Kobe Bryant and Greatness
Remembering the Legend, Kobe Bryant
Editor’s Note: It was two years ago when we lost basketball legend Kobe Bryant and since we are all huge fans of The Black Mamba, we’ve decided to re-run this article which was published shortly after his death.
As an obsessive list-maker, much of my free time involves me interviewing myself in my head: “So, Sean, what are your top 10 albums of all time?” “Well, Sean, I’m glad you asked…” Thinking about the things – works of art, people, places – that have impacted me most powerfully and for the longest time is, all at once, an exercise in remembering, appreciating and evaluating. Other list-makers can undoubtedly relate; we are many, as I’ve often found in conversation and to my relief. These lists can be incredibly specific (“Top 10 Italian Neorealist Films” or “Top 10 Poets Born in July”) or much more general. They make up the majority of the files in the Documents folder of my laptop. I research, compile and write these without the intent of publishing them anywhere, though I occasionally send some to my family or partner if I feel like they’ll find them interesting or entertaining. This kind of list is, of course, known all too well in our age of the digital and is appropriately criticized for being what we call “clickbait”, a word so integrated into our culture that Microsoft Word recognizes it as a correct word in correct spelling as I write it (I can guarantee that I never added it to Word’s dictionary). These lists appear in waves at the end of every year (more so this past year, hailing the best-of-the-decade lists) and for anniversaries of things – works of art, people, places – that writers feel like remembering, appreciating and evaluating. I read way too many of these lists every year, and nearly all of them upset me because of how much I disagree with another person’s taste that they try to dress up in objective authority. The best lists are the most personal ones that make no claim to be “definitive” (a word that you’ll find in many titles; this is how you know it’s a bad list and that you shouldn’t bother reading it). When an author really pours their heart into a list, it’s obvious and can be as beautiful as any lyric essay by Zadie Smith or Jonathan Franzen if the author is a strong prose writer.
When I published my first pamphlet (or chapbook in the US) of poetry towards the end of 2018, I found myself struggling to do this list-making – a process that had become so enjoyable and natural to me that I must have been making lists in my dreams – when it came to the acknowledgments section at the end of the pamphlet. How could I possibly have enough room to pay tribute to the list of people who have helped me be a better writer (or even a better person who was simply trying to write)? It was impossible. So, I did the easy thing by name-dropping the people in my life who were physically there for me along the way – family, friends, teachers. A more accurate acknowledgments section would have included the writers who have moved me – who have given me solace in difficult times, who have pushed me to challenge myself by their examples, who are always there with me in spirit when I sit down with my notebook and pencil. I could have written a pamphlet-length thanks just to John Keats.
But when I think about my “Top 10 Influences as a Poet”, few poets actually make that list. That list is populated by people who have taught me something about living that has made my relationship to poetry stronger and more amicable than frustrating (most practicing writers have a turbulent relationship with their craft). A few months ago, #3 on that list died. Harold Bloom had been in ill health for a long time and lived to 89, so his passing was not at all shocking. I mourned for him. He was a notoriously difficult man in the world of literary criticism whom many people disliked for his supposed racism and sexism (both nonsense within the context of his criticism but understandable by the unfortunate and common issue of someone not meeting someone else on their own terms and, instead, choosing to do battle with them in the same way that Twitter uses yell over each other with no interest in thinking of the other person as a human being) and for his elitism (no argument there). Reading and listening to Bloom, though, made me fall madly in love with literature and take it on not as an interest but as a way of life, which inspired the subtitle for his The Anatomy of Influence. Bloom, by his own account, was a freak. You would need to listen to several of the podcasts that are out there in which friends of his are interviewed if you are to be persuaded that the myths about his capacity to read and remember works of literature – he could recite Milton’s Paradise Lost by memory, including someone picking a passage at random for him to continue from – were all true. Bloom could only understand life through the lens of literature and especially the writers he loved most: Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, Samuel Johnson. To hear him talk about these writers or to see and get a sense of his feelings for them in his own written work was awesome in the true sense of that word. While I find it harder and harder to make more meaningful connections with people in my life who don’t read as I get older, I can always be taken into a sort of ecstasy by any kind of passion. I know nothing about cars. I have no desire to learn anything about cars. I purposefully live somewhere I don’t need to own a car. But if your deepest passion in life is cars and you sit me down at the pub to talk about cars with the same fervor that Bloom could talk about a Faulkner novel or a Dickinson poem, I will listen to and love you as much as I would listen to and love anyone else. There is nothing more attractive and intoxicating than passion, because it speaks to a quality in someone that refuses to be idle or passive in life. What greater crime to our nature than to live on a sort of mental autopilot? Bloom was a major representation of this to me. It’s because of him that I’ve been diligent in either cutting down or eliminating the distractions – mostly technological – that lull me into a mode of simply passing the time. His words and recommendations for reading have saved me from many a depressive episode, and I continuously try to honor his influence on me by reading often and widely, which is – by far – the best thing that any poet can do to become a better poet.
