Athletes as diverse as Novak Djokovic, Russell Westbrook, and Naomi Osaka have spoken about how he inspired and guided them. His own teammates benefited from his teaching and driving them to greatness. The ability to look beyond oneself and enable others to realise their true potential is the true mark of a great leader. Kobe's life in basketball and post-retirement evidences his selfless mentorship of others.

A horrific helicopter crash may have taken Kobe from us too soon, but he will live on in history for his brilliance, unyielding spirit, and inspirational leadership. Vale Kobe.

Sandeep Gopalan is the Vice Chancellor of Piedmont International University, US


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