Basketball players, possibly more than any other athletes, are subject to the comparison to their peers past and present. Yes, there’s plenty of speculation in other sports as well:
Is Brady better than Montana?
Is Bonds better than Aaron?
Is Tide a better sponsor than Office Depot? (Or whatever NASCAR fans argue about.)
But because of the way one player can seemingly take over a game or single-handedly lead his team to greatness, basketball stars are constantly compared and contrasted. Take the top current player in the game, Golden State Warriors guard and reigning MVP Steph Curry. He’s having an unprecedented season, has shattered his own 3-point record and is well on his way to repeating as the league’s Most Valuable Player.
You’d think people would be so in awe of such a performance that they’d be in a state of rightful admiration and respect. But nope, not even a little bit. You can check out pretty much any article about Curry in the last year and read the comments. The vast majority of them mention how he either is or isn’t better than Michael Jordan (the fact that Curry’s Warriors are about to break Jordan’s Bulls’ record for wins in a season isn’t exactly helping). Keep in mind that Jordan and Curry played different positions in different eras when the rules of basketball were very different.
It’s nothing new. Since Jordan retired, basketball fans have been on the lookout for anyone who may challenge him as “Greatest of All Time.” Right now it’s a question about Curry. Five years ago it was Cleveland Cavaliers forward Lebron James.
Enter Kobe Bryant. For the last two decades, the Los Angeles Laker shooting guard has been touted as the guy to take up the mantle for “best in the game”. And for almost twenty years, he lived up to the billing. Through all the comparisons to Jordan, all the doubts and all the controversies, he’s created his own legacy. A 5-time NBA champion, 18-time All-Star, league MVP and walking Rosetta Stone program, Bryant has been a once-in-a-generation player for more than half his life.
On Wednesday night, Bryant, nicknamed “the Black Mamba” (a deadly snake known for its incredibly accurate striking ability) will take the floor for the last time in his career. His retirement announcement earlier this season has resulted in a farewell tour that even has former teammates jealous. The entire Lakers season has taken a backseat to Kobe’s last hurrah. Even winning has become secondary (not that it they were going to do much of that this year, anyway).
What made Kobe so special? Well, anyone that has dissected his game knows that it didn’t happen by accident. Bryant took his considerable natural ability and, through sweat, sacrifice and an indomitable will to win, turned himself into an icon. And we’ve got the details you may not have heard until now.
1) He Made Sure He Played Where He Wanted to Play
Kobe Bryant is on a very short list of athletes to play on the same team for twenty years. Indeed, the average career for a professional athlete in the four major American sports is somewhere between three and six years, to give you an idea of how rare that is. Yes, Bryant has spent his entire career in the purple and gold of the Lakers. What a lot of people don’t know is that it was not the Lakers who drafted him.
When a player declares for the NBA draft, they have zero choice in whom they’re going to play for. They may give a subtle hint or two to the media leading up to draft day of where they’d like to go, but when it gets down to it, unless you straight up rig the draft, you’re completely up for grabs.
Bryant and his people weren’t too keen on that.
As Bryant finished high school and declared for the NBA draft, he was signed to a shoe deal for Adidas by sports marketing legend Sonny Vaccaro. Vaccaro wanted Bryant to be in a big-market city to maximize exposure. Bryant wanted to play either in Philadelphia (his hometown) or Los Angeles (his favorite team growing up). The only problem was, the Lakers were sitting at number 24 in the 1996 draft, meaning that just about every other team was going to have a shot at drafting him first.
So Vaccaro, Bryant and the rest of their camp began floating around the rumor that Bryant didn’t want to play for anyone else and would go play overseas in Italy if one of them tried drafting him. One team that was particularly interested, the New Jersey Nets, had the eighth pick. Then-head coach John Calipari was told by Bryant’s people that, if the Nets drafted Bryant, Calipari would be sitting next to a vacant microphone at their post-draft press conference the following day.
