We’ve been saying goodbye to Kobe Bryant for the past three years. Don’t let this season fool you; the Black Mamba that all we all know and love/loathe hasn’t been the same since he tore his ACL back in April of 2013. It was Father Time, Mother Nature and his body telling him that there’s nothing left in the tank. He and in many ways, we the fans, were just too stubborn to admit it.
That’s the legacy that Kobe will leave us with. A guy who wasn’t going to settle and meet the inevitable on their time. He’s going to do it his way and damn us all to get there. It’s kinda great, really.
Think of Kobe’s injury and how we all thought he would come back with a vengeance and how it’s strikingly similar to how we feel whenever he had a bad game or the Lakers got their ass handed to them. How many times after those crappy games did you think to yourself, “oh damn, (the next team he plays) better watch out, Kobe is going to drop 50 on them.” Sometimes he did do just that, but there were others he shot his team to a loss. The past three seasons have been an extended version of the latter. Yes, there were still moments of brilliance but if his name wasn’t Kobe Bryant and a franchise allowed him to get away with those bad games, they would be the laughingstock of the NBA. But his confidence never faltered and neither did ours; we always believed there was still something some magic left when there clearly wasn’t.
Even after two of the worst seasons in the history of the Los Angeles Lakers franchise, there was still some – not a lot, but it was there – hope and optimism that this would be the season they would turn it around and Kobe would regain his old form. Turns out the Lakers have now endured three of the worst seasons in their history. Normally I would have chalked that up to sheer delusion and myopic thinking – and I still might – but it wasn’t. It was a trust that Kobe earned in his 20 seasons as a Laker and it’s why he deserves a #MambaDay.
#MambaDay is another masterstroke of brilliance by Nike. Much like Air Max Day has now become a “thing” that nobody questions anymore, they’ve managed to turn what should be a sad day for the NBA into a celebration. Of course, it wasn’t just going to be another hands clapping, fans crying, thanks for everything kind of goodbye. Nope, it was Kevin Durant calling him an a-hole and Paul Pierce and Rasheed Wallace singing their hatred for him. It’s me calling my godson cold-blooded sitting right next to Cookie Monster because it’s funny to me. That’s #MambaDay in a nutshell. Not giving a f**k.
This is not some marketing ploy to get people who hate him to suddenly love him, this is how Kobe really feels. His announcement to retire was the rare moment of selflessness. If he was still killing it like in 2009, he would have just exited stage left without saying a word but leaving a trail of burned bridges courtesy of his haters. He would rather leave you hating him than loving him. But this wasn’t for him, it was for the people who did love him. He is maybe the most self-aware athlete of our generation, accepting of the love and adulation he gets from his stans, but also welcoming of the haters who never got the hype. So often we see athletes put on the fake smile for the sake of endorsements and fan support that you can see right through the facade. Hell, Kobe himself went through a similar phase when he was younger, smirking and playing with kids in McDonald’s commercials and growing the afro while repping adidas in an attempt to stand out. But as the championships came and his personal problems were brought into the limelight, he took control in a way that nobody expected. He embraced the villain that LeBron tried to in his first year in Miami but couldn’t go through with; and Kobe’s been doing it for over a decade now.
How insane is it that we’ve accepted Kobe’s Black Mamba persona? First of all, Kenny (Charles Barkley voice), he self-glossed himself with that name, clearly inspired by The Bride character in Kill Bill. Not only that, he even uses the Hattori Hanzo sword symbol and based his entire signature line around it. Again, if it was anybody but Kobe we would have been burned to the ground. But because it was Kobe, we hated it, thought it was kinda dumb, but in time we came to accept it because he didn’t flinch and killed it on the court to the tune of two more championships to back it up.
Nike, more than willing to play the bad guy as well as any brand out there, was more than willing to support Kobe in this endeavor. It started with those highly serious and intense commercials when he first signed with the swoosh; then it slowly morphed into his irreverent spots where he dressed like Beethoven and rode a horse to sell ankle insurance. Good luck trying to do something like that with LeBron or KD. Not that they don’t sound sincere when they pitch shoes; it’s just that Kobe is light years ahead of the competition when it comes to being a snarky jerk.
The unwillingness to conform also manifested itself in his kicks. It started out so simple with the Nike Zoom Kobe 1 but as time passed he became the de facto crash test dummy for Nike, trying out all the crazy new stuff before anybody else does. Releasing a low-cut signature shoe? That sounded downright stupid in 2008. Flywire? That made more sense for something Spider-Man would use. Flyknit on shoes? How is that going to withstand the rigors of the NBA? But there was Mamba through it all, jumping over Aston Martins, telling Kanye West he’s not the best and wearing the basketball equivalent of boxing shoes. He was and still is, progressive in a way that everybody else is still trying to catch up to. Oh, the KD 9 has Flyknit? Kobe would say that’s so 2013…
This June will mark the 20th anniversary of Kobe Bryant being drafted into the NBA. Back then, he was just another face in an epic SLAM cover that features All-Stars, MVPs, NBA Champions and future Hall of Famers. It should make anybody who was in high school or junior high (like me) feel really old. And that’s kind of the crux of why Mamba retiring is both a happy and sad day for a lot of people. He’s been around for so long and been through so much that a lot of people grew up alongside him. On a good day, we enjoyed watching him put up 50 and stick it in a way we couldn’t in our own lives. On a bad day, we enjoyed him shooting 8-30 because even in a bad day he was unwavering. We lived and projected ourselves through Mamba whether he thought of him as the hero or the villain.
In the 20 years since Mamba has been in our lives, some people have finished school, gotten married, made families, screwed that all up and got back on the horse
to sell ankle insurance to do it all over again. There is an entire generation of fans who grew up knowing Kobe was their GOAT and that’s awesome. This was their golden era, much like how the generation before had MJ as their idol and the generation before that had Dr. J. And that’s why it can’t be a fade to black. Nah, this past 20 years are too shiny to ever disappear into the ether. It’ll be a little dusty as the years go on and a new GOAT takes Mamba’s place, but it’ll shine bright thanks to Kobe, Nike and the haters.
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