Kobe Bryant: My Roots of Immigrant Belonging & Self Confidence

Artwork: Celeste Lecaroz

I honestly didn’t think the death of Kobe Bryant would hit me so hard. The first text I received was from a friend who wrote, “wow Kobe Bryant died” and I immediately assumed it was either another Kobe or that the real Kobe figuratively died perhaps laughing at some joke. We ultimately learned that along with Kobe and his daughter Gianna, there were 7 other lives that were horrifically lost in the helicopter crash on Sunday.

The strange thing was that throughout that Sunday and Monday at work, multiple reached out to me specifically to ask how I was doing. I received texts of “hope you’re hanging in there” and “Thinking about you today homie.” Colleagues stopped by my cubicle to check in and learn more about how I was coping with the tragedy.

Although most folks in New York know I’m from Los Angeles and grew up a Lakers fan and an admirer of Kobe Bryant, it was bizarre that I was being personally consoled and given support as if a family member passed away. However as much as I have tried, I mentally could not (and still cannot) get over the fact that Kobe is no longer alive.

Why am I so consumed by the passing of one of the greatest basketball players of all time? Yes, I’ve followed him most of my life but unlike millions of other fans, I’ve never owned a Kobe jersey, I don’t have his yearly stat lines memorized nor have I incorporated his style of play into my own game. Yet here I was, tearing up each day this past week, unable to resist watching video after video of souls pouring their hearts out about how the Black Mamba shaped their life.

The more I think about it, the more I realize Kobe, from the first time I remember seeing him on TV in the 2000 playoffs, gave me and so many other immigrant families something precious: the ability to take ownership of our own little piece of America.

Fellow children of immigrant parents will agree: growing up, there is plenty to the history and culture of America that does not get disseminated to us. From iconic oldies songs to classic movie dialogue, there was an entire lived experience of previous generations of this country that I was never privy to. Along with this, a certain cultural identity existed within our household that wasn’t found outside. My family and I could enjoy 90s Bollywood films (I used to think Kuch Kuch Hota Hai was the first Indian movie ever made), have desi food and speak our Urdu mother tongue as a family and perhaps with a few other family friends, but I could never truly utilize these same cultural customs to relate with friends at school or society at large. It was further difficult to own this culture as my own when the traditions of my family were essentially irrelevant to the outside world.

In the midst of these early years in my life, Kobe, Shaq and the Lakers came onto the scene in our home.

My first memory of a Lakers game was when we all watched the lob Kobe Bryant threw to Shaq in the 2000 Western Conference Finals against the Trailblazers. After hitting the dunk, you see Shaq running in celebration to the Lakers bench with both his arms raised and his fingers pointed to his son in the stands.

I distinctly remember my mom predicting that the front page of the LA Times the next day would be a picture of Shaq in that moment. I awaited the next day’s newspaper and was disappointed to find that there were apparently other more important things going on in the world to cover.

Since Kobe and Shaq’s first championship, my family was glued to the Lakers. If there was a game coming up, we checked the TV schedule in the newspaper to confirm we were available. If we had to be somewhere, we tuned into Lakers games through our radio. Their schedule became our schedule.

Whenever the Lakers faced the Kings, my mom and I yelled “Val-de Di-vac!” at the TV screen as a way to potentially distract one of the Kings’ best players, especially because there was a particular rivalry between Shaq and this player. We found out years later his name is actually Vlade Divac and that he used to be a Laker himself.

Whenever there was a closeup of Shaq on screen, my mom commented “it looks like he just took a shower.” I spent days reflecting upon this because in some games after only a minute of play, Shaq would be sweating profusely. I then imagined myself as Shaq whenever I took a shower.

In 2004, I was upset that I was stuck at the mosque (still regret it) when Derek Fisher hit his 0.4 second shot against the Spurs. I came home to my mom and sister who were so excited to explain what happened play-by-play. Inside, the anger (and what we now call FOMO) was real because it meant a missed opportunity to proudly proclaim my Laker fandom.

