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Mamba mission: How Kobe Bryant's immense legacy still influences today's superstars

(Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports illustration)

LaMelo Ball looked up, flung his shooting wrist and unleashed a smile that seemingly said it all — the effect of Kobe Bryant.

“You throw a little piece of paper in the sky and yell, 'Kobe!'” Ball told Yahoo Sports.

Ball isn’t someone who would’ve considered the late Kobe Bryant a big source of inspiration, but as a Southern California kid who was coming of age during the back end of Bryant’s prime — their birthdays are separated by a day, with Bryant born Aug. 23 and Ball a day before — he understood what Bryant meant to Los Angeles, to the NBA and to the culture.

“Legend for sure. Everybody loved Kobe. It’s Kobe, you know. Everybody knows what he did, how he did it. Respect. Legend,” Ball said.

The parallels are probably more coincidental than anything symbolic. Both come from basketball families, both were drafted by the Charlotte Hornets, although Bryant was sent to Los Angeles in a draft-night trade, and both are known for an unwavering confidence that oftentimes prevented them from acknowledging anyone else in the room, athletically.

Bryant’s cultural impact was birthed during his playing days, sprouted after his retirement but has seemingly multiplied since his death four years ago today.

The shooting bit started as a small clip on “Chappelle’s Show” in the early 2000s, then took on a life of its own soon after. Even WWE wrestler The Undertaker was seen shooting a piece of trash into a can and saying, “Kobe.”

It’s still eerie to remember Bryant was with us until that Sunday morning, when his helicopter crashed, killing him and eight others, including his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna. The night before, LeBron James was in Bryant’s hometown of Philadelphia, passing him on the all-time scoring list with a layup in the third quarter.

James got a text that night from Bryant once he made it to the locker room, congratulating him, and James went through the long, winding history of him admiring Bryant since the Adidas ABCD Camp in 2001, as a competitor going for NBA supremacy, then as a teammate on Olympic teams in 2008 and 2012.

“We just felt like he was immortal,” James said that night, referencing Bryant’s offensive repertoire.

Little did he know how prophetic those words would turn out to be, not just with what occurred some hours later, but as Bryant’s legend has grown exponentially from his passing.

“In my Moss household, it’s Mamba forever,” a tearful Randy Moss said a week later on ESPN. The NFL Hall of Famer connected the dots between Bryant being someone who idolized Michael Jordan, then emulated him and had the gall to believe he could surpass the legend almost universally recognized as the greatest NBA player ever.

“When I say Mamba forever, I'm a big Michael Jordan fan. I really am,” Moss said. “But when I say Mamba forever, man, say that Kobe Bryant to me, man … Kobe Bryant is the greatest basketball player that I’ve ever seen.”

These players never had to consider a world where Bryant didn’t exist — either as a competitor, mentor or basketball observer. It’s hard to imagine Bryant joining the daily chorus of basketball conversation, of overreactions and hot takes, but he wouldn’t have been far from the reach of the most impactful players.

Above all, he was a basketball evangelist and was going to spread the word of the game for all to see and hear. He walked the fine line of critiquing the game while still being a fan and exuding joy to the players who pushed it forward.

There are fewer and fewer players who actually shared a floor with Bryant, and the ones who did are trending toward graybeard status, like James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry. Some of the newer stars almost share a regret they can’t seek his counsel or get Bryant’s perspective on their games.

“I definitely wish he could’ve been a mentor to me."Timberwolves star Anthony Edwards

“He was one of a kind, there was nobody else like him. A lot of guys wanna play like him, but there will never be another Kob,” Minnesota Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards told Yahoo Sports last week. “But I’m happy to be in the same position as him, because to me he’s the second-greatest shooting guard of all time, behind Mike. It’s great to be in that quote-unquote tree.”

Edwards was drafted 10 months after Bryant passed, so Bryant is more ghost than human to him. More idea and idol than flesh and blood.

Earlier that evening, Edwards looked every bit the part of someone embracing playing the league’s glamour position — flying through the air and through half-court traffic for a highlight dunk that even satisfied himself.

One could even say he possessed a little Mamba Mentality.

“For him, he was always locked in. Work ethic was crazy,” Edwards said of Bryant.

Then his eyes lit up, referencing a clip of Bryant in the 2009 NBA Finals when the Lakers were up 2-0 on the Orlando Magic, but Bryant was stone-faced in the postgame news conference.

“Somebody asked him why he wasn’t smiling and he said, ‘Job’s not finished’. He was worried about the right things and he loved the game of basketball.”

Given Edwards’ standing, Bryant would’ve easily sought him out to give him pointers — and Edwards wishes that were the case.

“I definitely wish he could’ve been a mentor to me,” Edwards said. “He was that to a lot of people who are playing today. But unfortunately, things happen.”

Jayson Tatum is one, so is Giannis Antetokounmpo. They’ve both been in MVP discussions, with Antetokounmpo winning two; both have been to the NBA Finals, with Antetokounmpo leading the Bucks to a title in 2021 and Tatum’s Celtics being strongly favored to get there this year.

Tatum initially connected with Bryant following the Lakers legend's ESPN breakdown of Tatum's game during his rookie year in the 2018 Eastern Conference finals. Tatum said he watched the clips “20 times” and then later received an encouraging text from Bryant, saying if Tatum wanted to work out with him in the summer, Bryant’s door was open.

Tatum took him up on it, and the two developed a kinship.

"Fast-forward, now I'm 20 and I'm having a one-on-one interaction with him,” he said on JJ Redick’s “The Old Man and the Three” podcast. “Besides my son being born, that's like the best day of my life just to be in that gym with him and work out with him and learn some tips. I'll never forget that day, how I felt going into the workout, how I felt afterward. I just felt like that was the coolest thing ever for me. I'll never forget that."

Their games aren’t so similar stylistically, but one could see Bryant’s influence on Tatum as he developed into a more complete player — sometimes taking the tough shots only someone like Bryant could actually make.

Antetokounmpo’s game is even further from Bryant’s, more force than Bryant’s skill-based assault. But they seemingly possess a similar mindset of domination, which Bryant tapped into when he was issuing challenges over Twitter in 2017.

Antetokounmpo boldly asked for his challenge from Bryant and soon enough, Bryant simply replied, “MVP.”

“It just made me believe a guy like him could believe I could compete for MVP,” Antetokounmpo told Yahoo Sports. “I was amazed. I worked extremely hard, I always worked hard, but it was extra motivation. Because it was somebody I looked up to. I always played with a chip on my shoulder, like the world was against me.”

It took a full year but Antetokounmpo won his first MVP in 2019, when Bryant was still alive, and he followed it up with another in 2020 before fully completing the challenge the next year by winning Finals MVP.

When it was suggested his Mamba Mentality was playing with rage and that he doesn’t do it as often as he used to, Antetokounmpo smiled and said:

“I still play that way, I’m just able to control it now.”

That feels like the essence of Mamba Mentality.