I’m not afraid to admit these last few days have been emotional for me.
January 26, at 21:35, I was finishing my daf of Talmud for the day, Brachot kaf gimmel (כ”ג:) (23). The discussion of the Rabbis on the particular daf was especially unsightly, and seemed to have taken a famous Rabbinic tangent, but I found it especially entertaining when imagining 6th century, 50 year old Rabbis sitting on the floor, legs criss-crossed, wearing tallit over their tunics, their tefillin shel rosh poking out from under their sudras, yelling at one another about types of toilets.
Another day, another daf. Another successful completion of a goal I set for myself on January 5th.
A few days after proposing to my now wife, I went to my yeshiva and told my Rav that I wanted to learn a tractate of Talmud to complete on our wedding day. Having been my Rav for many years, he knew my skills were less-than-honed, and recommended I learn the tractate Kiddushin (literally translated “marriage”), which only made me realize I was going to learn the longer, more complex tractate of Ketubot (about marriage contracts in Judaism). I wanted the challenge, and I knew that it would make our wedding day all the more special if I succeeded in completing something arguably “out of my league”. I did finish Ketubot and made a siyyum on the tractate at our wedding. It was one of my proudest accomplishments.
Which was why, as thousands of Jews around the world completed the entirety of shas (the entire Talmud), I decided to embark on the same 7.5-year journey myself.
This brings me back to January 26th, now at 21:38. A notification flashed on my phone. “KOBE BRYANT DIES IN HELICOPTER CRASH.” I stopped everything.
My first reaction was to check the date on my phone. I knew that it was January, and yet the news was so literally unbelievable that my only thought was “wait, did I miss April Fool’s day?” This would be especially bad since my wife’s birthday is April 2nd.
My second reaction was to assume that it was yet another example of the phenomenon of “fake news” striking the world in the modern, digital age.
I texted my best friend. He hadn’t heard anything yet. I went straight to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, knowing that traditional media might not have the news yet, but social media would. Pictures began flooding my news feed. “RIP KOBE.”
Kobe entered the NBA at 17 years old in 1996, the same year I was born. We moved to the suburban, beach-front heaven of Orange County from tense, urban sprawls around the same time, me from Oakland and him from Los Angeles. That’s about as similar as I ever got to Kobe.
Although I spent most of my childhood between the pool, the basketball court, and the baseball field, I never came close to the greatness of Kobe Bean Bryant. That is, except for the times I was literally close to him. Whether at the Jewish Community Center, the gym at our school TVT, the Pavilions in Newport Coast, or Cha for Tea at the UCI Center, Kobe’s 6”6 frame always stood out in the crowd of beach-town dwellers. When going to hang out at friend’s houses, I would always look in local parking lots for the Range Rover or Lamborghini Aventador we all knew was his.
Although I myself was a Warriors fan due to my Oakland nativity, and my favourite individual player was always Vince Carter thanks to my Canadian side, as a Southern Californian my love for Kobe crossed the lines of divisional rivalries. When the NBA playoffs would start and the Warriors – stacked with Antawn Jamison, Gilbert Arenas, and Jason Richardson – would be sitting at home themselves, I would put aside my Warriors’ hat and trade it for my Lakers’. Call me a band-wagoner, but at 6 years old the only thing that mattered was what Kobe and Shaq would be doing come Game 1. And for three years in a row, they didn’t disappoint. And for three years in a row, I worked as hard as I could to become more and more like Kobe.
I was fortunate enough to have a father who bought me a hoop, and we put it in the driveway and moved the cars to the street so I could practice every day. He’d come out as I shot the 10-year-old equivalent of a 3-pointer, and poignantly remind me that the best players took hundreds of layups a day, before ever working on distance shooting. And so I would begin. 50 layups with my right hand, 50 with my left, all the while picturing myself in Kobe’s shoes. When I represented my hometown at the JCC Maccabi Games in Denver, I saved up for months to be able to buy “Kobe IVs”, to try to fill the shoes of my basketball role model. If my memory serves me, almost every one of my 10 teammates also donned “Kobes”.
In truth, it’s hard to imagine your role model in such a big aspect of life, as sports are to many young boys and girls, being flawed in another. I was too young to understand the buzz around Kobe Bryant’s 2003 sexual assault case, but as it followed him later in life, it also stayed relevant enough for me to understand it as I myself grew up.
The more I was exposed to the realities of sexual assault, whether it was in the family or close friends, the more I began to understand the severity of the claims against our idol. The specifics of the Bryant case left me in my naïve youth to say, “He thought it was consensual, maybe it was just a miscommunication. Why this all such a big deal? She dropped the case anyway.” Only after many years and way too many stories from people I cared about did I realize just how problematic the rationale of my younger self was. Understanding that Kobe himself admitted to the adulterous relationship and saying only that “he thought it was consensual,” proves that the situation was, in fact, sexual assault. For the sake of the victim and all victims of sexual assault, I won’t let myself forget this fact, even if it taints my memory of my basketball icon.
And it was while sitting on my couch on January 26th, at 22:30, reminiscing about my lost hero, that I remembered this. Yet again, I stopped everything.
But I also remembered something I had learned just a few days earlier, in the daf of Brachot yud tet (י”ט.) (19). It reads, “If you see a scholar sin in the night, do not ponder it during the day, since he likely has repented.” The Talmud questions this. “Likely repented? Of course he repented!”
The passage got me thinking. In 2003, Kobe Bryant sexually assaulted a woman. But Jews believe in repentance, what about everything since then? So, I thought about Kobe’s life since 2003. I thought about every time I saw Kobe and how genuine he was to me and my friends. I thought about the basketball camps he hosted at our school, and how he took time to be a part of our Orange County community. I thought about the countless pictures of Kobe and his family. His wife, together 30 years, and their 4 beautiful daughters. I thought of the videos of Kobe coaching Gianna with the look of the most loving, doting father in his eyes.
“Likely repented? Of course he repented!” That’s all I could think about. Now, I’m not trying to compare Kobe Bryant to the holy and spiritual Rabbis being discussed in the Talmud, but I did realize we could learn lessons from them.
I don’t know for a fact if Kobe repented for the sins he committed in the past, but I see the overwhelming flood of evidence, the millions of dollars and countless time that he put into inspiring specifically the women of tomorrow to achieve their goals, and I can’t help but assume he did in fact repent. I’d like to believe that in their final moments together, as Gigi and Kobe realized their inevitable fate, he was the same calm and composed individual who didn’t flinch, who held his daughter one last time and was the father we watched him be these past few years, the father that never would have done what he did in 2003.
And just as the Talmud can give us insight into Kobe’s legacy, so too can Kobe give us insight about the Talmud.
Daf Yomi is no easy task. Everyone has an excuse about what they could be doing in the 45 minutes to an hour that it takes to learn a daf a day. For me, I could be studying more for my degree, or working on an important project at the office, or just relaxing with my wife in our first year of marriage. It’s not always easy to sit down and analyse the obscure, often seemingly illogical arguments of ancient Rabbis. But in remembering Kobe, and the Mamba Mentality, I gain the strength to move forward.
The Mamba Mentality has defined a generation of athletes. It taught us to set goals and do whatever we must to meet them. Stay up late. Prioritize. Work Hard. Don’t capitulate to your self doubt. Embrace it.
So, as I continue on my quest to complete the greatest, most intense compilation of conversations the world has ever known, I’ll be doing it with the Mamba Mentality. I’ll be applying the lessons I learn along the way to my own life, and I’ll remember the man who inspired me along the way. The bad, and the good.