By Karl Batungbacal

Growing up, there was always one story that I would tell to anybody who’d listen. At around a year old, before I could walk, I was shooting a foam ball into a laundry basket. My parents thought it was a premonition that I’d become a basketball player.

It was true in a way.

I became a student of the game around the time when the Phoenix Suns was running their 7-Seconds or Less offense and I was their biggest fan. I was hooked seeing Steve Nash’s long hair zip around the court with the ball in his hands, finding an open player for an easy basket. Amare Stoudamire was a dominant yet highly mobile center. Shawn Marion was a jack-of-all-trades. Raja Bell shot the lights out and Boris Diaw was a versatile forward. It felt like no one could stop them.

Enter the Mamba.

When it seemed like the Suns were about to enter the Finals this century, it was always either the San Antonio Spurs or Los Angeles Lakers that would close the door on them. They always ended the Suns’ runs to the Finals and I grew to hate both franchises for it. Growing up in the Philippines, every kid I knew was a Kobe fan and I didn’t know why. To me, he seemed so arrogant and braggadocios. Always yelling at his teammates, berating them on the court, I never saw the appeal of Kobe.

High school was a game changer for me. I found a role on our high school intramurals team as a 3-and-D player, not as compelling as a star player but I was happy with it. Yelling out instructions and communicating with my teammates, I was a vocal leader.

Whether I knew it or not, I started to imbibe Kobe’s on-court persona.

Being from an all-boys school, we spent countless hours comparing ourselves to our basketball heroes from the NBA and PBA. We had our own Kyrie Irving, Beau Belga, Ray Allen, even freakin’ Kobisaya (the Bisaya lookalike of Kobe that went viral in the country years back) was included in the mix. As for me, they had a hard time finding the right player because I wasn’t as skilled as them. I was more of an end of the bench guy. A glue guy, if you will. We were all given nicknames and a friend of mine whispered “Uy Black Mambito” before our flag ceremony. It caught on and needless to say, I took it and ran with it. “Black” because of how dark I was compared to most of my classmates (context: this was back in 2014 and we were in high school) and “Mambito” because I was a smaller Kobe. I used it for my social media handles and added a 24 at the end to fully own it.

As I progressed through life, I grew to love and appreciate Kobe. On his last legs as a Laker, I finally understood why people loved Kobe so much. He wasn’t braggadocious nor arrogant. He had an iron will to win and a supreme confidence that was never shaken. That’s why most of the guys in our college campus decided to use their limited cuts to watch the livestream of his final NBA game. I was one of those guys. From our org room, every time Kobe would score we would cheer and soon enough cheers could be heard from the cafeteria and other nearby org rooms. We were live-tweeting everything that happened as if our lives counted on it. When the buzzer finally sounded, only then did it dawn on me that Kobe, our generation’s GOAT was retiring. I was teary-eyed throughout his speech and that’s coming from someone who appreciated his greatness too late.

I made a vow that Kobe’s Mamba Mentality would become an integral part of who I am. I made it into my own. It became my thing but under a different guise: Shoot Your Shot. Whether it was in relationships, academics, sports writing, I always made it a point to take my chances and just shoot. Even if there was a low chance of it turning out good, there’s still a chance. It was inspired by Kobe’s turnaround fadeaway from the midrange, a shot that he’d take time and again whether it was considered a good shot or not.

Things weren’t supposed to end this way, not for one of the greatest players of the NBA, but fate has a twisted sense of humor. The Black Mamba may have passed on but he will forever be a part of me. The Black Mambito will always strive to live up to the example and standards that he set in hopes that I can inspire others to adopt the Mamba Mentality.

Arrogant? No, confident.

Braggadocious? No, determined.