LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles is the city of stars, and the Lakers have been home to many of them: Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal, to name a few. However, as beloved as each one of those players were during their time in the purple and gold, few of them have had the same lasting impact on the city that the late Kobe Bryant did.
A lot of that has to do with the fact that he spent a franchise-record 20 years with the Lakers, and there’s also something to the idea that, for a generation of basketball fans, he was the closest thing to Michael Jordan. But there’s something else that connects Bryant and Los Angeles on a level much deeper than basketball, and that’s the Mamba Mentality.
Despite being known for its celebrities and glamorous lifestyle, Los Angeles is filled with working-class people just trying to make ends meet and serve their community as best as they can. For every movie star, there are dozens of people like Rob Walton, an EMT who was on the clock when the news of Bryant’s death broke on Sunday.
It was also his birthday.
“I was getting birthday texts and calls all morning,” Walton said outside of Staples Center, where thousands of fans were mourning the death of their childhood hero.
“My dad had just called me, I got off the phone with him and literally two minutes later, my partner tells me ‘Hey, man, I think Kobe’s gone.’ I waved him off, thought it was a joke.”
No one wanted it to believe it was real, but with every flower and candle that’s been placed on the cold cement floor at Star Plaza, and every gaze at the luminous billboards that read “Rest In Peace Kobe and Gianna,” the harsh reality sinks in a little more.
There was a similar scene outside of the UCLA Health Training Center in El Segundo, where the Lakers practice.
The sidewalk on the south side of the building is much smaller than L.A. Live, but the displays of appreciation were just as grand, with fans leaving their old Kobe jerseys, Kobe sneakers and Philadelphia Eagles apparel. Bryant, a native of Philadelphia, was a huge Eagles fan and got to see them win the Super Bowl in 2018.
None of the fans I talked to knew Bryant on a personal level — nor had they ever met him —but many of them likened Bryant’s death to losing a family member, and that’s because they either watched him grow up, or grew up with him.
“My favorite number was eight growing up because of him,” said lifelong Lakers fan Tim Deng, who was three years old when Bryant was drafted with the No. 3 overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft. “I always tried to mimic him, his Mamba Mentality.”
To my surprise, the Mamba Mentality is the legacy that Bryant has seemingly left behind, even more than his five NBA championships, 18 All-Star appearances and MVP award.
Why? Because not everyone is 6’6” or a naturally gifted athlete, but everyone can work as hard as he did.
“We all want to be the best at what we do, and he committed his whole life from a very early age into his professional career and even after his career, he dedicated to his family, but also his after-basketball life,” Lakers fan David Lee said — not to be confused with the basketball player David Lee, although the former Lee was a fan of the latter.
Everyone will grieve at their own pace, but even when people come to terms with Bryant’s tragic death, his memory will live on through his work ethic, an invaluable quality in a hustle-and-bustle city like Los Angeles.
“It’s a mentality that transcends just the sport,” Walton said. “It’s something that people really believe in, man. That’s why they’re here. In some shape or form, people connect to it, whether it’s in their day-to-day jobs, being a parent or just being a good person: Giving it your all, giving it your best, not quitting just because it gets hard.
“That’s kind of like how this city is, man. L.A.’s been through a lot of hard shit and it continues, and I think that mentality is engrained in the city.”