When Kobe Bryant entered the NBA as a skinny, athletic teenager out of Lower Merion High School, he had a one-track mind. He was a loner consumed with the idea of winning his way, no matter the cost.
That fire burned for two decades as Bryant put together one of the greatest careers in NBA history — but something changed as the Lakers legend transitioned from his prime into his twilight years. After spending the bulk of his career restricted to a tight inner circle, Bryant tore down the wall between him and the rest of the league, showing a willingness to open the channels of communication with his opponents.
He may have left the game behind following the 2015-16 season, but Bryant’s stature among his peers allowed him to maintain (and, in some ways, enhance) his significance to the basketball world. His “Mamba Mentality” credo served as an inspiration for the next generation.
In between his retirement and tragic death, Bryant issued “Mamba Mentality” challenges to a few of the NBA’s best and brightest young stars. On what would have been his 43rd birthday, let’s revisit how Bryant went from the ultimate competitor to the ultimate motivator.
The challenge: Win the NBA MVP award and the NBA championship
The status: The Bucks star passed his test with flying colors. Antetokounmpo won back-to-back MVP awards in 2018-19 and 2019-20, averaging 28.5 points, 13.0 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.3 blocks and 1.1 steals over those two seasons. He captured his first title this year, capping off an incredible playoff run with a 50-point masterpiece against the Suns in the 2021 NBA Finals.
The inspiration: “At first, I was, like, joking. I didn’t think he was going to respond to me, but when he did, he made me believe. I’m like, ‘Kobe Bryant thinks I can do this? I can play at a higher level and lead my team and win MVP?’ I had to do it. I had to work hard. Not necessarily to not let him down, I had to work hard because people believe that I can do it.”
The challenge: Win the NBA MVP award
The status: This past season, Jokic became the first MVP to play in every regular-season game since… Kobe Bryant. The Serbian sensation averaged 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game while shooting 56.6 percent from the field and 38.8 percent from 3-point range, carrying an injury-plagued Nuggets team to the Western Conference semifinals.
The inspiration: “He is a legend. He is not just a legend [in the United States]. He is a legend across the world. The world lost a really huge person, a really huge role model, idol, everything. It’s a huge loss for everybody. … When you think about Kobe, it’s no excuses. Nothing can put your mind off what you love to do. It’s the ‘Mamba Mentality,’ for sure.”
The challenge: Win the Defensive Player of the Year award
The status: George has not been able to take home the Defensive Player of the Year trophy, but he has landed on the All-Defensive First or Second Team four times in his career. George also led the NBA in steals per game (2.2) during the 2018-19 season. He is still considered among the best two-way wings in the league.
The inspiration: “He was my Michael Jordan. Growing up as a [Southern California] kid, he was what everybody, every kid wanted to be here. I started playing basketball because of Kobe. I attacked the game the way he played both ends. I took so many things away from him. He made a big impression on me as a kid, just about how to go about playing the game. I credit everything, aside from God-given talent, I credit everything else from him.”
The challenge: Rekindle a lost friendship from your youth in Compton
The status: DeRozan hasn’t publicly commented on this challenge, which is understandable considering that it is much more personal and specific to him. The four-time All-Star has never forgotten how his upbringing in Compton shaped him and has consistently given back to his hometown.
The inspiration: “To me, Kobe was my imagination. Obviously as I got older and [was] able to look at Michael Jordan, he became one of my favorite players, but growing up when I started to understand and comprehend basketball at a young age, it was from Kobe. … I watched every Lakers game growing up. Kobe was the one that I gravitated to. For me, to see the start, the failures — I remember begging my dad, ‘Could we go get a newspaper?’ just so I could see what he said after the game, comments after the game. Little s— like that gave me an emotional connection to one of my favorite players that made me want to push harder when it came to wanting to play sports, especially basketball, seeing how he got better, the things he went through.”
The challenge: Make the All-Defensive First Team
The status: After earning a spot on the All-Defensive Second Team in 2014-15, Wall was unable to take the next step, but his absence from the First Team can be blamed more on health than ability or effort. Wall has dealt with a number of serious injuries in recent years, limiting him to just 113 total games played since the start of the 2017-18 season.
The inspiration: “Everybody’s got to die at some point, but legends never die. What Kobe meant, the sacrifice he did to be away from his family, be away from his wife and his kids, to give the game everything that he loved because God gave him that God-given ability, was special. It’s something that’s kind of really hard to say, and that’s why he had the ‘Mamba Mentality.’ But the most important thing to me was the role he took on after basketball, and that was being a father and doing everything that he could to be around his family with the time he gave away from them for 20 years. That’s what made Kobe so special.”
The challenge: Make another All-Star appearance
The status: Fresh off the first All-Star berth of his career in 2018-19 with the Nets, Bryant pushed Russell to go back-to-back. Unfortunately for Russell, he was traded to a Warriors squad that had no real chance to compete in the Western Conference with Stephen Curry sidelined, then sent to the Timberwolves at the 2020 trade deadline. He averaged 19.0 points, 5.8 assists and 2.6 rebounds in 42 games in Minnesota last season.
The inspiration: “Watched you closer than ever man, learned more than I could in such a short time, asked you more questions than ever. True Role ModeI. I find myself hearing every bit of advice you ever gave me.”
A post shared by D’Angelo Russell (@dloading)
The challenge: Make the All-NBA First Team
The status: It may seem crazy now that Thomas is not on an active roster, but at the time Bryant issued this challenge, Thomas was coming off a season in which he had posted a career-high 28.9 points per game and filled one of the guard slots on the All-NBA Second Team. His career has since been derailed by injuries, but Thomas isn’t giving up on his NBA dreams. The 32-year-old recently worked out for (you guessed it) the Lakers, according to Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes.
The inspiration: “It was a honor to compete against you, words can’t explain what you mean to the game of basketball! Thank you for what you gave the game and I appreciate all the talks you had with me about having that [‘Mamba Mentality’] at all times.”
A post shared by Isaiah Thomas (@isaiahthomas)
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