Kobe Bryant's passion for self-improvement as a player extended into his personal life

Dave Drabiuk reflects on Bryant's complicated history which includes an intense work ethic, independence over sportsmanship, and a sexual assault charge but concludes that Bryant sought after self-improvement and becoming a good role model for his daughters in his personal life.

Tia Lalani - 19 February 2020

Kobe Bryant was an icon, and news of his death affected players, fans and celebrities across sport and culture. But his legacy is not without complication, as well a desire, in his later life, to do better, says Augustana basketball coach Dave Drabiuk. (Photo: Fred Kearny, Unsplash)

Kobe Bryant's thumbprint on sport globally, and particularly in North America, is undeniable. Writing numbers and names on shoes, changing jersey numbers to honour the fallen and beginning games with 8-second and 24-second violations are all examples of the collective attempt to process grief and publically pay tribute to Kobe. Players in the NBA, NFL and even MLB have all contributed stories about their experiences with Kobe and how he influenced their careers. Kobe touched them and inspired them. He was their hero. However, his legacy is complicated.

For fans, Kobe is a generational player, and like Michael Jordan before him, or Magic to the generation before, he has transcended his sport and entered into the public consciousness. Magic became a marketable commodity and set the stage for Jordan. Jordan, of the tongue and, of course, the shoes. He became an icon, with his logo featured on clothing (the Jordan Brand), a marketer's dream and a movie star. He was the perfect convergence of sport skill, marketing machine and charismatic greatness. Kobe was to be the next Jordan.

The marketing blueprint was in place and he was in the perfect city-Los Angeles. His approach to greatness was unique. Spending hours alone practicing, he exuded an air of total independence from his teammates. He came across as arrogant, selfish and about as easy to embrace as a feral porcupine. But the fans LOVED him. They still do. Every great superstar in basketball since Wilt Chamberlain spoke of "we" before "me," but not Kobe.

Unquestionably one of the most prolific offensive players, maybe ever, Kobe was what the analytics nerds now call a high-volume user or a veritable ball hog. His rationale was simple: ff I am the best on the floor why would I trust an inferior teammate with the fate of my team? Momba Mentality is what he called it and everyone respected it.

I spoke with one NBA assistant coach who told me about a future league MVP that stood and watched in awe as Kobe put himself through his usual blistering workout on an off day between games. When the coach asked the young player if he wanted to work out now, the response was a simple "Nah, man. That's too much". Kobe broke his competitor's will, often having the same effect on his coaches and teammates. His personality as a teammate was often described using unflattering terms. He was complicated.

His teams won, but often at the expense of his teammates. He is the single best example of the shift in professional sports fandom: fans cheering for a player, rather than their team. He trained harder and more than any of his contemporaries. In a profession where skill and the ability to perform in the most important moments is the coin of the realm, he was quite simply the king.

Momba Mentality-never having to say you are sorry for winning-was further complicated when Kobe was charged with sexual assault in 2003. The charges were dropped when the victim refused to testify. Kobe eventually settled with her out of court, apologizing while maintaining that it was consensual. His legacy would be forever tarnished. Like Ray Lewis, Craig MacTavish, Oscar Pistorius, Jose Canseco and Mike Danton, his career will always carry the shadow of this event.

I would like to think that his life away from basketball became a masterwork of reconciliation. With the same passion he displayed for self-improvement as a player, he sought to learn and grow as a human being away from the game. He doggedly pursued leadership opportunities and motivational excellence in an effort to leave a legacy of greatness, and he attempted to address his most glaring deficiencies from his playing days. Equally as meaningful was his dedication to a new life as a father. He was, as much as the limits of the Momba mindset would allow, contrite regarding his past mistakes. His commitment to his daughters suggests that he understood he needed to change and that he strove to be an example of the changes that men can make in their lives.

Dave Drabiuk, Coach, Men's Basketball Team, Augustana Campus, University of Alberta. This column was originally published in the Camrose Booster on February 11, 2020.