OPINION: Transcendent athletes like Kobe are the superheroes of our time

Portrait of Kobe Bryant in basketball uniform against purple background.
(Waverly Wang • The Student Life)

On Jan. 26, I heard two harrowing words that I could never have quite imagined coupled together: “Kobe died.” 

I didn’t — I couldn’t — believe my friend who informed me over the phone. But I also knew he wasn’t facetious enough to be joking. 

Perturbed, I walked outside into a fog of acute bewilderment. 

With his daughter Gianna and seven other individuals on board, Kobe Bryant had perished in a helicopter that crashed into a hillside near Calabasas, California. With almost three weeks now removed from this tragedy, investigators have concluded that intense fog played a major role. 

From his three-peat with Shaq to his 81-point explosion to his wondrous 60-point final hurrah, Kobe never failed to amaze. He was an artist on the court, dazzling the masses with intricately ornate paintings that even opposing fans like me couldn’t help but admire. 

Despite his otherworldly ability on the court, basketball had always been Kobe’s means to an end — not necessarily the end in and of itself. Remarkably, Kobe’s greatest asset was his legendary mindset, known as “mamba mentality.” Mamba mentality doesn’t merely advocate for preparation. Rather, it breathes it to the point of expelling any conceivable alternative.

“Without studying, preparation and practice, you’re leaving the outcome to fate. I don’t do fate,” Kobe once said.

Mamba mentality is universal. From athletes to business consultants to teachers to children shooting a paper ball into a trash can, the mantra resonated with a broad set of individuals worldwide. 

Kobe’s mamba mentality didn’t terminate upon his final dribble on the basketball court. It continued to flourish post-retirement in what was in Barack Obama’s words “just as meaningful a second act.”

His 2018 Oscar for best animated short film best underscores his perpetual multidisciplinary focus. Bryant was driven by an infatuation with not solely basketball, but also as the world had come to realize in his final chapter, storytelling. His life itself was a narrative in every sense of the word for self-evident reasons. 

In the later stage of his career, Kobe was a particularly fierce champion of women’s sports. He used his extensive platform to mentor female college basketball players, coach his daughter’s Amateur Athletic Union team and empower WNBA players among other trailblazing efforts. Kobe’s death could be a window, so to speak, to catalyze this movement. 

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Perhaps in the coming years, women’s sports will gain more funding and appreciation. Societal perception matters, and sometimes can be just as — if not more — powerful than the underlying truth in driving social change. 

Even though women’s sports are entertaining in their own right, it takes key trailblazing figures like Kobe to turn the societal convention on its head. In this way, Kobe’s legacy will live on not just in the basketball realm, but in a very tangible social context.

In this age of mass media, legendary athletes fulfill a very unique social role that doesn’t necessarily apply to other kinds of celebrities in the entertainment industry. More than anyone, cultural icons like Kobe manifest society’s underlying yearning for reallife superheroes — the same yearning that incited myths about folkloric legends passed down since the inception of human civilization. 

Superheroes are immortal and immaculate, many of whom embody pristine representations of human ideals. Like superheroes, society exalts legendary athletes to no end. 

However, this hero-worship can lead to a standard that even legends fall short of fulfilling. Behind a legend’s superimposed coat of media adoration lies a human being in its most elemental form: flawed and vulnerable. 

Sports don’t merely operate in their own separate realm where someone just throws a ball and goes home. It would be insular to downplay the profound significance athletes have on our society; sports and culture are inextricably linked. 

In Bryant’s Oscar speech, he alluded to Laura Ingraham’s myopic take on athletes discussing politics: “As basketball players, we’re really supposed to shut up and dribble, but I’m glad we did a little bit more than that.”

I am too.

Musa Tahir HM ’23 is from Portland, Oregon. An avid fan of the Portland Trailblazers, he enjoys watching basketball and has come to appreciate the cultural significance of sports.  

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