Yesterday, the world lost a sports legend. Kobe Bryant (age 41), along with his thirteen-year-old daughter, and seven other people were tragically killed in a helicopter accident.
I lived much of my early life in Los Angeles. I grew up as a Lakers fan, beginning with the Showtime era of the eighties. I watched Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy dominate the hardcourt, winning five championships in ten years. When that reign came to an end, I thought I’d never again be lucky enough to watch one of the best players in the world don a Lakers jersey. And then along came seventeen-year-old Kobe Bryant straight out of high school. He played his entire twenty-year professional career with the Lakers, winning five championships, being voted an All-Star for eighteen seasons, earning the MVP distinction in 2008, and scoring eighty-one points in a single game.
I loved Kobe Bryant. I loved his raw athleticism. I loved his love of the game. I loved his commitment to excellence. I loved his work ethic and self-discipline. I loved his ferocity and competitive nature. I loved his mind. I loved how much he believed in himself.
All of this made Kobe Bryant one of the greatest basketball players ever. Yet, I believe much, if not most, of Kobe Bryant’s success on (and more recently off) the court was due to his identity. He believed in himself more than any other athlete I have studied. From the earliest age, Kobe Bryant believed he would be the best player in basketball history. He never wavered from that belief. Never. That belief was totally and completely embodied. We saw it on draft day in 1996. It was on display when he won the slam dunk contest during his rookie year. And we witnessed it up until the very moment he played his last second of professional basketball, scoring an unheard of sixty points in his final game. His identity apparently wasn’t limited to basketball. Just two years after retiring from the sport he loved, he won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.
Kobe Bryant wasn’t cocky or arrogant. He was supremely confident in his abilities. He had an identity that was completely congruent with his aspirations. The greatest driver of human behavior is your desire to be consistent with your identity. No one in recent history has done more to exemplify this than Kobe.
Kobe, thank you for teaching us what it looks like to be totally committed to being extraordinary and to embodying an extraordinary identity. Rest in peace.