The Lasting Legacy of Kobe Bryant’s Mamba Mentality

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Dak Prescott was sobbing. It was October 11, 2020, and Prescott’s foot was pointing the wrong direction. The Dallas Cowboys quarterback sat on the turf at AT&T Stadium, staring down in disbelief. Underneath his sock, bone was sticking out through his skin. “If you go back and look at the video,” Prescott told The Ringer in August, “I tried to plant my feet and put my foot back in place, just so I could get off the field.” Prescott always tries to get up quickly. That was how he let his mother know he was OK after a tough hit on the football field. Even after she died in 2013, the habit persisted.

As Prescott was moved from the turf to a cart, he bit down on a towel to mask the pain. Players from both the Cowboys and the New York Giants, the team Dallas was playing that day, surrounded him. But no player was quite as emotional as Logan Ryan. He was the one who’d wrestled Prescott to the ground on the play, and he also understood Prescott’s pain. Less than two years earlier, he had suffered his own broken leg. “My leg got snapped just like his leg got snapped,” Ryan said. “It’s just a freakish, gory injury where you see the ankle through the …”

Ryan’s voice trailed off.

“Just the worst type of thing.”

That night, Ryan mailed Prescott two books. The first was Kobe Bryant’s memoir, The Mamba Mentality: How I Play. The second was Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable, by Tim Grover, who served as the personal trainer to both Bryant and Michael Jordan. Prescott devoured them in the first two months of his rehab. The books gave Prescott answers, but those answers were still months away as Prescott sat on that cart crying in pain in Arlington. Ryan immediately knew what he needed to do. He walked up to Prescott and offered the only encouragement he thought would help:

“What would Kobe do?”

NFL players are modern-day gladiators. They channel alter egos to ready themselves for three hours of extreme physical contact. When players fall, they’re carted off, and the game continues. But the initial injury is merely the beginning of the often trying journey back to full health—and full confidence. The moments, minutes, and months after an injury can make athletes doubt whether they’ll ever regain the physical skills that have defined their sporting lives. And in these periods of bodily injury and spiritual crisis, NFL players like Prescott, Ryan, Saquon Barkley, Derek Carr, and Richard Sherman turn to one figure to help inspire them in their recovery process: Kobe Bryant.

Bryant has become the modern avatar of winning to a generation of basketball fans and athletes too young to remember Michael Jordan. Championships, Olympic gold medals, Oscars, it didn’t matter. Whatever goal Kobe set, he seemed to achieve. But perhaps Bryant’s most mythological moment came in how he responded to a potentially career-altering injury.

When Bryant tore his Achilles tendon in a game against the Golden State Warriors in April 2013, he hobbled to the free throw line and sank both shots before walking off the court. The injury felt like someone had taken a blowtorch to his skull, Bryant told The New Yorker in 2014. In his memoir, Bryant called the injury “my personal Mount Everest.”

But rather than succumb to the fears that the injury would be too much to return from at age 34, Bryant returned for three more seasons. Exactly three years and one day after he ruptured his Achilles, Bryant ended his career with a legendary 60-point performance on the Lakers’ home floor.

“The process and the mentality of what you do after you get injured can be either the best or the worst thing that’s ever happened to you,” said Grover, who worked closely with Bryant and has trained scores of other elite athletes.

Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, died in a helicopter crash three years ago today. The two had been flying with seven others—John and Keri Altobelli and their daughter Alyssa; Sarah Chester and her daughter, Payton; Christina Mauser; and pilot Ara Zobayan—to a youth basketball tournament near Los Angeles.

One of Bryant’s most enduring legacies is his Mamba Mentality, which lives on among today’s pro athletes. And there is a special devotion among NFL players who’ve clung to Kobe’s approach as a guide through the crucible of injury.

Bryant’s alter ego, the Black Mamba, is based on Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 2. In the 2004 film, a character is rummaging through a suitcase full of money only to discover that a black mamba is hiding in the briefcase. The snake bites the guy multiple times, and then Daryl Hannah’s character gives a monologue about how the black mamba is akin to “death incarnate.”

