Below is an excerpt from Mamba Mentality, the forthcoming book by Kobe Bryant and legendary NBA photographer Andrew D. Bernstein. The book pairs Kobe’s personal memories with Bernstein’s award-winning photos. Published by MCD Books, Mamba Mentality will be available on Oct. 23, 2018.
I remember when, as a kid, I got my first real basketball.
I loved the feel of it in my hands. I was so enamored with the ball that I didn’t actually
want to bounce it or use it, because I didn’t want to ruin the pebbled leather grains or
the perfect grooves. I didn’t want to ruin the feel.
I loved the sound of it, too. The tap, tap, tap of when a ball bounces on the hardwood.
The crispness and clarity. The predictability. The sound of life and light.
Those are some of the elements that I loved about the ball, about the game. They were at
the core and root of my process and craft. They were the reasons I went through all that I went through, put in all that I put in, dug as deep as I dug.
It all came back to that special tap, tap, tap that I first grew infatuated with as a boy.
My balance, as a young player, is off.
Just look at the dichotomy between us, starting with posture. Michael is standing straight from the waist up. He’s not leaning in either direction, and because of that he is balanced and centered. He is in control of his body, and the play.
Compare all that to my defense. Now, I’m using my forearm to thrust weight into his back, just like they teach it. Unfortunately, that’s about all I’m doing right. I’m leaning forward, which is a major no-no, and putting too much pressure on him. That alone, by dint of gravity, causes me to be off-balance. As a result, one move by Michael, one decisive spin right or feint left, would throw me off and give him room to either shoot or spin off of me. This defense is definitely no bueno.
Thankfully, I actually saw this photo back in 1998. After studying it, I corrected my posture and balance. After that, it was a lot harder to operate against me in the post.
Allen Iverson was small, but he was also incredible.
My philosophy was to use my height advantage and shoot over the top of him. I don’t need to try anything, I don’t need to go anywhere, I don’t need to try to back him down. I’ll just shoot over him, because I can get a clean look.
What I’m talking about is not the same as settling for a jumper. When Allen was covering me, I’d receive the ball in favorable locations, in attacking positions like the mid-post, because he couldn’t stop me from catching a pass.
But couldn’t I have caught it even closer, maybe in the post? Couldn’t I have taken him off the dribble from 25 feet out? Maybe, but that wouldn’t have been smart.
I chose not to catch the ball in the post, because the Sixers would have just fronted and trapped me. I could have squared up and dribbled, but they would have helped and trapped in that situation, too. By catching it on the elbow or mid-wing, I mitigate all of these schemes, because they couldn’t front me on the pass and I didn’t need to dribble to get an open look over the top of him.
I wouldn’t say my leadership style changed over the years.
I liked challenging people and making them uncomfortable. That’s what leads to introspection and that’s what leads to improvement. You could say I dared people to be their best selves.
That approach never wavered. What I did adjust, though, was how I varied my approach from player to player. I still challenged everyone and made them uncomfortable, I just did it in a way that was tailored to them. To learn what would work and for who, I started doing homework and watched how they behaved. I learned their histories and listened to what their goals were. I learned what made them feel secure and where their greatest doubts lay. Once I understood them, I could help bring the best out of them by touching the right nerve at the right time.
I always aimed to kill the opposition. The main thing LeBron and I discussed was what constitutes a killer mentality. He watched how I approached every single practice, and I constantly challenged him and the rest of the guys.
I remember there was one half when we were messing around. I came into the locker room at half-time and asked the guys—in a less PG manner—what in the hell we were doing. In the second half, LeBron responded in a big way—he came out with a truly dominant mindset. And I’ve seen him lead that way ever since.