I want to talk about Kobe Bryant.
But I don’t want to talk about the circumstances of his passing or what was going on at the Mamba Center that Sunday. I have fielded enough calls and texts about that. A dozen of our refs could much more accurately describe its despondent atmosphere, one going so far as to call it the most depressing day in the history of Los Angeles.
Once the shock wears off — however long it persists — we have to reflect and recognize what Kobe Bryant has meant to us in the travel basketball community. To many of you, he was your hero growing up. Even I had a Kobe Bryant jersey and collected his trading cards before they got too expensive. As a kid, I was a Kobe Bryant fan because he was cocky, brash, talented, and a little bit of a loner, just like I was. When he passed away I can’t say I cried for the man because I never shared any words with him. We never broke bread. Yet it stung more than most celebrity deaths and hit closer to home than I ever would have anticipated. It felt like we lost one of our own because over the past few years, he was becoming that way.
In the years since Kobe Bryant retired from the NBA, he devoted a lot of his time to the grassroots basketball circuit, coaching his club team, and reinventing the Mamba Academy into one of the nicer sports facilities in Southern California (albeit stamped ad nauseam with his logo every 30 feet). We have officiated his girls' club team at least a dozen times in the last two years. Seeing him every month on the sidelines humanized him. His mystique of being a Laker Legend had begun to fade, never to the point of him becoming just another club coach, but he was no longer a celebrity to us. He was becoming a regular. You can’t really get starstruck by someone you see on a monthly basis, but you can really get hurt when they abruptly disappear.
And Kobe wanted to be a regular. He wanted to be a devoted dad for his girls and a great coach for his team. He put in the work with them the same way he put in work during his basketball career and towards his other business ventures — once again striving for the same success. Kobe was passionate and professional and expected the same from everybody around him. You all remember the repeated warnings in my emails that I would not tolerate "groupies" officiating his games. Mostly because I knew Kobe wouldn’t tolerate them either. He once scolded Open Gym Premier’s owner for requesting a photo because, again, that’s what kids and “groupies” do. Kobe wasn’t at Open Gym Premier for fan service; he was there to conduct business.
Towards us, as many of you know, he was a tough coach. Historically, Kobe Bryant was always tough on officials but he was never a dick to them. He respected the challenges of our craft but had an expectation that we would come do our job as prepared as he came to do his. Unfortunately on the youth side (the amateur circuit) that is an unrealistic, if not impossible, standard. Therefore he would berate our crews during the game but would always stop himself short of crossing the line, remembering that he was there for his girls and to set a good example in improving club sports. Our officials reported having occasional difficulty dealing with Kobe during the game but then a fantastic time when he spent a few minutes with them after it was all said and done.
And when you guys got assigned his games, you gave him your best. In some ways I loved it but in many ways it befuddled me. Granted I can understand the effect an influential pair of eyes can have on someone’s job performance, but for many of you that were his biggest fans, it was the opposite of the "Mamba Mentality" that Kobe put forth when he was in the league. Kobe gave his everything against every opponent, whether he was in town against the Vancouver Grizzlies or during his once-a-year performance at Madison Square Garden.
Kobe, Allen Iverson, Kevin Garnett, among others are from a generation of players that came up before “load management” and whose competitive fire burned at near the same temperature regardless of the backdrop. Back when these legends competed in All-Star games, they were actually fun to watch.
Therefore when I saw some of you sprint end-line to end-line on Kobe’s games but meander barely to half-court on the others, it appeared a bit hypocritical to say how you were such admirers of the Mamba Mentality when you didn’t really exercise it yourself. The Mamba Mentality isn’t a light switch. It is a life choice. It is the strive for excellence every day through relentless hard work and sacrifice.
I wish we all had the discipline to integrate it into our lives — and I am including my own lazy self in that statement — so that we could all meet our potential and see just how much we could accomplish.
Work ethic is just one of the things I will always respect and admire about Kobe. I will also miss him as an influential voice of reason on a club basketball circuit that continues to get watered down and degrading in quality. Those of you that followed his thoughts on (American) amateur basketball may remember this infamous quote:
"AAU basketball – horrible, terrible AAU basketball," Bryant told reporters back in 2016. "It’s stupid. It doesn’t teach our kids how to play the game at all, so you wind up having players that are big and they bring it up and they do all this fancy crap and they don’t know how to post. They don’t know the fundamentals of the game. It’s stupid."
You can read the full article with his unfiltered thoughts at:
I could not agree with him more. I am worried now that there is nobody with his commitment, stature, and resources that can help make youth basketball better, instead of just bigger and bigger. In that way, we lost a powerful ally to our own cause. We lost a great coach, a great mentor, a great artist, philanthropist, family man, and member of our large (yet paradoxically very tight-knit) basketball community.
I’ll be in touch with Quincy frequently over the next few weeks about the future of the Mamba Academy but I have a strong feeling that the games will go on. In commemoration of Kobe, I am also instituting a temporary change to our dress code policy: For the rest of the NBA season and its playoffs — tentatively through the OGP Finals Tournament in June 2020 — Ref Union officials working events for Open Gym Premier, LA Elite, and especially the Mamba Cup Tournament Series, may wear Kobe signature shoes of ANY STYLE OR COLOR along with black socks during the games.
It's just a little thing we can do to show how much Kobe has meant to our community. Rest in Peace, Kobe Bryant, Gianna Bryant, John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, Alyssa Altobelli, Sarah Chester, Payton Chester, Christina Mauser, and Ara Zobayan. May your families, friends, and communities somehow find peace during this incredibly painful time.