Bryant told The New Yorker he watched the film, researched the snake, and thought, “This is a perfect description of how I would want my game to be.”

It’s impossible to separate Bryant’s creation of the Black Mamba with what happened in 2003 and 2004. In July 2003, Bryant was arrested and charged with felony sexual assault after a 19-year-old woman said he raped her in the hotel room where he was staying in Edwards, Colorado. Bryant initially denied there was any sexual encounter but later told police that they had consensual sex. The woman, a front-desk employee at the hotel, said Bryant raped her, and a hospital exam detailed that she had a bruise on her jaw and vaginal lacerations. The case was national news, and in a well-publicized pretrial hearing, one of Bryant’s lawyers asked whether the woman’s injuries were “consistent with someone who had sex with three different men in three days.” Television crews sat outside her parents’ home.

The criminal charges were dropped in September 2004 when prosecutors said the woman decided not to testify. Bryant and the woman settled a civil lawsuit in March 2005. The settlement included a nondisclosure agreement. After the charges were dropped, Bryant released a statement. “I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter,” he wrote.

The Colorado rape case changed how the public at large viewed Bryant—to many, he was a villain, and the image of the teenage basketball phenom was long gone. Adopting the alter ego was his way of grappling with who he was and how he was viewed, he told The Washington Post in 2018. Along the way, the seeds of what would become the Mamba Mentality had been planted.

Over time, the mindset became synonymous with an obsessive pursuit of perfection in all aspects of life, and it was a guiding principle for athletes looking to gain a competitive edge. Throughout the latter part of his career and into retirement, Bryant was asked to explain his success to kids, teenagers, and other pro athletes so frequently that the Mamba Mentality became a catchall for his philosophy of approaching basketball—and life. Bryant’s key to both was the same: obsession.

“You have to enter every activity, every single time, with a want and need to do it to the best of your ability,” Bryant wrote in his memoir. “The mindset isn’t about seeking a result. It’s more about the process of getting to that result. It’s about the journey and the approach. It’s a way of life.”

It is hard to reconcile the events of Colorado in 2003 with the version of Kobe Bryant who 15 years later became an ambassador for women’s basketball and someone known as a #GirlDad. There are no neat, tidy resolutions here. His legacy is layered and complicated, and the origins of the Mamba Mentality came from a very dark place. Within that mindset, however, was an approach to recovering from injury that has had a lasting impact on many athletes.

Every single day, Saquon Barkley writes “Mamba Mentality” on the first page of the notebook he carries with him to his film sessions and game-planning meetings.

“I don’t think I would be the player I am without Kobe Bryant, to be completely honest,” Barkley told The Ringer in August. “Even just as a man, going through these last few years and battling these injuries and just trying to find myself, that’s always something I could always fall back to.”

Barkley has been a fan of Bryant since childhood. At Penn State, Barkley studied Kobe’s Mamba Mentality as if it were an elective class. But when Barkley tore his ACL in the 2020 season—just a few weeks before Prescott suffered his broken ankle—Barkley went all in on the doctrine of Kobe. He archived every post on his Instagram timeline except for the one he dedicated to Bryant when he died. It set the tone for Barkley’s recovery.

Barkley’s ACL surgery was performed in Los Angeles by Dr. Neal ElAttrache, the same surgeon who repaired Bryant’s Achilles tendon. Barkley doesn’t remember the moments after his surgery, but this is how he said it was described to him: Barkley, still loopy from the pain medication, began doing leg raises, straightening his leg from a seated position. (Leg raises are not something people should be able to accomplish minutes after an ACL surgery.) The doctors and nurses were not amused by Barkley’s antics. They asked him to get in a wheelchair.

“Are you kidding me?” the still-drugged Barkley snapped back. “Excuse my French, but you fucking think Kobe Bryant got in his wheelchair?!”

“Actually,” the staff responded, “Kobe did get in his wheelchair.”