Whenever the games got close, my family stood up close to the television screen, hoping that our increased presence would provide our players the extra support they’d need to pull a win. If the Lakers fell behind several points, we changed the channel thinking that not watching would help them make a comeback.

My mother began to utilize the Lakers as a parallel in other aspects of her life. She compared the Lakers’ habit of building up a good lead, needlessly losing it due to “laziness”, falling behind, and then barely making it to the end only to pull off an incredible win to my sister. (I still find this hilarious because it was highkey brutal). But yes, just like the Lakers, my sister could always pull off a W no matter the ups and downs.

I am in awe of the number of memories I have not just of the Lakers games themselves but also the reactions and the comments of my family, particularly my parents, that were tied to each play. Reflecting back, this was the first time I was connecting with them through a piece of culture that existed fluidly within and without our home. The same emotions of joy I felt with my mother and father at home when we saw the Lakers win their first championship could easily be brought with me to the outside world where I could see others finding happiness and meaning in those same moments. I saw Lakers flags clipped to the top of people’s car windows, friends at school trading Lakers cards (my first card was a Shaq card and I explicitly remember that his listed height was 7’1” and weight was 310 lbs — truly The Big Aristotle) and stores decorated in purple and gold. With each display, I felt like my family and I belonged a bit more.

We discovered a piece of American culture that we could uniquely claim as our own. We lived in Los Angeles and regardless of my parents’ immigrant background and my experience in an immigrant household with different cultural norms, we were undoubtedly entitled to being Lakers fans. It’s what gave us the opportunity to further connect with the world we lived in. We may have not known the former Laker greats that preceded this era or had deep knowledge of each championship LA had already won, but that never precluded us from celebrating the Lakeshow.

It also meant we had a special claim to Shaq and Kobe that no one else did.

Especially to Kobe Bean Bryant.

After Shaq was traded to the Heat and many of the original players of the 3-peat championship team left the Lakers, Kobe remained that player and icon that reminded me of how much the Lakers helped to make me feel a sense of belonging. With each bucket Kobe made and each record he broke, I could feel prouder and stand taller knowing this was my team and my player.

To build upon this love of basketball, I joined our City League basketball team in 2004. Although I was never amazing, each moment playing basketball meant I could better relate to Kobe. I still remember the day when I mastered how to dribble between my legs in our driveway. One step closer to Kobe.

When watching teammates and opponents play, we all judged them on how close they resembled Kobe. That fadeaway is great because it looks like Kobe’s. That was a clutch shot because it’s just like Kobe. Dropping double digits in a game was commendable because it reminded us of Kobe. His game would interact with every part of our basketball experience and by evoking his name, we built entire communities and reaffirmed our connection to greatness.

As Kobe continued to ascend, my lived memory of his career expanded. I saw him raise his first championship and his fifth. I bore witness to his buzzer beaters and crossovers. To his accomplishments and failures. I was upset when the ball wasn’t in his hands at the end of a game. I was upset when the ball remained only in his hands at the end of a game. Ultimately with each additional day of his career, I felt I knew him a little more and thus was more entitled to claim his success as my own. There were nights where I’d go to bed with increased confidence to take on the world the next day simply because Kobe earned us another win.

These memories translate into power. I can say “I was there when Kobe…” because there is influence in being a source of living breathing knowledge that can relay to others the emotional experience of each of those iconic moments. It is through these emotions of both happiness and disappointment that I built an entire relationship with Kobe. Belonging, community, basketball, victory, defeat — all became synonymous with his name and presence.

March 2013: Joseph’s and my reaction to Bryant’s game-tying shot vs. the Raptors on the radio

The beautiful part about Kobe’s legacy is that it exists as a gold mine. The older I grow, the more maturity I have to dig deeper to discover new wisdom from his life that transforms the understanding of my own.

