I just finished reading Kobe Bryant’s first book, The Mamba Mentality: How I Play. In which he basically cements the late career caricature of Kobe Bryant that fans of the game know and expect by this point. These are the musings of Kobe Bryant as some kind of basketball playing Chuck Norris meme. Talking in the first person to make it feel conversational, but still having the egotism of an athlete speaking in the third person. The Mamba Mentality is basically the Nike #KobeSystem commercial, adapted into an ebook. It’s a funny schtick and vehicle for trash talk, but you know there is something deep and insightful lurking under the surface.
Where you want to find something revelatory, you are presented with vignetted takes that feel like rushed off afterthoughts between movie viewings on a long international flight. It’s like if Seth Godin wrote about basketball. The first half of the book speaks in recycled locker room talk that anyone who played high school sports will be well familiar with. It’s the rah-rah fare of “give your blood, sweat and tears to the game and the game will give back to you.” Where you are hoping for a deep cut or a behind closed doors anecdote of a private chat with Phil Jackson, you get a rearranged version of something your high school jayvee coach told you.
The most interesting part of the book is the second half which focuses on Kobe’s discussion of “his craft.” Core NBA fans will be familiar with most of Kobe’s inspiration and thoughts on his competition, but it’s still enjoyable to hear the specifics of how he approached particular matchups. He riffs on the career arcs of KD, LeBron, James Harden and others who came up behind him. There are some solid bits in their about how he led Team USA to gold medal glory.
The Shaw-Kobe “feud” is presented the way it’s been told ever since the two publicly reconciled a few years ago. Kobe goes on about how the “beef” was fabricated by Shaw and himself to keep the other players on edge and carry their weight. I always felt the alleged rift was more Hollywood fiction than the media presented it as. They were just too good and dominate together to believe that they would actually be warring. Needless to say, there is no shade thrown at Shaq.
The best anecdote for me was when he was discussing infamous and self-proclaimed “Kobe-stopper” Ruben Patterson. Of course he called out the red flag waving nature of Patterson’s claim, but he offered up an interesting counter. Kobe confessed that Patterson was making the claim in order to drive up his contract value heading into free-agency. Kobe said had Patterson approached Kobe privately and asked for him to make a statement along the lines of “Ruben is the best defender in the NBA,” he would have done it. However, Patterson’s mistake was in taking his “Kobe-stopper” moniker to the press before consulting Kobe. Hence the Mamba was intent on destroying him. That story alone probably adds the most nuance to the true psychology of the Mamba mentality. It’s a little bit Godfather and a lot of parts Kill Bill. Kobe wants to be remembered as the “thinking assassin.” Einstein with a silencer.
The books closing seconds feel rushed off. Kobe attempts a pivot and shot at the buzzer by hoisting the notion that his life and career in basketball was all one long runner to his future as a storyteller and writer. He holds his Oscar in the air, still obsessed with trophies and tells the world that he will bring the Mamba Mentality to his storytelling.
There is something overcompensating about Kobe’s whole late career bravado. His insistence on building up his own legend. His highlights, stats and championships speak for themselves. Perhaps it’s just his competitive spirit thirsting to campaign and win over the remaining doubters. Maybe it’s his reaction to the social media era of sports and especially the NBA now, where all the stars are living brands, crafting their own narratives at the height of their powers. It will be interesting to follow Kobe deeper into his post-NBA life. I can’t help but feel there is something fueling this Mamba Mentality that maybe Kobe himself doesn’t even understand yet. I hope he keeps trying to define it.
Top athletes have never been great at framing up and putting their mentality into perspective beyond the cliches. So here is my challenge to Kobe the storyteller: Tell us something we don’t know. Tell us something that only you could tell us. Find your voice beyond the meme. It was a pretty funny character and we all appreciated it. I know your competitive spirit will keep haunting and driving you. I hope it drives you to write something that surprises you. And scares you even. And when that day comes, I hope you will dare to expose that truth to the rest of us.