“All right,” Barkley said. “Let me sit my ass down and get in this wheelchair.”

Largely confined to his bed for the next six weeks, Barkley threw himself into everything Kobe. He devoured whatever he could, usually bite-size clips of Kobe’s documentaries on YouTube. Kobe Bryant on dedication. Kobe Bryant on work ethic. He’d watch the same videos over and over while going to bed. He said his girlfriend must have been sick of hearing Kobe Bryant talk.

“I know [the Mamba Mentality] is the right approach, the right mindset, and that’s something I want to instill into my children growing up,” said Barkley, who has a daughter and another child on the way. “Not just with sports, but with anything in life. When you have that mindset, the work ethic, the dedication, you could achieve anything in this world.”

But when you ask Saquon how the Mamba Mentality suggests he achieves those dreams, it isn’t quite as rosy.

“Kill,” Barkley said. “Just kill. Kill everything in the way.”

When Richard Sherman tore his Achilles toward the end of the 2017 season, he walked off the field just like Kobe did. “I saw him do it,” Sherman said at Super Bowl LIV’s media night, the day after Kobe’s death. “I saw him make two free throws and walk off with a torn Achilles. And once I tore mine, I knew I had to walk off.” The morning after his injury, Sherman received a call from Bryant. “Are you all right?” Bryant asked, according to ESPN. “I want to make sure you are not being a baby about it.”

Sherman, who grew up in Compton, spent his childhood and teenage years watching Bryant become a Lakers superstar. The two had become friendly after Sherman won a Super Bowl with the Seahawks and appeared in a Mamba Mentality–themed Nike ad campaign. Bryant called Sherman not just to poke fun at him, but to advise him on his impending rehab.

The truth that Bryant already knew was how much Achilles injuries suck. They’re extremely painful, and the rehab is a Goldilocks process that punishes those who do too much or too little. The tendon heals at its own pace and is typically not replaced. The surrounding muscles can atrophy. There’s a reason an Achilles tear was long known as a career-ending—or at least a career-altering—injury.

When Bryant first ruptured his Achilles, he wasn’t sure he had it in him to complete the nine-month recovery process. But that doubt came from metaphorically standing at the base camp of Mount Everest and looking up at the top. “What I found helpful is to not look at the top of the mountain,” Bryant told the Knuckleheads podcast in 2019. “Because the mountain is so damn daunting. So I just choose to focus on one step at a time. And by the time you realize it, you’re at the top of the mountain again.” Bryant also explained that this mentality benefits from our perception of time. “Time flies,” Kobe said. “Time goes by really fast. You’re sitting here with a nine-month injury, thinking, ‘I can’t do that.’ But when 12 months goes by, you’re going to wish that you did.”

But going one step at a time can be monotonous, especially when Sherman was rehabbing by picking up marbles with his toes. Turning it into a competition can make it more palatable. So Bryant told Sherman to pick up more marbles than he did the day before.

“You can look at it like, ‘Damn, woe is me. Why did this happen to me?’ and, ‘Oh my god, why did I have to go through this?’” Sherman told ESPN. “Or you can look at it as, ‘Man, I needed another great challenge, and I needed another mountain to climb, and I look forward to climbing that mountain.’”

When Sherman returned to the field, he came back in a custom version of Kobe-brand Nike football cleats. In 2019, at 31 years old—geriatric for a cornerback, never mind one coming off an Achilles injury—Sherman was named second-team All-Pro.

When Raiders quarterback Derek Carr broke his leg on Christmas Eve in 2016, Bryant challenged Carr on Twitter: “Come back better than ever.” Carr, who grew up in Bakersfield, California, as a massive Kobe fan, was elated.

Carr devoured every YouTube video on Kobe there was. He insisted the Carr-family dog be named Kobe (yes, the dog had a Kobe jersey). In 2020, Carr wore a sleeve on his left arm throughout the season to honor Kobe and had a Mamba Mentality mantra poster in his weight room. In 2022, Carr adopted a stretching routine that Bryant had suggested to him years earlier.