Given my experience as a minority in America, there is one thing in particular I’ve increasingly valued about Kobe: he possessed a deep conviction in himself that enabled him to be fearless (one of the five pillars of Mamba Mentality). It was through this fearlessness that he proved the world wrong:

When Kobe airballed four times in the 1997 Playoffs and people doubted if he could ever truly be great, his answer was three championships a couple years later. I was so used to us winning that I forgot we could ever lose. The day after our loss to the Spurs in the 2003 Playoffs, I distinctly remember the front page of the LA Times was a picture of the back of Kobe walking solo to his locker room — beginning his journey to fight again.

When people questioned whether Kobe’s first 3-peat with Shaq was due to his own contributions or to Shaq carrying the team, he went on a scoring tear through several seasons, winning two scoring titles, dropping 50+ points in four straight games and putting up his iconic 81 points against Toronto.

When Kobe and the Lakers lost to the Celtics in the 2008 Finals and the public questioned whether the Lakers could ever come back to win it all, Kobe responded with not just one but two championships, the second being a revenge win against the Celtics themselves.

When Kobe tore his Achilles in 2013 and people speculated if he would ever return from arguably the worst type of injury a player could experience (especially after this heartbreaking postgame interview), he gathered himself, went through a grueling recovery process and returned for another three seasons.

When Kobe’s last game was approaching and the public speculated as to how well he could perform in his final act, he dropped 60 points for the world to bear witness to.

He proved everyone wrong not because he specifically sought to dismantle people’s opinions about him, but because his ultimate goal was above people’s wildest imaginations. In his pursuit for what he knew to be true excellence, doubters were proven wrong along the way, but they were never the focus.

This is the epitome of personal confidence. You’re so convinced in your own values and beliefs that you’re willing to carry out your vision, regardless if people cheer you or put you down, because ultimately they do not know the success you’re after. They cannot understand your purpose and you aren’t compelled to prove the validity of your existence. It’s the conviction in yourself that never stops you.

It’s why Kobe says, “the greatest fear we face is ourselves.” To dream beyond what anyone has ever told you and then chase after that dream is horrifying. It’s frightening to fail after investing your life into something, but for the Black Mamba, it’s even worse to convince yourself to never try.

As a Muslim South Asian in this country, I often feel compelled to prove people wrong. I feel compelled to prove people wrong about what they think about my faith, my culture and my personal practices. I feel pressured at times to fit the right mold in certain spaces so that my way of life is palatable enough for others to understand and feel comfortable around. It gets exhausting. It’s fascinating however, how much Kobe has given to me in this regard. I cannot even begin to count the number of times I’ve felt isolated in a certain environment and with the simple invocation of Kobe’s name and the Lakers, instant connections are formed with people who otherwise struggled to simply see me as another human. Over the years, I’ve had entire discussions and arguments with co-workers, waiters and Uber drivers on the legacy of Kobe Bryant. It was through this sense of belonging I received as a Lakers fan that the rest of the world around me felt a little bit more relatable and I felt a little less excluded.

But as I sit here typing, having already cried multiple times while writing this, I think more deeply about Kobe’s Mamba Mentality and I hope to channel it into my own life one day: to be firm and strong in the person I am not for the purpose of dismantling someone’s misconceptions about me, but because my vision for success will never be defined by their concerns. Kobe identifies with the Black Mamba because it attacks without provocation. So too do I hope to proactively be and act, independent of what the world has to say or spew in return. I have not been placed in this universe to address people’s worries and fears but to establish my own legacy that will push them to question their own perceptions about me. I also need to be comfortable, just as Kobe was, with the reality that there will be some people who will never understand why I do what I do, even after my time is up and I leave this world.

What aches my heart the most is that Kobe left this world too early. I cannot speak to Divine Wisdom and as to why God chose for Kobe, his daughter Gigi and the other victims on that plane to return back to Him so soon. Part of me wants to believe perhaps God needed us to reflect more critically on the life of Kobe Bryant to recognize that he had something special to share with humanity. This past week, I’ve stumbled upon story after story from athletes, celebrities and people globally who have expressed how Kobe touched their lives. I continue to learn more about his impact and it further deepens the belonging, the success and confidence I felt through him.

