IN THE ISH: Kobe Bryant – the killa in Manila

KOBE

This article appears in SLAM PH #201

The Araneta Coliseum hung a banner on their rafters celebrating Kobe Bryant’s basketball legacy. Across the way, on the only other banner hanging in the historic dome, The Thrilla in Manila sways immortal. Ali. Frazier. Mamba. Men who took the country by storm. During his latest trip, Kobe again brought the thunder. Lakers die-hard Enzo Marcos was there, chasing the tornado.

Let me just start off by saying I am a huge Lakers fan. I have been all my life. Early on in my Lakers-loving life, I hated Kobe. Yes, I hated Kobe. “Who is this guy?” I thought to myself. “Does he really think he can lead my Lakers to a championship? We let go of Vlade Divac for this cocky ball hog? We already have Eddie Jones! (Eddie Jones is still one of my favorite Lakers ever) We don’t need Kobe. Why is he clashing with Shaq? Why is he such a jerk?”

That hate did not last long. Soon, I went out and got his shoes. I tried to copy that crossover, emulate that fadeaway. I watched him raise banners at Staples. He became my favorite player, but one thing did not change: he was still a jerk.

That made being a Kobe Bryant fan difficult. It was like cheering for the villain. He was undoubtedly one of the most polarizing figures the NBA has ever seen. A hero to Lakers fans, the ultimate villain to everyone else. A buddy to teammates that displayed the same competitive drive, a nemesis to teammates that showed even an ounce of laziness in practice.

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Fast-forward to 20 years later and I’m sitting in the historic Araneta Coliseum, for Day 1 of Nike’s Mamba Mentality Tour. There is a certain buzz in the air. A tangible energy. Everyone waiting to see the legend. And just to add a bit more hype to the moment, the country’s Kobe equivalent, (aggressive, unapologetic, excellent) DJ-drummer duo Motherbass was brought in as the orchestra to play as the clouds opened to reveal the return of this country’s basketball god.

As the music played, MC Paolo Avila went through Kobe’s various accolades in a way that only he could, in a way that Kobe himself played: in your face, strong yet smooth, the crowd sitting on his palm. Five-time NBA Champion, two-time NBA Finals MVP, NBA League MVP, etc. It sent the crowd into a frenzy. The stage turned and he stepped into the spotlight. As sparklers fell from the ceiling, he smiled and greeted the crowd. He waved and was met with the same roars he heard in Staples Center, maybe louder even (gulp). The whole event seemed otherworldly, like it was a scene from a movie. Fitting for a personality like Kobe.

As the lights died down, the first thing I noticed was how relaxed he looked. Now I know that may not be the biggest statement, given that he’s been practically living in pressure-packed situations his entire career, but watching him over the years, you sort of get used to seeing him with his game-face on. Seeing him this relaxed and jovial was incredible. Bryant, a man who unapologetically says that he doesn’t have friends, was waving at his fans, and smiling and joking around with the event’s host, Aaron Atayde, who himself, Kobe-esque, fought laryngitis and a burning fever to rise and deliver. They discussed the Mamba mentality. “The Mamba Mentality for me, means that there’s a quest that you’re on to try to be the best version of yourself” he said. “It’s about waking up every single morning and approaching that day as if it’s the last day you have. It’s about doing everything you can to be the best possible version of yourself every single day”

“What do you love to do? Once you find what you love to do, you obsess about it. You think about it all the time! It becomes a part of who you are.” he said “I can’t wait to get up and start training”

That’s what the Mamba Mentality is all about. The thing about Kobe is he has thrown down the gauntlet not just for basketball players, but for everyone!

Rough day in the office? Plow through it! #MambaMentality.

Bills are piling up? Take care of it! #MambaMentality.

Don’t feel like working out? Kobe hit free throws with a torn achilles! #MambaMentality.

He’s not just a basketball star, but a pop culture force.

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The man’s career has spawned a bevy of characters: The young, cocky upstart, the heartless gunslinger, the Black Mamba. Characters fueled by competition. Obsessed with winning. But for the next thirty-some minutes, Kobe presented a character that is rarely seen by a huge audience: Kobe the teacher. He talked passionately, seriously. He coached his team like it was Game 7 of The Finals.

