The Profile Dossier: Kobe Bryant, Basketball's Greatest Storyteller
"You have to work hard in the dark to shine in the light."
Kobe Bryant's life came to an end in a sudden and tragic manner.
The 18-time NBA All-Star who had a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, died in a helicopter crash on January 26, 2020. His 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others also died in the crash.
Bryant had retired from the NBA, and he was focusing on venture capital as his second act. He and business partner Jeff Stibel formed venture firm Bryant Stibel in 2013 and raised $100 million for their debut venture capital fund three years later.
On and off the court, Bryant was best known for his obsessive pursuit of precision and excellence, which he dubbed “the Mamba Mentality.”
In his bio section on the Bryant Stibel website, Bryant wrote:
“To lead others, you have to constantly learn. I wouldn’t say my leadership style changed over the years. I like challenging people and making them uncomfortable. That’s what leads to introspection and that’s what leads to improvement. You could say I dare people to be their best selves.
“That approach has never wavered – from basketball to business. What I did adjust, though, was how I varied my approach from player to player, business to business. I still challenge everyone and make them uncomfortable; I just do it in a way that is tailored to them.
“To learn what would work and for who, I do homework and watch how they behave. I learn their histories and listen to what their goals are. I learn what makes them feel secure and where their greatest doubts lay. Once I understand them, I can help bring the best out of them by touching the right nerve at the right time.”
By 2020, Bryant had reached a point in his career where he was making waves in venture capital, philanthropy, and advocacy, but he found that erasing some parts of his past was still difficult to do. He was a legend but he was also an imperfect human, one who made mistakes, took responsibility, and allowed them to teach him how to be better.
Consider this Dossier a tribute to Bryant, whose life and career reminds us that the only answer to surviving unimaginable hardship is to keep moving forward and drawing on our own resilience.
On his 20-year-evolution: This 2014 New Yorker profile breaks down Bryant's 20-year-career into four chapters and details how he finally came to accept that it was time to step away. Bryant saw himself in constant competition with Father Time. "There’s a contingent of people that say, ‘Father Time is undefeated,’” Bryant said. But “people don’t understand when they talk about Father Time, and they look at my injuries. They’re equating that to others who have come before me.” Even when it came to the indisputable effects of time and wear-and-tear on the body, Bryant struggled to accept defeat.
On coming to terms with his past: In 2018, Bryant was focused on becoming a full-time storyteller, with cartoons, novels and Hollywood films. But the story that was never good enough and the one he could never fully control was his own. After Bryant was accused of sexual assault in 2003, he tried to re-invent himself and edit the narrative of his past. But as he found, real life wasn't so easy to revise.
On developing a winning mindset: In his memoir, Bryant reveals his famously detailed approach and the steps he took to prepare mentally and physically to not just succeed at the game, but to excel. Readers will learn how Bryant studied an opponent, how he channeled his passion for the game, and how he played through his injuries.
On a life of obsession: The Showtime documentary, Muse, gives an intimate look at Bryant's career, exploring the mentorships, allies and rivalries that have helped shape his stellar decades-long tenure in the NBA. He also discusses the Mamba mentality, the desire to be excellent, and how he dealt with the hardest personal challenge of his life.
On becoming Kobe: Bryant was the ultimate storyteller. Whether it came to his career, his life, or his mindset, he understood the importance of telling a good story. In this in-depth interview, Bryant tells story after story and uses metaphor after metaphor to help us better understand how his brain worked.
On the qualities he looks for in a partner: Whether it's in business or in life, Bryant believed in surrounding yourself with people who are relentless about self-improvement. He looks for two characteristics when evaluating people. "The most important thing is curiosity first. I want curious people — people who ask questions, people who want to figure things out, and people who figure out news ways to do things," he says. "From that curiosity, then you need to have the determination to see that curiosity through."
On his love letter to basketball: In 2017, Bryant won an Academy Award for his animated short film, "Dear Basketball." The film embodies Bryant's 2015 farewell to the game he loves. With hand drawn animation set to a soaring musical score, "Dear Basketball" tells the inspiring story of one little boy living out his basketball dream.
On the importance of persistence: One of Bryant's mottos in life since he was a kid was: "I may not be the most talented, but you will not outwork me." For him, it started as a defense mechanism, but it evolved into his greatest advantage. He would get to the gym at 4 a.m, and work harder and longer than any of his peers.