In recognizing the entirety of Kobe’s legacy, it is necessary to acknowledge he was imperfect. He was charged with sexual assault. I pray that the survivor and her loved ones are doing well and have been able to find support in their healing process. His efforts to do and be better do not excuse his grave wrongdoing nor the trauma inflicted upon another soul, but it gives me reason to believe that people can at least begin to be better than their worst deed if they actively choose to reflect upon their actions. Kobe’s love for his wife and his daughters reminded many of us how much more of a person he was beyond a basketball player. In the past couple of years, it was inspiring hearing Kobe discussing his plans for Gigi and her team that he coached. He developed a 6-year plan for them to ensure they acquired an entire range of basketball skills before entering into the WNBA. It remains a wonder what Kobe, with his fame and influence, could have done for female athletes and women’s basketball. This is a wake-up call for other prominent male athletes as well as males in general that we too can utilize our privilege and positions to support women and bring light to the issues of disparate treatment which undoubtedly still exist in every field and industry.

I’ve spent several hours on this piece and part of me contemplates whether I spent too much time grieving over the death of Kobe Bryant. There’s a voice internally that thinks, ‘atrocities continue to happen both locally and abroad and here you are crying because an influential figure passed away. Should you not also be as emotionally and mentally moved by instances of oppression and persecution against those far less privileged as you are moved by this?’ This thinking is undoubtedly idealistic, but I believe that through this process of critical reflection on Kobe’s impact on my life, I will derive newfound strength and commitment towards the legacy I want to build, not defined by anyone else but myself. It is a legacy built on fearlessness — a fearlessness to intentionally learn from and better support the continuously neglected in our country and around the world whom others are too fearful to acknowledge.

In reflecting on the tragedy last Sunday, I think about the other lives lost that day: baseball coach John Altobelli, his spouse, Keri, their daughter Alyssa, Mamba Academy coach Christina Muaser, mother and daughter Sarah and Payton Chester, and pilot Ara Zobayan. I’ve only begun to learn more about their stories. Although it’s sad to think that I may have never known who they were before this crash, they too have a legacy for the world to know. There’s more for me to learn and I pray their families are granted ease during this time of tragedy.

To Vanessa, Natlia, Bianka, and Capri: I pray you all are given the appropriate space and privacy to grieve as well as the strength and support to move forward, “one foot in front of the other” as he would always say. I’m sure it has not been easy.

And lastly, to Kobe:

Kobe, you have changed my life. Thank you for exemplifying for me what it truly means to believe in yourself. I cry knowing the story you were writing was cut short, but I’m grateful that your legacy will continue to live on through all of us who watched you, followed you, and admired your fearlessness in all that you did. My initial love of basketball was because of you, Shaq and the Lakers and although I never channeled any of your moves into my game, I do find myself often making this face of yours whenever the game is heating up (sometimes it’s because I’m running out of breath but regardless, Mamba Mentality.) Thank you for being the reason why my family and I could find belonging in this country, for giving me the confidence to talk to strangers who questioned my presence, for challenging my own ideas of how to define success and for setting an example of what it means to improve oneself after a serious transgression. There’s still so much about you I don’t know and will never know, but rest assured the wisdom you have left behind in your legacy will be passed down to the people around me, to our children and to future generations.

Lastly, you always told people to dream beyond what is imaginable. Yesterday, the students in my class, all of whom were born during or after the year you won your 5th championship, decided themselves to dedicate our whiteboard to you and your daughter. They were only beginning to know you, but they too felt connected to you and saw themselves in Gigi. I’d like to think you impacted this world beyond what you could have ever imagined.

-Afraz Khan

For folks who want to read more about how deeply Kobe impacted the friends I grew up with back in Los Angeles, read the following pieces:

Dear Kobe — Uday Mehta

Farewell Black Mamba — Loren Colcol

Overrated Ep. 43: Remembering Kobe Bryant