“Kobe Bryant is the reason that I played when I broke the three bones in my back [in 2017],” he told The Athletic in 2020. “He’s the reason I played with a broken finger. Because I learned from him that determination to not let your teammates down. And that failure is not an option.”

But few are as devout as longtime defensive back Logan Ryan. Perhaps that’s surprising, considering he’s from the part of southern New Jersey that favors Philadelphia’s sports teams. He remembered hating Kobe when the Lakers played the Sixers in the 2001 NBA Finals and reveling in the moment when Allen Iverson stepped over Tyronn Lue. But once Ryan got to the NFL, he became obsessed with Bryant’s Mamba Mentality. When Ryan broke his leg in 2018, he walked off the field like Kobe walked off the court—though Ryan said he was not channeling his idol on purpose. “I just thought I sprained my ankle,” Ryan said. Once he got to the sideline, they told him it was (very) broken.

For athletes used to locker-room camaraderie and teamwork, rehab is lonely. “I just feel like I’m letting other people down,” Ryan said about being injured. He dove into the Kobe scripture for his recovery. Ryan began waking up at 4 a.m. so he could squeeze in a third workout every day while not taking time away from his children. Ryan said the mindset he learned from Bryant goes beyond football.

“That’s what the Mamba Mentality is about. It’s not just, like I said, football,” Ryan said. “It’s how I wake up and am as a husband: attentive and alert and there for my wife and listening and [trying] to be better. And same with my kids and everything. It’s trying to be my best in every aspect.”

Ryan returned from that broken leg in 2019 and managed to become just the third NFL player in the 21st century to have at least four interceptions, four sacks, and four forced fumbles in a single regular season. In the playoffs, Ryan and the Titans traveled to New England, where Ryan had won two Super Bowls with the Patriots. He intercepted Tom Brady’s final pass as a New England Patriot and returned it for a touchdown, eliminating the Patriots from the playoffs and ending the Brady era in Foxborough. It’s quite the career for a third-rounder picked in 2013—especially one who says he isn’t a naturally confident person.

“It’s a lot of work for that confidence,” Ryan said. “I just believe in Kobe’s lifestyle.”

Tim Grover was Jordan’s trainer for 15 years and then began working with Kobe in 2007. Jordan, recognizing Kobe’s aptitude for greatness, shared some of his secrets with Kobe, and Grover was one of them. In more than a decade together, Grover had an up-close look at the Mamba Mentality in action.

“[The Mamba Mentality] is an unwavering belief in something that you actually got a chance to touch and see and witness,” Grover said. “It gives you that unwavering faith and ability in yourself. No matter what happens, you can overcome it.”

Grover said many younger players struggle with this complete dedication to their craft, especially NBA players who are younger millennials or part of Gen Z.

“The Mamba Mentality is not for everyone,” Grover said. “I’ve seen the Mamba Mentality destroy a lot of careers. It’s literally all-consuming. But when you have those kinds of injuries, whether it’s ACL, Achilles, shoulders, whatever it is, in order to come back, you have to be all-consuming.”

Not only is the Mamba Mentality a blueprint for the obsessed, but it’s also a catchall for those seeking confidence. It’s even more important considering that when an athlete is physically injured, their mental state can be harmed too. That can be a loss of trust or confidence in their body, an anxiety or fear of reinjury, or a preoccupation with the injury preventing them from focusing on execution, according to Dr. Jim Taylor, a sports psychologist who has written two books on the psychology of injury. Confidence, like a muscle, must be trained, Taylor said.

“Confidence allows you to maximize whatever ability you have,” Taylor told The Ringer. But unlike other muscles, the training is not tangible. In strength training, an athlete can look at the plates on the bar they are lifting to see how strong they are. But the mind isn’t tangible. Measuring our own confidence is difficult. Summoning mental strength is less exact than physical strength.