Yesterday, #2 on that list died. And if Bloom’s death was anything but shocking, only the exact opposite could be said of the death of Kobe Bryant. I exchanged some messages with Bloom while he was still alive, but I never spoke to Kobe Bryant in any literal way except for cheers of adoration through a television set in my formative years. The ongoing, unspoken conversation that he and I had from ages 8 (when I started playing basketball, when he came into the NBA) to 31 is something I find too challenging to accurately explain, much like that acknowledgments section. In those early years, my experience is one that probably millions of people worldwide share. Unless you were from a city or area that was fortunate enough to have a competitive NBA team, you were probably following the Los Angeles Lakers if you were a fan of basketball. Some individual players from the late 90s and early 2000s might have been as exciting (Allen Iverson and Vince Carter, especially), but no team commanded the media attention as much as the Lakers. We lived in Ventura County, immediately north of Los Angeles County, so the Lakers became the family team by default, but it’s hard to imagine that things would have been any different if we had lived somewhere else (except, maybe, for Boston, whose hatred of the Lakers is the stuff of legends). So electric and audacious was the Kobe-Shaq duo that the Lakers seasons might as well have been one of the early reality shows to come out of the neighboring Hollywood. They were appointment-viewing, as many of us TV critics used to call things like The Wire or Mad Men back when people actually watched TV live.
I’m sure those millions of people could tell you all about what it was like to grow up watching the Lakers. For me, it was one of two things that brought the family together in the evenings (the other was The X-Files when it was in-season). Dad got the fire going in the fireplace during halftime (some nights in southern California are cold, I promise), Mom made us all some cups of non-caffeinated tea (usually echinacea or chamomile; most of these were school nights) and my brother and I stretched out on the sofas or else tried to convince one of the cats to stay put so that we could pet them. To say that Kobe – and it was always Kobe first and ahead of Shaq, who was incredible but prone to bouts of lack of motivation – was part of the family would be literally incorrect but completely genuine in every other way. Lakers flags went up on the cars. Mom threatened to dye her hair purple if they three-peated (they did; she did). It’s said that Lakers fans bleed purple and gold. In retrospect and after following the path of figurative language, I’m inclined to believe it was true.
All the Kobe-specific Lakers memories – the 81-point game, which we watched at home live together; all the championship battles, with and without Shaq; all the fighting through illnesses and injuries to the detriment of his body but for the sake of his team and the game – are things that sportswriters are better equipped to cover. I spent all of last night reading those articles and reliving some of those memories in-between weeping and moments of disbelief, wondering if the date was April 1st and not January 26th. What only I can write about, though, is why he was #2 on my list of people who have influenced me most as a poet.
I could look at it purely aesthetically. David Foster Wallace, one of the greatest American writers of the last few decades and a former tennis prodigy, gave us a look at Roger Federer in a way that elevates the mechanical act of the body in movement into art. This is that capacity for passion: I don’t really care for tennis, but I could happily read and reread Wallace writing about tennis. We never really got the same treatment of Kobe’s artistry on paper. We did, however, get Spike Lee’s permanent documentary, Kobe Doin’ Work, which does the job just as admirably as Wallace. The impossibility of some of Kobe’s shots, his understanding of and connection to the flow of the game that was so frighteningly comprehensive and seamless (if a basketball game could function like a reading of Paradise Lost, I venture you could drop Kobe in at any point and he would pick up and play in a way that, like Bloom, you would just understand that it’s second nature to him in ways that most humans will never experience with anything in their lives). Some of this you can see and feel in Lee’s film. The rest you can catch in analysis and clips widely available, luckily, online. As a poet, I could just sit back and look at Kobe – one of the greatest artists working in his medium of all time – and be vaulted into purpose by inspiration from seeing what the best looks like. Writers learn best from reading the best that has been written (a long-time axiom of Bloom’s). I think that works between disciplines, too. Why might a composer not learn something about their relationship with music by seeing and understanding one of the greatest of chefs at work in the kitchen? A dish is a composition itself, after all; variable components need to be put together to create something transcendent. And watching Kobe play basketball is absolutely that transcendent experience. We marvel at what Steph Curry has done to the game of basketball by seemingly taking proximity to the basket out of the equation; seeing Curry put up three-pointers is, without a doubt, beautiful. But Kobe’s work happened everywhere on the court and for every second he was out there, finding any possible margin of error in the defense. Like great writing, it looks so natural and easy; it is not natural or easy.
