Kobe Bryant isn’t my favorite player. That title goes to Kevin Durant.

Kobe Bryant isn’t the player I emulate my game from either. I’d like to believe I play like KD, but friends say I move more like Carmelo Anthony.

On January 27, 2020 (Philippine time) at 6:20 AM, I woke up with the words “Kobe Bryant 1978-2020” all over my social media feed. Kobe isn’t my favorite. Kobe isn’t the player I emulate. Yet somehow, whatever was left in my heart grew emptier and emptier with every post I’d read through.

I put my phone down to compose myself. But I looked up from my bed and a once familiar and meaningless view started to mean everything to me. The posters in my room, every single one of them had Kobe Bryant’s face on it.

My very first favorite player in basketball was Kobe Bryant. Why him? Honestly, I don’t know. I was too young to have a reason as to why he was my favorite. Even as a kid, I never tried to copy any of his mannerisms as a basketball player (maybe except the ball-hogging. Yeah, that one I copied from him). I simply liked him the most. As simple as that. And whatever a kid liked; his relatives would get him.

My grandma would buy me his jerseys whenever she’d come home from abroad. When we went to Paris in 2004, I proudly wore my white Kobe jersey in Disneyland. Back in the Philippines, my late grandfather and parents would buy me posters which had Kobe’s face in them. I even had a Lego mini-fig of Kobe with Shaq, and weirdly enough, Antoine Walker.

The items I had on hand would paint me as a mega-fan of Kobe. But I couldn’t say, that as a kid, he was my hero. I just liked him the most, but I couldn’t commit myself to loving him. In fact, a couple of years after that trip to Paris, I started to dislike him.

It all started when the Lakers traded away Shaq to the Miami Heat before the 2004-2005 season. In the eyes of that seven-year-old, Kobe had too much trust in himself. He was too arrogant. He really thought he could win without his big brother Shaq?

To add fuel to the fire, I became a fan of the Phoenix Suns and the Boston Celtics during the mid-00s. Their rival during that era; Kobe. Who was once my most liked player suddenly turned into the player I cheered against the most. I celebrated when Boston won in 2008. I was in tears when he eliminated the Phoenix Suns in 2010. He was the roadblock to the success of the teams I supported; a thorn which made life hard for a teenage kid who was finally starting to find reason and sense in basketball.

I learned then that basketball for me was an escape. It was an outlet for me to work hard outside of my academics and to develop whatever basketball talent I believe I had. And weirdly enough, despite my dislike for his style of play and even his defiance that he could win without Shaq, the work ethic I put into my game as a teenager was a direct influence of what Kobe brought to the table on a daily basis.

My mom wanted me to get eight hours of sleep, even during summer. I was defiant. I woke up at 5am to get shots up at the neighborhood basketball court.

My dad said I needed to play center because I was the biggest player on the court. I didn’t listen. I’d practice guard moves during those morning sessions with my cousin.

My classmates would ridicule me for posting live updates about my workouts when I was in High School. I didn’t care. I’d continue to tweet away just because it was my outlet.

It was who I was. I wanted to be the very first guy on the court during those summer mornings. I had an unreasonable belief for what little basketball talent I had. I loved to tell stories, even if I was ridiculed for it. Defiance. Confidence. Eloquence. Even though he was the player I did not like supporting, I couldn’t deny that a large part of my growth as a teenager came from Kobe.

The same posters I got as a kid with Kobe’s face on them? They never left my room. Even during the times when I disliked him, I never even considered replacing those posters with another player’s face. It wasn’t about liking or disliking about Kobe, it was about respect. It was about appreciation for the values he brought to me as a teenager who was finding his way in this crazy journey we call life. Even when Mamba Mentality wasn’t a thing yet, I already wanted to embody Mamba Mentality. In school, on the basketball court, or even in ridiculous hobbies such a board games. I couldn’t lose. I couldn’t go out without a fight, even if the fight I was in was a result of my own foolishness.

I may have had that Mamba Mentality as early as my teenage years, but I embodied it the most during 2019. Coming into that year, I was in the worst shape of my life. Literally.

I weighed a whopping 92 kilos on January 2019, which was the biggest number I’ve ever had on the scale. Despite warnings from my family the entire 2018 about my physical condition, I chose not to listen. I kept on eating a ton while limiting my workouts because of poor time management. I thought to myself, this is no problem. I’m a physical freak of nature anyway. Or so I thought.

I showed too much confidence. I had too much defiance. Because I had too much belief in my self-proclaimed physical gifts, I lost touch of who I was. Physically, my endurance and strength were terrible. Mentally, I had zero confidence in myself. I did not know where to start if I wanted things to change.

One day, I just decided to stand up. The next day, I started to move. The day after that, I headed towards the gym near our condominium and started lifting weights. It was the first time in my life I was actually going to lift weights for an entire workout. 

I always believed I was too good for that. I didn’t need that. But the very fact that I was uncomfortable showed that I had to lift those weights. I still had so much untapped potential inside me and I allowed my ego to swallow up room for improvement.

Defiance. Confidence. Eloquence. But an underrated quality of Mamba Mentality; hard work. So I kept it going, even after that first workout. Even when I felt lazy. Even when there would be sudden emergencies in school. I would simply find ways to get to the gym and lift some weights, as uncomfortable as it would make me feel.

It’s January 2020 now and to be honest, the number on the scale isn’t that much different from what I had a year ago. But what has changed has been my habits and my overall well-being. I make it a point to workout at least three times a week. Physically, I’m in the best shape of my life. From barely deadlifting 70 pounds, I’m close to deadlifting my body weight for reps. Mentally, despite the challenges life continues to throw at me, I remain defiant and find ways to get through. The start is always the most difficult, but when you simply stand up and move forward, it’s already a big win in itself. 

Defiance is what pushes you to start. Confidence is what keeps you going to the next level. Eloquence is what gets you to elite status. Hard work is what makes you a legend.

Kobe Bryant wasn’t my favorite nor did I model my game after him. Yet, these qualities remained ingrained in my mind all because of him. I had respect for him not only because he was a great basketball player, but because he helped make me the person I am today.

A few hours after I had woken up on January 27th, I found myself lying down inside my car scrolling through social media at 9:30 in the morning. My heart continued to bleed, but I needed to take it step by step.

I stood up from the car. I grabbed my bags. I went down to the gym and took a bath right after lifting so I could go to work. It was January 27th, a Monday. It was the first day of the work week. I needed to be defiant. I needed to be confident. I needed to be eloquent. Most importantly, I needed to work hard.

No days off. Even on the day the person who shaped my very being bid us farewell.

Mamba Mentality forever.