Admit it. Some of y'all don't like Kobe. Over the course of 20 seasons, players have whispered about playing or not playing with him. Even the inimitable Phil Jackson threw a little shade on Kobe between his Lakers coaching tours in his book The Last Season: A Team in Search of its Soul. No disrespect Phil, but it did happen.
Well, news flash. Kobe doesn't care. Never did. And I believe the reason why he doesn't care is because the only thing he loves more than the game of basketball itself is the life lessons it holds for him and for us all. And if it means being hated by a few to bring forward these valuable lessons, so be it.
I've had the pleasure of working closely with Kobe over the years and have witnessed a distinct evolution. Kobe the kid. Kobe the husband. Kobe the champion. And Kobe the leader.
Kobe the Kid
I met Kobe in February 1996 at the NBA All-Star Game in San Antonio, Texas. He was 17. It was me, Steve Koonin, now CEO of the Atlanta Hawks, then head of Sports and Entertainment at The Coca-Cola Company, Arn Tellem, Kobe's agent at the time, my boss Steve Horn and Kobe's father Mr. Bryant. I was a kid myself heading the Sprite brand and we'd just consummated a deal with Kobe (thank you Koonin). During the meeting Kobe yucked it up with Koonin's young son, David, as the rest of us engaged in serious business. Kobe didn't interject a word. He was simply being a 17-year-old kid. Little did I know I was looking at one of the future best players to ever grace any sport in history. The lesson: when you're young, focus on honing your craft and have fun. Leave the big boy and big girl stuff to the big boys and big girls.
Kobe the Husband
As you know, Kobe and Vanessa have two precious daughters. When I lived in California my family, comprised of three daughters, frequented Houston's Restaurant and on occasion would run into Kobe and his family. This was a very different Kobe than the on-court Kobe. He was playful with his wife and his girls. Dare I say even relaxed, just like any other loving husband and doting father. The lesson: context matters. When with family be present. But when on the battlefield of competition be a killer.
Kobe the Champion
Before Kobe won his first title I got the impression he was on an unrelenting chase for the ring. Maniacal in pursuit. After he got the first ring I noticed a different Kobe. No less driven but with broader and more meaningful goals. No longer was it about a ring during a particular season. It was about history. The lesson: the best goals evolve and provide an opportunity for simultaneous self-evolution.
Kobe the Leader
Milwaukee Bucks, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trailblazers, Detroit Pistons, San Antonio Spurs, Boston Celtics, Minnesota Timberwolves and the Los Angeles Lakers. What do these teams have in common? On the day when the Golden State Warriors strived for basketball immortality of 72-9, these are the only teams to have beaten them. And it was Sunday, March 6th on the floor of the Staples center where the final score read 112 Lakers-95 Warriors when many witnessed true leadership. Kobe Bean Bryant, a 20-year vet, finals MVP, NBA MVP, 5-time NBA champion, scoring champion, 18-time All-Star, was on the bench motivating his young team to one of the biggest upsets in NBA history. The lesson: leadership is more than superior individual contribution, its motivating other individual contributors to accomplish the impossible.
Finally, I need to address the Kobe smile and the Kobe snarl. Early in his career he loved to smile. There's the first championship smile, the alley-oop to Shaq during the Sacramento playoff game smile, and the 81-point game smile to name a few. Then, seemingly and suddenly he didn't smile anymore. But I assert that he never stopped smiling. The difference is that he's been smiling through you rather than himself for years. His unrelenting love of basketball now pervades the minds and souls of countless others and the smiles on your faces are as a result of his genius play. Don't believe me? Look into a mirror as you read this blog about the one and only Kobe Bryant and watch yourself smile. With each accomplishment we all smiled so Kobe didn't have to. He smiled through us.
It's easy to love Magic. We all know this. Ervin, you're my homeboy and you know how highly I think of you as a basketball player and a human being, so please don't spazz when we see each other again. But, your 1000-watt Hollywood smile made it easy for the world to love you. It's why an extraordinary amount of empathy was created as you dealt (and deal) with enormous health challenges with dignity and grace. Kobe didn't have your smile and didn't need it. Rather, he needed a canvas on which to paint a masterpiece in hopes of inspiring others to paint their own unique masterpiece.
To be clear, Kobe and I are not buds and we do not hang out together. Rather, we're two uber-focused people attempting to extract all the knowledge life has to offer. This is why I admire Kobe Bean Bryant, and it's why I submit you should too.
Kobe, thanks for the countless lessons you've provided about life far beyond basketball. And thanks for the many smiles on my face and on the faces of millions of others.
Cheers to a remarkable game and the beginning of a remarkable new reign.