Mamba Mentality & the Pedestal we Put our Idols on

Bryan Boanoh ’25 (Sports Editor, 144th Board) in Sports | May 10, 2024

          The late great Kobe Bryant was one of the greatest basketball players of all time, as evidenced by his five National Basketball Association (NBA) championships, two Finals MVP (Most Valuable Player) awards, one regular season MVP, and 33,643 career points, good enough for fourth most in the NBA history. Additionally, his influence is unparalleled, with many modern NBA superstars, most notably Jayson Tatum and Devin Booker, modeling their own playstyles off of the former Lakers Shooting Guard. Bryant famously went by the self-given nickname “The Black Mamba”, in reference to both the venomous snake and the protagonist of the film Kill Bill. Bryant adopted the alter ego in order to reinvent himself, saying “When I step on that court, I become [that alter ego]. I am that killer snake. I’m stone cold, man.” Throughout his illustrious career, Bryant gained a reputation for having a legendary, near-psychotic work ethic. He was also known for his unwavering self-confidence, routinely trusting himself in the biggest moments over his teammates, for better or for worse. These traits of Bryant’s came to embody a term known as “Mamba Mentality,” which can be best described as a sense of coolness under pressure and an unrivaled, tenacious desire to improve.

          For the longest time, I thought that the popularization of the term Mamba Mentality was the single worst thing to ever happen to the game of basketball.

          First of all, many real-life applications of Mamba Mentality are just examples of being a bad person. As previously stated, Bryant would routinely call his own number in clutch moments rather than trust his own teammates. This expression of Bryant’s “elite mentality” actually has a much more apt description: ball hogging. There are numerous clips and photos on the Internet of Bryant taking jump shots over three or more defenders instead of simply passing the ball. It got to the point where his own teammates would stop expecting him to pass the ball in the late stages of a close game. In a post-game interview, after Bryant deferred to Ron Artest, Bryant’s teammate, in the waning moments of Game Seven of the 2010 NBA Finals, Artest famously said, “He never passes me the ball…and he passed me the ball! Kobe Bryant passed me the ball!” 
Artest proceeded to hit the shot, effectively ending the game and securing the championship for the Lakers.

          Through the sheer volume of game-winners and clutch shots he amassed over the course of his career, Bryant has gained a reputation as an elite clutch-time performer. But the stats seem to contradict the legend of Bryant’s “clutch gene.” In the playoffs, Bryant had an Effective Field Goal percentage (EFG%) of 42.2 in clutch situations. While this number isn’t objectively terrible, it looks worse when one considers that it is a seven percent drop off from his 49.2 EFG% in “non-clutch” playoff situations. Bryant’s clutch time shooting numbers look even worse when compared to those of his peers, such as Michael Jordan (~46.6 EFG%), and LeBron James (51.2 EFG%). Bryant has flamed out in many high-pressure situations, such as the 2004 NBA Finals: With the series tied 1-1 after two games, Bryant proceeded to average 18 points per game over the next three games, hitting only 32 percent of his shots and 17 percent of his three-point shots. 

          Thanks to Bryant’s “elite”  mentality, the Lakers lost all three games.

          But the most frustrating part about Mamba Mentality becoming such a popular term is how it has seemingly become an expectation amongst NBA fans. Current NBA players are accused of “lacking a killer instinct” if they defer to their teammates in high-pressure situations. Players who sit out and refuse to play through an injury are called “soft.” Kobe didn’t skip games for rest fans say after seeing their favorite players nursing an injury. Man, injuries suck. I wish my favorite player could’ve played in the playoffs, these same fans proceed to say when an overabundance of games leads to their favorite players suffering injuries. 

          The deification of our favorite athletes has allowed the legend of Bryant’s mentality to continue to grow long after the culmination of his NBA career. During his playing days, Bryant was one of, if not the most, famous player in the league. Millions of kids grew up watching him score an obscene amount of points almost every night. His style of play was aesthetically pleasing. While players like Shaquille O’Neal were once-in-a-lifetime physical specimens and dominated by being bigger and stronger than their opponents, Bryant was different. His game was based on tight footwork and beautiful mid-range fadeaways. It made sense that he became perhaps the most idolized player of all time: He was better than almost everybody, yet his level of skill felt achievable through enough practice on the basketball hoop in your driveway. It’s impossible not to respect Bryant’s insatiable drive to be the best. Again, he is a hero to many current NBA players, and his influence is truly unmatched.

          We rarely want to acknowledge that our heroes have flaws. It may be true that Bryant missed countless clutch shots, but one buzzer-beater lives in the memory of a young child longer than any amount of misses. Bryant failed to rise to the occasion in more playoff games than we wish to admit, but I’ll be damned if that iconic image of him standing on the scorer’s table in Staples Center after winning his fifth championship isn’t seared into my memory. There’s a reason so many people base their opinions and rankings of players on whether or not they had the same entirely arbitrary and unquantifiable love for the big occasion that Bryant had.  Nike makes entire advertisement campaigns around the idea of Mamba Mentality because millions of kids want to be Kobe Bryant.  
How can you expect someone to tear down the man they aspire to be one day?

          Because of this, all of Bryant’s failures fall away and all his shortcomings are forgotten. It isn’t selfish to take all the shots at the end of the game; it’s just Mamba Mentality. Bryant wasn’t a bad leader when he chastised and belittled his teammates; he just had a drive to win that is lost in today’s game. He just had a will to win. Man, I hate the modern NBA. none of these players have that “it” factor. None of them have that Mamba Mentality. 

          Previously, I hated the term “Mamba Mentality” because Bryant wasn’t actually the greatest clutch performer of all time. Sometimes he was a jerk to his teammates, and his on-court performance didn’t fully warrant the near cult-like following he garnered.

          Now, I realize that none of that matters. Our heroes and our idols aren’t remembered for the objective measure of their achievements; they’re remembered for the ways they inspire us, and they matter because of what they mean to us. If Bryant is the reason a kid achieves their dream of making it to the NBA or serves as the inspiration for someone to give their all with the intention of achieving something great, then who cares what numbers he averaged in a three-game stretch in 2004? Who cares if he didn’t pass the ball in certain moments? Who cares about his shooting percentages in the clutch?

          Truthfully, who even cares about basketball at that point?

          The late great Kobe “Black Mamba” Bryant was one of the greatest basketball players of all time. Not only was he a force on the court, but he serves as an inspiration for millions of people across the globe. The term “Mamba Mentality” was coined in reference to Bryant’s unrivaled desire to improve and his unreal coolness under pressure.

          I now believe that the popularization of the term “Mamba Mentality” is the best thing to ever come from the game of basketball.