Kobe was tasked to lead a team full of UAAP stars against a team of PBA veterans. We’ve all heard the stories. Teammates and rivals have talked about it. Kobe Bryant takes competition very seriously. And that game was no different. The PBA squad scored an easy basket on the first possession and Kobe quickly called a timeout. In the huddle we got a glimpse of that competitive nature, “You guys know how I play, right? Hard every time, right? Look around you. Lotsa people here. Don’t waste our time! If you’re gonna go out there and play, play for real!” At one point in the game, he even resorted to covering his mic to keep his tactics (maybe even the language) from the opposing team.

There was a cast of different players. Players that I look up to, all of them reduced to fan boys in the presence of Kobe. “Iba yung feeling na si Kobe mismo yung nasa sidelines. Siya yung coach mo.” said Mike Tolomia.

After the game was over, Manila had a surprise in store for Kobe. His jersey would be retired. His number would be hoisted into the rafters. Now this is usually a ceremony held by a team to honor their star player. In a country that treats basketball like religion, it seemed like the perfect way to honor someone who could be considered a basketball deity.

When those cellphone lights started glimmering and the banner was revealed, people were crying, swaying, raising up their hands. I was definitely one of them. It was impossible not to be overcome by emotions as the moment unfolded in front of us. Here we are, a thousand miles away from Los Angeles, paying tribute to our favorite player. It all seemed so surreal.

By the end of the ceremony, after his No. 24 was raised into the rafters, right across the “Thrilla in Manila” Banner, Kobe Bryant was on the court, under the glow of thousands of cellphones and lighters, smiling and hearing his name chanted — ” “Kobe! Kobe! Kobe!”

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“Thank you so much for inspiring me on this journey,” Kobe said. “I started playing basketball when I was two years old. I never would have imagined in my wildest dreams everything that came after.”

I can’t speak for all of the fans gathered there that night, but for me, the moment felt like The NBA Finals. It felt like my hero won another one for us. Kobe had raised yet another banner.

That man that night represents a collision of two iconic iterations: Kobe Bryant the villain. And Kobe Bryant the hero. He knew his roles well; when you play for as long as he has, it becomes second nature. But there was something different witnessing all of this in person. There was a difference between Kobe the idea, Kobe my idol and Kobe the man standing right in front of us. Kobe, the global icon became Kobe the man who loves Manila.

For a man that wasn’t exactly known for passing, he assisted a whole country by leaving the fans with one reminder: “If I can leave anything with you guys,” he said, “it’s to understand that dreams do come true. I would love for everyone here to make sure that they follow their dreams make sure they work hard every single day. Make today better than yesterday and your dream will come true as well.”

He may be done in the NBA, but he promised his Filipino fans that he’d be back in Manila.

We needed Kobe. We still do.

As I was left the Coliseum, I couldn’t help but pinch myself as I realized that that was just the first day! What else did The Mamba have in store for all of us on Day 2? I would soon find out.

Kobe once again took on the role of teacher on Day 2 of the Mamba Mentality Tour, leading training sessions with 24 extremely lucky basketball players. Let that sink in for a moment, these kids got to go through training sessions with The Mamba himself. Anyone that follows Kobe Bryant even on a casual level, knows that his training sessions are the stuff of legend. He starts at 4AM, pushes himself to the very limit of human ability, and is an absolute perfectionist. If the kids thought that he would take it easy on them, they were wrong. He made the kids go through the drills and he made them complete each and every one with 100% effort.

After the drills, he told the whole group to choose one shooter among the bunch. The kids chose Kat Tan. Now, some of you may have heard of her. She lost her arm in an accident when she was 10 years old. The challenge was for Kat to hit a three-pointer. A make and everyone could go home, a miss and it meant everyone but her would run more drills. In the ultimate display of #MambaMentality, Kat took on the challenge.

She stepped to the line and Kobe passed her the ball. “If you don’t wanna take the shot, you can make someone else do it.” Kobe said. Unfazed, she lined up the shot, released, and hit!

NOTHING BUT NET. Everyone in the gym went crazy, including Kobe!

“That is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen!” he said as they gathered for one last huddle.

In the days following his retirement, I kicked myself for never going to see him play live. I can’t claim to have seen him play in the NBA, but I was there when his number was retired in Manila. I was there when cellphones lit up Araneta as Kobe smiled in appreciation. I was there when Kat Tan amazed him with her shot.

In many ways, this will mean so much more to me in the long run.

When asked about what he his immediate plans were for the future, Kobe said he’d be telling stories. Stories through books, movies and videos.

My passion is making films, and I truly believe I will work with Kobe Bryant on a film one day. #MambaMentality.

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