On finding your muses: Kobe would draw inspiration from figures outside of sports. He looked for greatness across industry, so he studied and learned from people like Jony Ive, Sean Penn, Kate Winslet, Larry Moss, Oprah, George R.R. Martin, and Taylor Swift. "Taylor Swift has been at the top of the game for a very, very long time. How and why? How does she write? How does she get into the mental space to be able to create things," he says. "You can't have that level of consistent success and not be a killer. It's impossible."
TECHNIQUES TO TRY.
Find your obsession: Bryant believed that every single one of us can become a master of our craft. For the majority of his life, Bryant's obsession was basketball. Then, it became business and investing. Through it all, he relentlessly studied his craft, asked questions, and obsessed over every little detail on his quest for greatness. "The obsessiveness is having an attention to detail of an action you're performing at the time that you're performing it," he said. In other words, if you don't obsess over it, you don't really care, so find a niche in this world that you will naturally obsess over. That's your calling.
Create an alter ego to summon confidence: Bryant created his "Black Mamba" alter ego as a way to get through the lowest point of his career. His nickname was inspired by the movie "Kill Bill," in which the snake, known for its agility and aggressiveness, was used as a code name for a deadly assassin. "The length, the snake, the bite, the strike, the temperament," he said. "That's me!'" At a time when people were chanting "Kobe sucks," while he was playing, Bryant said that using an alter ego gave him emotional distance from his real self. "I was able to switch my mind to something else," he says. "When I make the mental switch [to the Black Mamba], I know it's 'go time.'" [Read more about alter egos here.]
Allow your mistakes to transform you: Writer Mike Sager profiled Bryant in 2007 for Esquire after his fall from grace. When asked about making mistakes on the road to greatness, Kobe had this advice: “You have to be open-minded and not be rigid. If you’re rigid, that’s weakness. All you can do is forget about the bad stuff and then move on. You just kind of roll with it; you just kind of learn. I will not make the same mistakes in the future that I have made in the past. I will make new mistakes, I am sure. And I will learn from them, too.” If you make a mistake, acknowledge it, face it, learn from it, and let it transform you into a better human.
Study the paths of the people you admire: When he was a young player, Bryant says he went to "G.O.A.T. Mountain" to speak to players like Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, and Bill Russell. He asked them, "What did you do? What were your experiences? What was the process like for you?" He said, "I went to them and started understanding the ins and outs of the game and their level of detail and obsessiveness." A great exercise is to ask yourself: “Who’s the person living my dream life?” Identify that person, research their early life, and figure out how they got to where they are today. As Bryant said, "We’re surrounded by people who do incredible things, and the information is right there for us to learn from.”
Leadership requires personalization: Success breeds success. Just by being on the team, Bryant was able to motivate his teammates in ways that the coach often couldn't. He ruthlessly pushed them to play their best through a personalized leadership approach he developed. “I varied my approach from player to player. I still challenged everyone and made them uncomfortable, I just did it in a way that was tailored to them," he said. To personalize it, he watched how they behaved, he listened to how they told their life stories, and he asked what their goals were. Once he understood them, he could help bring the best out of them by "touching the right nerve at the right time."
Remember that life only moves forward: In September, MLB's Jack Flaherty found himself thinking a lot about Bryant. "If 2020 has taught us anything it’s that every moment we have is important. Every second we have on this earth is precious," Flaherty wrote. "Kobe’s death epitomized that." To Bryant, the antidote to listlessness and defeat was drive and relentlessness. He never believed in "go with the flow." Rather, he believed in moving forward with intent. Instead of shying away from adversity, bring this Bryant quote to the forefront of your mind: “I’m reflective only in the sense that I learn to move forward…I reflect with a purpose.”
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
"You have to work hard in the dark to shine in the light."
“Everything negative — pressure, challenges — is all an opportunity for me to rise.”
"Once you know what failure feels like, determination chases success."
"Pain doesn’t tell you when you ought to stop. Pain is the little voice in your head that tries to hold you back because it knows if you continue, you will change."
"I don't want to be the next Michael Jordan, I only want to be Kobe Bryant."
"Haters are a good problem to have. Nobody hates the good ones. They hate the great ones."
"We all have self-doubt. You don’t deny it, but you also don’t capitulate to it. You embrace it."
"These young guys are playing checkers. I'm out there playing chess."
"It’s the one thing you can control. You are responsible for how people remember you—or don’t. So don’t take it lightly."