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Kobe Bryant Was More Than an N.B.A. Superstar

His legacy as a life teacher goes far beyond what he accomplished on the court.

Amy Dickerson/The New York Times
Amy Dickerson/The New York Times

The death of Kobe Bryant has prompted an extraordinary outpouring of grief and gratitude, with presidents, athletes, entertainers and millions around the world paying tribute.

It is always a shock when a beloved figure is taken in the prime of life. But with Kobe, it seems to come from someplace deeper. Because in addition to the extraordinary career, the championships and the records, there was a man with a searching, philosophical cast of mind. For someone who had piled up so many accomplishments, both on the court and off, he insisted that we are all more than our résumés.

This is how he put it to me in 2014 during a conversation we had for The New York Times:

“What hurts a lot of people, particularly famous people, is they start valuing themselves for ‘what’ they are, the way the world sees them: writer, speaker, basketball player. And you start believing that what you are is who you are. There’s a big difference.”

For all the remembrances and celebrations of what he accomplished on the basketball court, who Kobe Bryant was went much further. He was a husband, a father, a brother, a son and a life teacher. He spoke openly of his relationship with failure and the obstacles he faced, and he was eager to share his wisdom and experience as a storyteller. His extraordinary second act — including an Oscar-winning film and a publishing company — was just getting started. 

As an African-American kid growing up in Italy, maybe it’s not so surprising that Kobe learned to find inspiration in unlikely places:

“When you watch me shoot my fadeaway jumper, you’ll notice my leg is always extended. I had problems making that shot in the past. It’s tough. So one day I’m watching the Discovery Channel and see a cheetah hunting. When the cheetah runs, its tail always gives it balance, even if it’s cutting a sharp angle. And that’s when I was like: My leg could be the tail, right?” 

“Inspiration surrounds us,” he said.

Kobe’s quest for inspiration gave him an expansive, outside-the-box approach to basketball and life — which, of course, made him an inspiration to millions. He was a pioneer in understanding the connection between well-being and performance. For our Thrive e-course, I invited Kobe to be my unlikely guest teacher on meditation and sleep.

“I’ve grown,” he told me. “I used to get by on three or four hours a night. I have a hard time shutting off my brain. But I’ve evolved.”

He continued: “You know the other major thing about sleep? It gives me more energy to spend time with my family and have fun with my kids. As I got more rest, I could work and come home — and become the human jungle gym again.” 

After legendary coach Phil Jackson introduced him to meditation, Kobe built a daily practice, just 10 or 15 minutes each morning. Here is how he described the benefits in our Thrive e-course:

“It sets me up for the rest of the day,” he said. “It’s like having an anchor. If I don’t do it, I feel like I’m constantly chasing the day. I have a calmness about whatever comes my way, and a poise.” 

In 2016, just before his retirement, Kobe spoke about his relationship with death: “It’s an understanding. You can’t have life without death. You can’t have light without dark.”

From ancient Rome, we have been given the phrase “memento mori” — remember death, M.M. for short — carved on statues and trees. Tradition has it that the phrase goes back to an ancient Roman victory parade in which the triumphant commander had a slave cry out, “remember that you are mortal.”

Tragically, Kobe, his daughter Gianna and seven others died far too soon en route to Gianna’s afternoon basketball game. His death reminds us of the fragility of life. We don’t have unlimited time yet we live as though we do. How can we use the truth of our mortality to enrich the time we have and live the lives we want and not the lives we settle for? In a way this is Kobe’s final gift to the world. 

Subscribe here for my Weekly Thoughts Newsletter, where you’ll find my take on the week’s news, my favorite pieces on how we can thrive even in our stressful world, and some fun and inspiring extras. 

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LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 18:  Kobe Bryant smiles at halftime as both his #8 and #24 Los Angeles Lakers jerseys are retired at Staples Center on December 18, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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