When Your Hero Dies

For 20 years, Kobe Bryant was the shining light of basketball in the NBA.

I remember watching Kobe play in person once. It was my one and only trip to Los Angeles at the Staples Center. The LA Lakers beat the Phoenix Suns easily, with Kobe scoring 31 points. He was the best player on court — a casual badminton fan would have been able to tell.

When Kobe retired, I stopped watching NBA games. Now that he’s gone, I doubt I’ll ever visit LA again.

There’s a certain silliness in mourning a celebrity who never knew you even existed. Why do we let events that happen thousands of miles away affect us so much? What does an average working guy have in common with a centi-millionaire global superstar?

But people need heroes. Kobe was my hero, and if you’ll allow me this space to grieve and remember him, let me tell you some stories.

– – –

Hard Work + Talent

Kobe Bryant was a five-time NBA champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist and is fourth on the all-time list for points scored: 33,643. He is widely considered as one of the greatest basketball players of all time.

Look into his upbringing and you’ll realize Kobe had the right background to be successful. His father played in the NBA, and he had exposure to professional sports from a young age. But I’m sure you know someone who’s privileged and talented — yet lazy.

Kobe was the extreme opposite. He worked harder and longer than anyone else. Even at his prime — the best basketball player in the world — he’d be at the practice gym three hours before his all-star teammates. Imagine how ridiculous that is: say, for example, you’re the #1 CEO in the country. You’ve already made it. Wouldn’t it be easy to just snooze a little longer in the morning and chill a bit at work? Or would you continue to start work at 6 a.m. — before the morning cleaners — until the day you retire?

Kobe’s career is a testament of what happens when you combine talent and passion with relentless dedication over decades.

In the weeks following his death, countless NBA players shared how he’d inspired them with his work ethic. Check out some insane stories here and here. But my favorite quote comes from his friend, LA Lakers trainer Gary Vitti, who took care of Kobe’s oft-injured body for 20 years:

“Kobe taught me that talent is the most overrated thing in life; it’s what you do with your talent.”

Gary Vitti

Failing and Redemption

It wasn’t all smooth sailing in the Kobe Bryant story though. In 2003, he was charged with sexual assault of a 19-year old hotel employee. The case was eventually dismissed by the criminal court, meaning Kobe walked away free.

He did however issue a public apology, acknowledging that while he believed the sex was consensual, the woman involved did not. There was also an out-of-court settlement, meaning Kobe had to pay an estimated >2.5 million USD to the woman’s side.

Free from the risk of going to jail, Kobe’s career continued to soar. His legacy was forever tarnished though. As a straight man, it’s easy to side with Kobe with blanket statements like “women give mixed signals all the time.” But I understand it must be extremely difficult for a woman.

All I can say is I believed he changed. He grew. All men fail, but some seek redemption. Later in life, he would go on to become a strong supporter of women’s sports, most notably the Women’s NBA (WNBA) and US women’s soccer team. Kobe became a mentor to many female athletes, and even coached his daughter’s high school basketball team. He was widely recognized as a devoted #girldad to his four daughters.

On his final day, he died on parent duty — a father on his way to his daughter’s game.

Mastering Transitions

When Kobe retired from the NBA in 2016, I was worried. How would surely one of the most competitive people in the world handle walking away from a sport he’d given his all for?

I feared Kobe wouldn’t be able to let go. That he’d try make a comeback and end up humiliated by younger players. The great Michael Jordan himself never seemed to be able to give up that competitiveness: making multiple comebacks, and even calling out people by name during his NBA Hall of Fame speech.

But Kobe surprised all of us by smoothly moving on. His excellence shone in every diverse field he stepped in.

Check out @kobebryant on Instagram today and you won’t see any mention of “5-time NBA Champion” or “18-time NBA All-Star.” Rather, it simply says: “Writer, Producer, Investor.”

In 2018, Kobe Bryant became the first NBA player to win an academy award (yes, that golden statue they call an Oscar) for his work in the animated short story: “Dear Basketball.”

Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry

Learning From the Best

One of Kobe’s unique traits is he was constantly seeking to learn from the best. This led to a rather interesting habit: cold emailing other top people within their fields.

Some of the non-basketball people Kobe randomly approached before? Johnny Ive (Apple Designer), Mark Parker (Nike CEO) and Arianna Huffington. Even Oprah. Kobe would ask them for their reading lists, and how they achieved success in their own careers.

What does an athlete have in common with a business leader? It turns out: a lot. Hyper-successful people respect each other — no matter which field they’re from — and there’s always something new to learn.

Out of all the things I’ve learned from Kobe, this one is tough for me. I shy away from asking help and advice from other people. Maybe it’s because I’m scared and because I’m proud. But I know I’ll never grow as much if I don’t.

The next time I’m scared, I’ll ask: “What would Kobe do?”

Live Life on Your Terms

The world will largely remember Kobe Bryant for his achievements as a basketball player. But he was so much more. He started charities and supported foundations for underprivileged kids. He wrote books, produced films and dabbled in rap music. He launched a venture-capital fund and invested in companies. People scratched their heads when he said he loved business as much as basketball.

At his death, he was reportedly worth 600 million USD. Business leaders mourned how he’d probably have been even more successful in his career after basketball.

“Kobe was a legend on the court and just getting started in what would have been just as meaningful a second act,”

– Barack Obama –

Sometimes when I reflect on my own journey, I wonder if I have too many interests to be successful at any. But if Kobe could be one of the greatest sportsmen of all time, an award-winning writer and producer, a successful business investor and most importantly, a great father — then perhaps I can achieve my dreams across multiple things in my own way too.

This one is for you Kobe. Thank you for inspiring me.

– – –

Heroes Die But Legends Live Forever

Kobe Bryant died on Sunday, 26 January 2020 in a helicopter crash, with 13-year old Gianna Bryant and seven others. He was 41. I will always remember him as my greatest hero; someday I hope to tell my kids the stories I just told you.

“Championships come and go,” Kobe said after he retired from basketball.

“But if you really want to create something that lasts generations, you have to help inspire the next generation, and they create something great, and then that generation will inspire the one behind them, right? … That’s when you create something forever.”

“And that’s what’s most beautiful.”

– – –

Pic from Pexels: Spencer Lind

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  • Beautiful write up, Aaron!

    Kobe has been one of my source of motivation. His work ethics, dedication and consistency is always really inspiring.

    Gone too soon.

  • Thanks for writing this. I was contemplating similar feelings in hearing about Kobe’s passing. It affected me more than other recent tragedies. I did grow up admiring him and the game he loved. But it wasn’t that. It wasn’t because I worshipped him or anything like that. I first thought it was because I admired his tenacity and drive and ambition – which sometimes I lacked. But I realised, my emotions was mostly related to what Obama called the “second act”. I was looking forward to great things to come from him. And I think the world lost someone with a lot of potential. He was going to contribute and make a difference in so many ways. I wanted to see that greatness show up. The world just lost great possibilities. I think that’s what I’m most sad about.

    • Thanks boss for dropping in. Yes, so sad to see what would have been an even greater act cut short. Reminds us that life is short and every day is so precious.

  • I love this. ‘Championships come and go but if you want to create something that will last forever, inspire the next generation. ‘ Kobe was and truly is a Legend. May his soul rest in peace.

  • Like!

    Well said and well put. We all need heroes to inspire us to further greatness.

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