In truth, as Vaccaro stated in a recent podcast, Bryant would have probably played in the NBA no matter who drafted him. But Team Kobe played their hand well.
“It was my duty to inform people: buyer beware,” Vaccaro says in the ESPN documentary Sole Man. “So I had no compunction about going around telling everybody — especially New Jersey — that the possibility existed that Kobe Bryant might go to Italy … and the New Jersey Nets bit.”
The Charlotte Hornets did draft Bryant with the 13th pick, but traded him to the Lakers a few weeks later for center Vlade Divac. Most people in the know say the deal was worked out even before the draft.
So Bryant was able to begin his career exactly where he wanted. It was the first of twenty years’ worth of examples that Bryant’s determination and will to win are forces to be reckoned with.
2) His Training Is Legendary, Too
Say what you want about the way he ended up in the City of Angels, but just because he got to play for his team of choice, that was by no means a guarantee of Kobe Bryant’s success. In his rookie year, he only started in six games. So how did he become one of the greatest players of all time?
A whole lot of work, that’s how.
Bryant’s training — and everything that goes into it — is about as unbelievable as his on-court accomplishments. And he’d be the first to tell you that the former is what resulted in the latter.
It’s a safe bet that you don’t become an all-time top 10 player by following conventional training techniques. So Bryant decided to step outside the box, then throw the box in the recycling bin and never speak of it again.
This started well before his NBA days. When he was your run-of-the-mill high school phenom garnering national attention, he was still the hardest working guy on the team. His old teammates have countless stories of his unyielding work ethic.
“When your best player is your hardest working player, first in the gym, last out of the gym, first in every drill, first in every weight room activity, that makes it easier,” recalls former Lower Merion High School teammate Gregg Downer. “But it did put a lot of pressure on me. I used to say, ‘We’re one Kobe Bryant sprained ankle away from being an average team.’”
And when Bryant felt a specific teammate needed some special attention, he’d play them one-on-one to 100. In his worst such game, he squeaked by 100-12.
It was the same story when he got to the pros.
Former Lakers teammate John Celestand remembers early in the 1999 season when Kobe broke his wrist in a preseason game. Celestand thought, with this injury, he may finally beat Bryant to the practice facility (Bryant was always the first one there despite living over a half hour away). Heck, there was a good chance he wouldn’t be there at all. He had a broken wrist on his shooting hand, after all.
“As I walked through the training room, I became stricken with fear when I heard a ball bouncing,” says Celestand, probably knowing in his gut what he was about to see. “Kobe was already in a full sweat with a cast on his right arm and dribbling and shooting with his left.”
This borderline insanity didn’t lessen with success and accolades; quite the opposite, actually.
Fellow NBA-great and another Lakers teammate Shaquille O’Neal remembers Bryant working extremely hard in the gym, though not in the way most would expect of a basketball player.
“Sometimes he’d be working on his moves without the ball,” O’Neal wrote in his book Shaq Uncut. “You’d walk in there and he’d be cutting and grunting and motioning like he was dribbling and shooting — except there was no ball. I thought it was weird, but I’m pretty sure it helped him.”
When he did have the ball, he made some use of it. Apparently in each practice he would shoot until he made 400 baskets. When someone asked him how he knows when he’s made 400, he replied, “What do you mean, How do I know? I know because I counted them.”
His training outside of basketball is a mix of weight training, cardio and calisthenics. He also puts a lot of emphasis on HIIT (high intensity interval training).
On game days, he by no means took it easy, as Rick Reilly of ESPN found out while spending time with him before a game.
“Among a dozen other drills, Bryant does suicide push-ups,” Reilly wrote. “At the top of the push-up, he launches himself off the mat so hard that both his feet come off the ground and his hands slap his pecs. He does three sets of seven of these. This makes me turn away and whimper softly.”
