Since Kobe Bryant’s passing in 2020, people have celebrated his immortal legacy in countless ways: murals, books and television shows. Still, apart from his tight-knit family and inner circle, few know Kobe’s history like Andy Bernstein, photographer for Kobe’s book, The Mamba Mentality: How I Play, and Mike Sielski, Philadelphia Inquirer sports columnist and author of The Rise: Kobe Bryant and the Pursuit of Immortality. Sielski had access to a treasure that no other reporter could claim: tapes and transcripts of unreleased interviews from Kobe’s senior year, including some with high school coach, Jeremy Treatman, and clips from his early Los Angeles Lakers seasons.
“To be able to… understand what he was thinking at that stage of his life was so precious and so valuable in being able to write this book… I don’t think the perspective and the honesty… would have been there in the way they were on these tapes [later in life],” Sielski said.
In The Rise, Sielski sought to “Show how even at [Kobe’s] earliest stages… There is something, a North Star… that he is shooting toward and pointed toward, that he might never reach…. And he’s going to take that journey and devote himself to that journey and sacrifice whatever he needs to sacrifice… It’s beyond just ‘I want to be a great basketball player.’”
Sielski relayed Kobe’s transition from Italy (where he was raised while his father, Joe, played international professional basketball) to Lower Merion, Pennsylvania. In a new culture, Kobe’s athletic skills quickly allowed him to find his way as a leader.
“Basketball… bought him… the time and the benefit of the doubt, to show to people who he was and who he could be, because by the end of this time at Lower Merion [High School]… he’s… probably the most famous basketball player at that time in the Philadelphia area…He’s able to be friends with the… basketball team,… his honors English class,… the Black Student Union, he’s able to move in all these different worlds,” Sielski said.
Kobe Bryant chronicled his basketball journey on the hidden tapes which drove Sielski’s writing. Sielski recalled Kobe’s senior summer of 1995 when he realized his NBA destiny.
“[Coach] John Lucas invites him to come scrimmage and play pickup games against mostly players for the [Philadelphia] Sixers… Once he is going toe to toe with guys like Jerry Stackhouse and Vernon Maxwell and Rick Mahorn and Shawn Bradley… And once he sees that he’s holding his own against those guys. It’s like, ‘yeah, I don’t need college. I know how good I am and how good I can be. And my rocket ship is taking off.’”
While Kobe established a dominant program at Lower Merion, he looked toward his future in the NBA, watching tapes of icons like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and looking to learn from Michael Jordan to break his records. Kobe gained national attention from college coaches and the basketball world (including a hopeful Sielski, who hoped he would commit to La Salle, where Joe Bryant coached and Sielski studied and edited the paper). In 1993, while attending a 76ers vs. Chicago Bulls game with NBA-veteran Joe, Kobe met Jordan, who asked him to attend (Jordan’s alma mater) the University of North Carolina.
“‘I would never go… because I would never have my own identity there. I would always be the guy who just came after Michael. And I want to be something more than that,’” Sielski paraphrased.
Kobe’s high school teammates told Sielski that, in the summer between his freshman and sophomore year, Kobe never went to the movies, instead running drills. His footwork and beautiful shooting began with relentless drilling. Andy remembers Kobe’s commitment to the USA basketball camp before the 2008 Olympics, where Kobe was the first and “last guy in the gym.”
Sielski recalled how Kobe formed his Mamba Mentality when at four years old, he lost a hard-fought Karate competition and learned perseverance. He recalled how Kobe always pushed himself with strength and confidence to the next level, including in his first NBA season, when he sought to (and did) lead the Lakers to the finals.
“The term the Mamba Mentality resonates with so many people [because]… He was the embodiment of that idea that if you want something bad enough… and you commit yourself to it, you can achieve it,” Sielski said.
In The Mamba Mentality, Kobe discussed its five pillars: obsession, curiosity, relentlessness and strength. Sielski found defining moments of these pillars in Kobe’s early tapes.
For his obsession: “Wanting to win that state championship at Lower Merion. It matters so much to him. To be the best player on the best team in the state of Pennsylvania… In the short term of that period of his life, that was the thing that pushed him and drove him.”
For his curiosity: “His friendship with his mentor, Jeanne Mastriano, his… Honors English teacher, his sophomore year, who introduces him to the concept of the hero’s journey and opens him up to Greek mythology… and this idea that we are not just who we are in the moment, we are striving for something bigger and greater and more lasting.”
For his relentlessness: “Two days before the [Pennsylvania state semifinal] game, Kobe has broken his nose in practice… He can’t make a shot in the first half of that game. And he just decides… I’m going to run the risk that I catch a stray elbow or forearm and my broken nose gets worse and I can’t play. And he proceeds to score 20 points in the fourth quarter… And he just says ‘you know what, I’m going to be relentless about going to the basket because that’s what’s going to help my team win.’ And they win.”
For his strength: “The intellectual and emotional endurance it must have taken him to keep the secret that he wanted to go straight to the NBA… let the scuttlebutt bubble around him in newspapers and on TV.”
Following his over-two-decade career as one of the best basketball players in history, Kobe devoted his life to promoting women’s sports, spending time with his four daughters, storytelling and filmmaking and inspiring others in the Mamba Academy youth league. He worked to fulfill his spirit that was “striving and creating and developing,” beyond the court
Today, as the Mamba legacy lives on, Kobe’s stories and remembrances remain ever-important. Hear more about Kobe’s life from the beginning in this week’s Legends of Sport podcast episode with host Andy Bernstein and sports insider guest— Mike Sielski.