My biggest takeaway from Kobe, though, is his approach to the game of basketball, which was also, of course, his approach to life. If you’re going to bother doing something, why give it anything other than your all? Like with Bloom, there were a lot of people who didn’t like Kobe. The opposition had their obvious reasons, but teammates of Kobe’s who showed any signs of laziness or passivity wouldn’t last very long in that state. If you were going to play alongside Kobe Bryant, you damn well better be in the gym first thing in the morning and doing everything you can to achieve the goal: greatness. Basketball players talk about championships as the promised lands, but greatness doesn’t stop in June after the winners have been decided. Not for Kobe, at least. We didn’t really understand just how seriously Kobe took that to heart until after he retired and we started seeing him smile and look happy, no longer burdened by the need to put the pursuit of greatness in basketball above all else. What mattered then was the pursuit of greatness as a father and husband. What better reasons to smile and look happy?
If you talk to other writers about their processes and struggles, you’ll encounter all sorts of challenges to greatness they face; Kobe probably would have called them “excuses”. Writer’s block is a common one. If you take the Kobe approach – the Mamba Mentality – writer’s block doesn’t exist. Imagine Kobe the poet (easy to do, because the man actually wrote poetry and won an Academy Award for the film adaptation of it). These writers – and I have been guilty of this in the past – who could tell you about times when they just couldn’t write or write well or make the time to write alongside everything else going on in their lives would have been those teammates of Kobe’s who would get an earful. Kobe the poet would have been someone who woke up, recited a few of the poems most important to him from memory and went straight to the notebook or document, toiling away for hours until something like the best of Yeats or Ashbery came out, day after day. I’d like to say something like “Kobe’s process with basketball is not easily translatable to a writer trying to write”, but I honestly don’t believe that anymore. I think if a poet genuinely has greatness in mind as their goal, then there are only excuses that get in the way of that. And, recently, I’ve become tired of making excuses for myself and my own writing (or lack of writing), and I’ve certainly become tired of listening to poet friends of mine make their own excuses. The Mamba Mentality has been something that I’ve tried to adapt to my own life. It has caused a lot of arguments, especially having to do with simply not having enough time to write (usually claimed by people who spend hours of their days scrolling through social media, sometimes without even knowing that they’ve done it). I think it has also probably caused diminished friendships. But reading and writing mean so much to me – more than anything else I’ve ever done in life – and I am at my happiest when I can see and hear Kobe as I sit down to do either activity. It can be painful trying to hold yourself to that standard, mentally more than physically. But that is the legacy Kobe Bryant has left to me – to not settle for anything less than greatness, which requires intensive study and practice, and to hold myself accountable for my shortcomings and not fall back on excuses. Kobe played through broken bones; I can write through colds. Kobe could have left the Lakers and got more championships by joining other great players, but he stayed in Los Angeles and played the game the right way; I can keep trying to find my voice by being authentic to myself and not changing my style so that it fits certain molds that might be more publishable or populist. Kobe ruptured his Achilles (an appropriate injury for one of the greatest warriors that ever stepped foot on the basketball court) and came back to the game because he wasn’t done yet; I was one or two more days away from a complete nervous breakdown and needing to be sectioned last year before my family came to my aid, and I am now more ready than I’ve ever been to get back to that obsessive love of literature. Kobe gave me all of that.
These are only the first things that come to mind when I think about Kobe Bryant’s impact on my life. I still have much mourning and contemplation to do, as do so many others. And there are some aspects of the news from yesterday that are just unfathomable. Kobe was a part of the public sphere and, because of that, we feel the right to express our thoughts and feelings towards him because of how deeply he touched so many of us. But to try to consider what it must be like for a mother-wife and a daughter-sister old enough to understand the severity of losing 13-year-old Gianna along with Kobe (and to have to think ahead to when the other two daughter-sisters will be processing these losses later in life) – this is beyond anything else. It is not my place, even as someone who has spent the last eight years trying to manage my own grief. To begin thinking about that is to willingly run into madness. The only solace for us is knowing that the family has so many people around them who knew Kobe and Gianna well as people, because the family is truly beloved. My heart goes out to anyone else who was positively affected by Kobe Bryant in their lifetime, and I encourage those people to tell their own stories – to remember, to appreciate, to evaluate – as privately or as publicly as they are able. It will be some time before things start feeling anything close to normal again for us. That is okay. That speaks to the greatness of Kobe Bryant.