Now, this push-up didn’t make our list of 10 Hardest Push-Ups in the World, but maybe we need to amend that list. And for all of this training, one has to wonder how he finds time to sleep. Turns out, he sort of doesn’t. He has said in interviews that he only needs 3-4 hours of sleep a night.
“There was a reason for his greatness,” Downer says of his old high school teammate. “There was a reason for his cockiness. Kobe prepared, he worked, he prepared and he worked again.”
3) His Mental Toughness Is Second-To-None
In all his years and all his big moments under the brightest lights in basketball, the Black Mamba has never looked anything less than one hundred percent ready for the challenge. That’s a result of the aforementioned physical training, sure. But there’s another side to why Bryant never shied away from those times when the game was in his hands to win or lose.
Bryant had mental toughness mastered just as well as he did his turnaround jumper. When asked about the subject, he said “Mental toughness is about not getting too high or too low, but staying at an even keel … Now, I think it’s a point where if something’s frustrating me I can always get right back to the pocket that I need to be in pretty quickly.”
Wondering just how mentally tough he is? In the video below, Matt Barnes of the Orlando Magic pretends to throw the ball in Bryant’s face during an inbound play, and Bryant didn’t flinch in the slightest:
Throughout his career, he’s become adept at channelling these feelings of frustration, fear and doubt into something from which he could grow.
“Everything negative — pressure, challenges — is an opportunity for me to rise,” he said.
He implemented his intense mental toughness even for potentially unpleasant parts of his career. In 2014, his Lakers were projected to have a tough year. When asked about how he was preparing for a potentially dreadful season (which it was), Bryant credited his mental toughness to get him from game to game.
“Go on to the next night,” Bryant said following a loss that season. “Go to the next night. That’s it.”
And in order to get this level of mental strength, Bryant did some pretty unordinary things throughout his career. Like cold-calling businesses and speaking to leaders of companies to get their outlook on things and perspective on success, for example.
“I just cold-call people,” Bryant said in an interview with Bloomberg, “and just pick their brain about stuff. And some of the questions will seem simple and stupid, quite honestly, for them, but if I don’t know, then I don’t know.”
He said he would ask them how they built their businesses, run their companies, or just how they see the world. Imagine those business leaders getting that page from their receptionist:
“Kobe Bryant is on line 2 for you — wants to know how your human resource policies can help him against Houston tonight.”
But it’s that kind of creative thinking that taught him to stay focused and mentally sharp in the moments that mattered most. And it no doubt played a role in helping him hit 36 game-winning shots in his career.
4) He Learned the Values of a Disciplined Diet
A few years ago, Bryant became the first player in NBA history to score 30 or more points in six consecutive games. When asked about it, the then-34-year-old said “My wind feels even better. I feel like I can run all day long. A lot of that has to do with diet and being committed to it, and watching what I eat.”
So what is this magical concoction of forbidden fruits and supplements that normal people aren’t privy to, you ask?
Eh, pretty much the same stuff we can all get, if we wanted.
For the past few years, Bryant’s diet mostly consisted of eating pasture-based foods like grass-fed beef and eggs from free-range chickens (which, by the way, we’re all about, too). He does his best to cut out anything with corn syrup and keeps his carbohydrate consumption to a minimum.
He’s a big fan of fruit, and not a big fan of long gaps between meals. So to supplement between breakfast and lunch, he’d often have some eggs and toast or a salad.
All of these were changes Bryant made to his diet in 2012. So, what about pre-2012? Well, Bryant learned along the way of his storied career that one simply cannot eat whatever they want, no matter how much exercise they get.
“What I’ve done really is just train really hard and watch my diet,” Bryant said in 2013, responding to questions about what he had done to help him compete at such a high level, even at age 34. “ I think that’s the thing that catches guys most. They don’t do self-assessing. They feel like they can go out there and do some of the things that they did when they were younger and eat some of the things that they’ve been (eating) and not accept the fact that what you put in has an impact. I’ve been able to be honest with myself and have had to cut down on a lot of things and eat very healthy. It sucks, but it’s worth it.”
