In his touching acknowledgment of his dear friend Kobe Bryant, ESPN “First Take” host Stephen A. Smith said, “I love my brother and I’m gonna miss him.” On January 26, Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and 7 others died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California. Kobe and Gianna were en route to her basketball game at Kobe’s Mamba Academy. Kobe was also the Girls’ basketball coach. Kobe was 41 years old, far too young with so much more to gift the world.
On “First Take,” Stephen A. fondly remembered what Kobe meant to him. Stephen A. once asked Kobe, “Do you have a problem with people who don’t have your work ethic?” Inherent in the Kobe legend and fact was that, although the 5-Time NBA Champion had God-given acumen and talent, no one on Planet Earth worked harder to make himself greater. His work ethic and focus were legendary.
Kobe told Stephen A. that he didn’t have a problem with those who didn’t have his work ethic. He said, “I have a problem with people who expect to be great but don’t put in the work.” Amen. Kobe’s Legacy: “Bring it. I’ve done the work.” Kobe dared us to be the greatest versions of ourselves. Create that greatest version of ourselves. That means: Put in your work. Put in your time. Grind it out to create the greatest version of yourself, from whatever ‘zero’ you started from.
After a rigorous Sunday Aikido practice, I spent some invaluable downtime with Sensei Bobby. Bobby and I have been dear friends for about 30 years. We have history and mad love and respect for each other. We shared what Sensei Dan, our Sensei for over 25 years, meant to us.
I shared that Sensei was like a dad to me. I told Bobby that my soon-to-be-published book is largely about what Sensei meant to me, and how he inspired me to create my life as my Work of Art. Bobby thought that was a worthy acknowledgment for our late Sensei.
Sensei always told Bobby and me, “Just train. It’s not like you have to get anywhere.” Whether I got promoted to Yondan, 4th-degree black belt, that very next Sunday morning class it was back to school for me. That was my ‘new’ zero: It’s time to work on the next greater-than version.
Sensei might have been the humblest man on Planet Earth, I knew. He kept us honest. Sensei paid no mind to perfection. For Sensei: There was always something to work on next. We were thankful for Sensei making us grind out our next greater-than version, even when we didn’t want to. We were grateful to Sensei for the good men that we’ve become.
Bobby reminded me that in the further training he’s done to create his own greater-than version, that samurai means “to serve”. Being of service was Sensei. Sensei Dan gave over 55 years of his life in the service of others, in the service of his students, including Bobby and me. Consequently, we honor Sensei’s profound legacy by passing on what we got from Sensei about Aikido, about being a good human being.
Kobe, on the other hand, will not be able to pass on all that he was graced with, which might be the saddest loss of all.
Kobe came into the NBA as the high school phenom from Philadelphia. The Los Angeles Lakers legend and General Manager Jerry West traded to get Kobe in the 1st round of the 1996 NBA Draft as the 13th pick. When 17-year-old Kobe came into the NBA, he didn’t even have a driver’s license. In fact, Jerry West’s son had to drive Kobe to Laker’s practice. Jerry became like a Father to young Kobe. I got that from the heartfelt interview with Jerry following the news of Kobe’s passing.
Not only did Kobe want to “be like Mike [Jordan]”, he wanted to be better than Mike. Michael is regarded as the NBA GOAT (Greatest of All-Time). Yet, more than anyone before him, Kobe came the closest to achieving that same title.
Watching Kobe winning 5 NBA Championships and 2 Finals MVPs, I thought he was greater than Michael in his time. That’s just me – not the populist consensus. I always believe that the greatest lives in the present, not falling in love with the memories of the past. No one hit that fadeaway clutch jump shot that Kobe could. No one. Kobe was the authentic basketball savant. He possessed the mind and body for the game.
That being said, given all the accomplishments and accolades over his 20 year Hall of Fame NBA career, it was his indomitable spirit and his continual pursuit of elusive greatness that touched my soul. Kobe inspired me. He dared me to be that greater version of myself, too. When I began writing about the reinvention of the greater-than versions of ourselves, I watched the interview with Kobe and rapper-singer Kendrick Lamar. Kobe said of greatness: “It’s not easy. If it were, we’d all be lions.”
Kobe said that greatness “is as much about fear, as it is love.” Amen, Kobe. Sure, when I’m creating my greater-than version, that voice in my head constantly says, “No Jon, you can’t. You’re not good enough.” Yet, it’s the love of those who love and believe in me, like Sensei, like Mom, who inspired me to grind it out for my greater-than version, whatever that may be.
After Kobe retired in 2016, he started Act 2 of his life. Again, he worked his ass off learning about the movie industry and screenwriting. He brought to bear that same ferocious work ethic and focus he leveraged in basketball. Movie making was Kobe’s new love. In 2018 he won an Academy Award for his animated short film “Dear Basketball”. “Dear Basketball” was Kobe’s poignant letter to his first love basketball and his ode to mortality. I cried the first time I saw his film. I watched it again, after his passing and it was even more sublime.
No, Kobe wasn’t perfect, and that made his life all the more meaningful. During the Lakers Championship run, he had allegedly had sex with a woman in a Colorado hotel, when he was married. Yes, the sexual assault charges were dismissed. Kobe paid an undisclosed settlement. Still, he made his amends. He became the better husband and the greater father.
The saddest part for me is that Kobe didn’t get to complete his Act 2. Kobe was the artist with a relevant voice. He loved writing and storytelling as I do. He was about to create his greater art, perhaps his even greater self. Unfortunately, the World will not be graced by his next versions.
Kobe would not become the Sensei like I’ve been privileged in my life, and give away all that he’s been gifted over his life. Yes, his existing legacy is amazing. It’s just a loss that we didn’t get to behold his next Work of Art.
Sad too, is that his daughter Gianna did not get to have her Act 1. Proud Dad Kobe said that Gianna was the gifted basketball player, not at all surprising given who her dad was. Gianna dreamed of playing college hoops at U Conn and playing in the WNBA. Maybe, even the NBA.
I have nothing but mad love and profound respect for Kobe Bryant, the man. He loved basketball. He loved writing. He did both with all his heart. He did so by putting in the work. So, discover what you love. Just train. Let life “bring it”. Just saying. Rather, that’s Kobe just saying. Thank you, Kobe.
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