Sunday, August 23, would have been Kobe Bryant’s 42nd birthday. Monday, August 24, represents Mamba Day, the calendar’s merging of his two iconic jersey numbers, one of which I always picture in Purple, and the other in Gold.
On one hand, it’s incredibly hard to think about Kobe. The pain of his loss is so fresh. His influence was so great that he still seems so alive.
“There are so many things you miss every time you see a picture, every time you see him and his daughter,” said JR Smith on Sunday. “You can’t believe he’s gone. His name comes up every single day.”
On the other hand, it’s equally inspiring to think about Kobe. Every time the Lakers huddle up, whether in a game or in practice, they shout: “1, 2, 3, Kobe!”
Being a veteran group, many of the current Lakers played against Kobe for years. Smith (when he was in Denver) and Jared Dudley (Phoenix) guarded him in difficult playoff series back in 2009 and 2010. LeBron James and Anthony Davis were Bryant’s gold-medal-winning teammates with Team USA. They saw, and were inspired by, the Mamba Mentality up close and personal. And of course there are only so many athletes in the world that reach the level of achievement, fame, skill level and adoration of Kobe, something to which LeBron can relate.
On the morning of Kobe’s birthday, Nike dropped a moving tribute video, narrated by Kendrick Lamar, that celebrates Kobe’s desire for improvement. Kobe defined the Mamba Mentality like this: “It’s to constantly try to be the best version of yourself … it’s a constant quest to try and be better today than you were yesterday.”
From what better source of inspiration could the Lakers draw than that?
It’s truly unfortunate that the Lakers players can’t revel in that mindset alongside Lakers fans at Staples Center, where every playoff moment would have been a shared tribute to the great No. 8, the great No. 24. But wearing the Purple and Gold, just like him, does mean a ton no matter where games are played.
Here’s one thing that will help even more: rocking the Lakers City Edition Black Mamba jerseys, released in 2017 as part of Nike’s Lore Series, co-designed by Kobe himself. There’s a faux-snakeskin print, “plus 16 stars on the side panels and the scoop neck from LA’s Showtime-era uniforms … both of Kobe’s retired numbers, 8 and 24, grace the jersey, an arrangement that symbolizes Kobe’s career and the day dedicated to his impact on the game,” according to Nike.
In the Orlando Bubble, the Lakers bounced back from their first minor taste of adversity, a Game 1 loss Portland on Tuesday, with an emphatic Game 2 performance on Thursday that delivered a 111-88 victory. They followed up with a big second half to win Game 3 on Saturday.
Rest assured … if Kobe’s team lost a playoff game, he made damn sure they weren’t about to lose the next one. I saw this firsthand when I started working for the Lakers in the 2008-09 season, when the Lakers went 16-7 in the playoffs en route to the title, never losing back-to-back games. It was almost the same story in 2009-10, when they again went 16-7 to win the chip, only losing B2B to Boston on the road in the Finals in Games 4 and 5, before rallying to win Games 6 and 7 at home for Bryant’s 5th championship.
Game 7 against Boston is the most poignant of Kobe memories. It wasn’t his unmatched skill or incredible athleticism that won the day. He managed to hit only 6 of 24 shots that night, struggling to find his legs just like Ray Allen (3 for 14), Paul Pierce (5 for 15) or teammates Metta World Peace (7 for 18) and Pau Gasol (6 for 16). No … it was his Mentality. Kobe attacked the glass for 15 boards. He scrapped and clawed on defense as Boston managed only 79 points. He fought. He refused to leave a single ounce of energy on the floor.
That was Kobe. That’s such a big part of the legacy he left for Los Angeles, a city that’s much more hard-working, more prideful and more intense than the ill-informed “Hollywood” image that can be projected upon it from afar.
And again … what better source of inspiration could be found for this year’s Lakers?