That means Bryant had to cut out some of his favorite pre-game meals, like pepperoni pizza and grape soda (this alone should speak to the caliber of athlete Bryant is — we don’t think we’d have the energy to get up and turn on the TV to an NBA game after that meal, let alone play in one).
5) He Outworked Even Fellow Great Players
Bryant idolized Michael Jordan. And anyone that has studied Jordan’s success knows that he was the hardest working man in basketball while he was playing. Roland Lazenby, author of “Michael Jordan: The Life”, wrote about Jordan’s thoughts on Bryant’s work ethic:
“[Jordan] said Kobe had done that work to deserve the comparison. He says Kobe’s the only one to have done the work.”
Look, there are a thousand stories about what Bryant did to become one of the best players. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed the few we shared here. But the ones that really interest us are the ones that show how he worked harder than anyone else, including fellow NBA greats, when presumably many others would hit cruise control after reaching such heights. That is truly what set Bryant apart for twenty years.
Perhaps there are no better examples of this than the stories of Bryant’s time with the United States Olympic team. Bryant represented America in 2008 and 2012, taking home gold both times (which, for United States men’s basketball, is basically a participation trophy).
Stories from the Olympics truly show just what kind of competitor Bryant was. And who better to tell it than one of his fellow Olympic teammates?
From current Miami Heat forward Chris Bosh about the 2008 Olympics:
“We’re in Las Vegas and we all come down for team breakfast at the start of the whole training camp. And Kobe comes in with ice on his knees and with his trainers and stuff. He’s got sweat drenched through his workout gear. And I’m like, ‘It’s 8 o’clock in the morning, man. Where in the hell is he coming from?’
“You never forget stuff like that,” Bosh said. “I felt so bad. I’m like, ‘What is he trying to prove?’ But he was just doing his normal routine. We’re all supposed to be big-time NBA players, Olympians and stuff. And then there’s Kobe, taking it to another level from Day 1. And I had been off for like three months.”
Then in 2012, Bryant decided to lose sixteen pounds for the games.
“With summer basketball leading directly into the season,” Kobe explained at the time, “and I’m expecting to play until next June — I have to take some load off my knees. I’ve got to shave some of this weight.”
So Bryant, while by no means out of shape, took it upon himself to lose over twelve percent of his body weight, so that he could play against the best players around the world, and have enough energy to play a full season against the best of the best in the NBA right after.
There’s even a story from one of the team’s trainers that shows Bryant’s other-worldly dedication. It’s been online for a while (and worth the full read), but the abridged version is that Bryant and this trainer met on the first day of practices in Las Vegas. They exchanged numbers and the trainer told Bryant to let him know if he’d ever like to get some extra work in.
So at 4:15 AM the next morning, Bryant called and asked if the trainer would be able to help him out with “some conditioning work.” The trainer got up, got dressed, and twenty minutes later walked into the gym. Instead of finding a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Bryant ready to begin an early morning workout, Bryant was already drenched in sweat.
The trainer said Bryant looked “as if he had just taken a swim. It wasn’t even 5 AM.”
The two worked for a couple of hours, then the trainer went back to his room, as the official practice wasn’t scheduled until 11 AM. When the trainer returned downstairs, he found Bryant getting some more shots up. He asked Bryant when he finished with the morning workout, to which Bryant stunningly replied,
“Oh, just now. I wanted 800 makes, so yeah, just now.”
The trainer’s jaw dropped.
And that, folks, is why the basketball landscape is forever changing when Kobe Bryant retires on Wednesday night. Perhaps one day we’ll see another competitor like him; one that matches his ferocity and dedication and mastery of his craft. Maybe we’re already seeing it. Either way, it should make for some interesting comparisons.
For now, the Black Mamba is coiled, waiting patiently, ready to strike one last time.