I remember the moment I chose to root for the Los Angeles Lakers and Kobe Bryant. As a kid, I used to spend summers and holidays with my grandparents in Covina, Calif. In those hot Southern California summers, I would often find a nice cool sanctuary in their basement and watch television. On one such day when I was 5 or 6, I happened to come across a local news special about a member of the Los Angeles Lakers who befriended a sick child in the hospital. I had never seen an athlete do such a thing before. I was sold. Kobe was my guy and the Lakers were my squad.
As a Catholic, I have been moved beyond belief to see the tributes to Kobe from church leaders and others who have shared beautiful stories about his Catholicism. There is good reason for this: The Black Mamba’s life is a classic story of Christian redemption.
After Kobe graduated from Lower Merion High School, the talk of the sports world was that this new young player from suburban Philadelphia was the next Michael Jordan.
Sooner than many realized, his time had come. After the dynasty in Chicago came to a close, Jordan’s former coach Phil Jackson took his legendary triangle offense to Los Angeles. Bryant would now become the new Jordan of this new Lakers scheme. It worked like magic. He and hall-of-famer Shaquille O’Neal went on to make history with three consecutive NBA championships
From that early age, I learned that no matter how hard life got, I could always return to that cool basement and those beautiful family memories every time I watched my Lakers.
And then 2003 happened. Before the season had even started, my favorite player had been accused of a crime I wasn’t old enough to understand.
Let us pause here. Bryant was formally accused of rape. While he denied the crime, he admitted marital infidelity. He and his wife Vanessa struggled to hold their marriage together. She suffered a miscarriage, which Kobe blamed himself for.
It finally hit a boiling point later that season. When Vanessa had had enough, she threw all of his clothes out on the street. Kobe knew he had everything to lose at that point. Hours later, he played the worst first half of his basketball career against Tracy McGrady’s Orlando Magic, scoring just a single point.
What happened at halftime was what some have called the “game when Kobe became the Black Mamba.” As writer Ramona Shelburne notes, Kobe reflected that “I may never come back from this, but the only thing I can control right now is what I do on the basketball court.”
As McGrady puts it, the Mamba came out with a vengeance. He scored 37 points in the second half and led his team to victory. A transformation had taken place. Kobe was beginning to understand that he had to adopt an entirely different approach to his life and the game of basketball: the Mamba Mentality.
While something visible was changing in Kobe’s on-the-court play, something entirely different was taking place internally.
In a 2015 interview with GQ, he reflected on that time, stating, “The one thing that really helped me during that process—I’m Catholic, I grew up Catholic, my kids are Catholic—was talking to a priest. It was actually kind of funny: He looks at me and says, ‘Did you do it?’ And I say, ‘Of course not.’ Then he asks, ‘Do you have a good lawyer?’ And I’m like, ‘Uh, yeah, he’s phenomenal.’ So then he just said, ‘Let it go. Move on. God’s not going to give you anything you can’t handle, and it’s in his hands now. This is something you can’t control. So let it go.’ And that was the turning point.”
Bryant needed grace and the Mamba Mentality to persevere through the trials and tribulations to come. He would go on to not only lose the 2004 NBA finals, but also to lose Shaq and Jackson largely due to their dislike of him. He failed to lead a younger Lakers team to the playoffs the following season.
The 2004-05 season was a time of personal growth and redemption for Kobe. He was able to settle his civil case out of court in March of that season. Later that summer, he humbled himself to welcome back Jackson to the team. This was the beginning of a legendary comeback.
While the team was still young, the Mamba was ready to do whatever was necessary to win. This included an 81-point game in January 2006 and a return to the playoffs that season. The following season, the team traded for Pau Gasol and the new duo led the team all the way to the NBA finals (where they fell to their arch-rival Boston Celtics). Kobe was recognized as the league’s Most Valuable Player and played for the U.S. Men’s Olympic team in Beijing that summer.
The following year, they went on to triumphantly become NBA champions in 2009 and gain their revenge on the Celtics by defeating them in the 2010 finals. The rest is history.
It was not easy for me to witness my role model fall so hard at such a young age. Watching him fight back from all of that adversity is what I have turned to when facing my own losses, failures, and setbacks.
Kobe knew the Mamba Mentality was not only for himself, nor was it only about basketball. In his own words: the “mindset isn’t about seeking a result– it’s more about the process of getting to that result.”
He brought that mentality off the court and back home to his family life. He and his wife almost suffered a divorce, but worked on their marriage and reconciled in 2013. The couple, who had two children, went on to add two more to their family. On his final day, he attended Mass and lost his life alongside his daughter Gianna during what was supposed to be a father-daughter bonding day over basketball.
Steven Howard is the National Outreach Director of In Defense of Christians, a graduate fellow at the Institute of Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America, and a lifelong fan of Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers.