I can remember the first time the wind got knocked out of me. Scared senseless, I lay at the bottom of the jungle gym, reliably poor athleticism and physical capability having failed me yet again, panting for air that would not come. As I sat, I believed of course that both lungs were crushed, assuring my childhood friend Stephen it was “okay to take my stuff, just tell my parents”. Eternally level-headed, and quite a deal more accomplished in the gym than I was, Stephen laughed when my breath came back to me, saying I really needed to get out more.
They say that childhood is like being drunk, in that everyone remembers what you did, except you. But that day, I learned, never to forget, what it felt like for your lungs to be suddenly cold-cocked.
In 1996, two boys entered worlds they were unprepared for; for me, it was this Earth and the troubles that came along with it. For Kobe “Bean” Bryant, however, it was the world of professional basketball. It seems strange to compare a child and the full grown adolescent that he was, but the positions were all too similar. Both him and I were children amongst men, who, even as they grew, wiser, older, were limited. I was seeking greatness just as he was, just as so many of his fans pursued in the same. Shelley’s immortal words seemed to ring true: ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’, Mr. 81 seemed to scream. Scream with him we did. We watched that high school kid defy the odds and crush men older and supposedly better than he was. And so I too sought greatness, pursued triumph, watching the kid with the afro flout flight in the face of physics all the while. He had swag, no doubt, but he had a swagger too. A you-don’t-know-me-but-I’m-your-worst-nightmare gait and stare second to none, something he inspired in all those who watched him run up and down the court.
But he transformed. He became “a different animal, but stayed the same beast”, in the words of his own satirical self. Once an unrefined athletic phoneme, he learned the more subtle arts of the game, becoming a more rational source of leadership in the same time. He grew, not alone, but with his fans, and showed the capability of the human spirit. He showed me raw ability was not sufficient, but that good directive came from the relentless pursuit of betterment. He took on the Mamba persona, putting on the shroud of villain, and focused on the perfection of craft. He let others make noise around him. His followers saw that sometimes it profited more to wait for your opponent to leap, beating him with his own mistake, than to strike immediately. The Strike learned patience, and became something of both speed and skill, turning to mastery. He was no longer a contender for the throne, but held it confidently, leaving his prime adorned in gold and banners. He was unstoppable, and yet he left your jaw open and your lungs airless, as though you’d never have expected it out of him.
But just as we came to know the Mamba for the villain on the road, gold beacon at home, he shape-shifted again. The black snake took another form, and instead of blood, he was associated with fine wine. Vino, they began to call him, and though once young and fiery for the next challenge, he’d become reserved, cooled in his temperament, almost regal. He was a masthead for the league that he built up after Michael left, that built him into the refined Man he emerged as.
I have done a lot of reflecting over the past few months, and with the conclusion of another chapter of my life, so I become the next version of myself. Different animal, same beast. And so does my mentor, my champion, the man who taught me that much of life lies on hardwood between 10 men ready to battle. And so while he walks triumphant, knowing he gave his heart and soul, his health and humanity, he walks away, as we all wish to, content.
I sit and wait now, wondering what will be next to take my breath away.
CCO @ Usspire