For many, it can be easier to conjure confidence by borrowing the confidence we see in others. Think of Steph Curry listening to a Drake song before a game, then Drake watching that game and being inspired to write a lyric about Steph Curry. Rap is the most obvious source of pregame confidence, but we borrow confidence from many kinds of art. That could mean athletes picturing themselves as Batman or Heath Ledger’s Joker when they step onto the field, much like Bryant did on the night he scored 61 points against the New York Knicks in February 2009. Bryant told the Knuckleheads podcast in 2019 that watching The Dark Knight inspired him to go into “Garden Mode”—a nod to the Knicks’ legendary home arena, Madison Square Garden. But the character Kobe inhabited the most was the Black Mamba, and then he shared this persona with the world.

Taylor, the sports psychologist, said taking on alter egos gives people a mental shortcut to tap into other aspects of themselves. “The more you can take psychological things and turn them into tangible things or beings, it’s more manageable,” Taylor said. “A character means you don’t have to think about all this deep psychological stuff. You just say, ‘There’s that character.’” Decision-making becomes simpler; simply channel how you think that person would react—exactly what Ryan implored Prescott to do.

Bryant’s method of facing impending surgery and rehab turned out to be exactly the answer Prescott was searching for as he rode off the field that October day in 2020.

Prescott’s injury came during one of the most trying periods of his life off the field and one of the most successful stretches of his career on it. His brother, Jace, took his own life in April 2020, and Prescott spoke publicly about how challenging that experience had been on his own mental health, particularly while in the midst of the isolating COVID-19 pandemic.

He entered that season amid ongoing, and somewhat contentious, contract negotiations with the Cowboys, and he appeared to be making good on his decision to make a financial bet on himself and not settle for a team-friendly deal, as he threw for more than 450 yards in three straight games from weeks 2 through 4, along with 8 total touchdowns in that span.

The injury jeopardized all of it—his stellar season and his potential future earnings. It ripped him from his day-to-day football routines and forced him to press pause. With a lot of newfound time on his hands, Prescott dove into the books Ryan sent him and became a full-fledged believer in the Mamba Mentality. He bought into the all-consuming nature of rehab that Grover details in his book. He chose to embrace any surrounding negativity—about his injury, his future contract, and even his own self-doubts—and used it as fuel. It was natural to feel angry about what had happened to him on the field that October day, and Bryant’s writing taught him to channel that emotion into something productive.

“The Mamba Mentality,” Prescott said, “means to get on your dark side. … Feed off of that, invest more into that. Know that that’s why you are who you are.”

But as Grover detailed in his book, such a thought process would leave little room for anything else in Prescott’s life for those 10 months.

“There’s no such thing as having a balance,” Prescott said about his takeaway from the reading. “Your balance is how much you care for what you’re doing, your focus on what you’re doing. The way you balance that is catching a break when you can. But there’s no true balance in a work life and a homelife.” His intense rehab worked. Prescott was back on the field for the Cowboys for the first game of the 2021 season, and he threw for 403 yards and three touchdowns that night in a loss to the Buccaneers, the reigning Super Bowl champions.

During the trying months that led to his return to health, Prescott frequently thought back to a night in January 2020, when he nearly met Bryant at a steak house in Newport Beach, California, where Bryant lived and where Prescott had been renting an offseason home. At dinner, Prescott was offered an introduction. He wanted to meet the Lakers legend, but he also understood the nature of celebrity, and Prescott didn’t want to intrude on Bryant while he was at dinner with friends or family. Besides, the house where Prescott was staying was less than a mile from Kobe’s home. They were bound to run into each other. So Prescott politely declined. One week later, Bryant died.

Prescott never got to meet his idol, but he could honor him through the way he played and worked. “I just moved forward, saying, ‘Hey, this is a guy that we all can admire in the ways that he lived and the way that he played the game: his intensity and passion,’” Prescott said. “I’m going to just do that as much as I can.”

That’s the mark of an enduring legacy—a mantra, a lifestyle, and a persona that has lived beyond Bryant. Logan Ryan is not the first person to ask, “What would Kobe do?” and he is also not the last.

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