When I learned that basketball legend Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash with his daughter Gianna and seven others very close to where I once lived, my initial reaction like millions of other sports fans was disbelief. It was a combination of numbness and heart-racing claustrophobia. I cheered for the Los Angeles Lakes during my 20 years in Southern California and even saw the team play at Staples Center.
Kobe was a transformative figure on a number of levels. Not only did he pave the way for other phenoms like LeBron James to transition from high school to professional sports, his legendary work ethic became the gold standard for excellence in the National Basketball Association. This is where he made his mark and it’s clearly his chief legacy.
Borrowing from a self-proclaimed nickname that boldly compared his basketball skills to that of a black mamba snake and stuck through decades, Kobe’s approach to the game he loved morphed into a mamba mentality that spilled into other professional athletic endeavors.
It’s heartening to hear all the tributes during Super Bowl week from football players who internalized his competitive spirit. And it’s equally heart-breaking to process the news of his tragic death at just 41 when his Second Act had barely begun. Even worse: his daughter perishing at 13 and how she was being groomed to take the mamba mantel into the world of women sports.
We all saw Kobe grow up before our eyes soon after he entered the NBA at 17. He wowed us with his ability and relentless dedication to winning and improving. He also broke our hearts with poor choices that led to a rape allegation that was settled out of court. But he owned that mistake in one of the most cringeworthy press conferences ever held, struggling through intense cotton mouth to apologize to his beautiful wife, Vanessa, who was by his side, the Lakers organization and basketball fans everywhere.
He also was roundly criticized for being a ball-hog and too solitary, not socializing with teammates. But that sense of isolation and hard exterior melted away over time as he became an elder statesman and exited the game he loved.
Kobe eventually won back any lost respect from legions of disappointed friends and admirers, repaired his marriage, became a doting father to four girls, went on to win five NBA titles and embraced the next generation of players who would chase his records. Then he earned an Oscar for a short film about his love of basketball, became a mentor to younger athletes and was clearly poised for a lot more greatness off the court.
We can all relate to Kobe because we’ve all made mistakes, though not many of us can bounce back the way he did. But what I love most about his life was a maniacal pursuit of excellence, which as someone who has written about the workplace for 32 years really resonates.
If only more of us would adopt that thinking – from the lowest-level employee and middle-management to the C-Suite and boards of trustees – there’d be a lot more high-fives and less whining or excuses. Imagine working alongside others who share that dedication and philosophy and reaping the benefits of a winning culture. With winning comes respect, mutual admiration, appreciation, gratitude and satisfaction – all essential values in the working world and life in general.
When we think about Kobe Bryant in the future, it would be nice to re-dedicate ourselves to excellence – adopting his mamba mentality in our jobs or careers and never letting go of that pursuit for something better.
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