"I saw Kobe, wearing the purple & gold, arms spread out, standing over the scorer's table, game ball in hand, punching the air in delight. In that moment, I knew that I would be a Lakers fan forever."
It was June 2010. Kobe Bryant had just led the Los Angeles Lakers to a back-to-back NBA Championships. Kabir Saxena sat in a small cyber café in remote Ladakh grinning ear to ear. His hands formed tight fists as he tried to stop himself from screaming little whoops of joy. Through his clenched fingers, you could see a crumpled piece of paper containing a hand-written copy of the NBA Finals schedule, game timings carefully converted into IST.
A few weeks prior, Saxena had been watching Game 1 of the Finals in his Delhi living room, when he received the "bad news" that he would be traveling to Leh on a family vacation.
"When I reached my hotel, the first thing I did was switch on the TV and see if they had the channel that would show the NBA Finals. They did not. So I found an internet café nearby where I could catch the highlights," Saxena tells NBA.com over a Whatsapp chat.
Then only 13-years-old, Saxena fell in love with the complexity of Kobe's game, imbibing his footwork, fakes, all-round scoring abilities and ambidexterity, eventually representing Delhi in the U19 National Championships.
But Saxena was joining late to the party because prior to his generation, there was already another older group of Bryant bhakts in India.
For Basketball Fans, Kobe was their Sachin
The late nineties was the period when a diminutive cricketer by the name of Sachin Tendulkar was taking over the imagination of an entire nation. Indians watched in awe as a 5ft 4'' almost chubby batsman from Mumbai, with a distinctly squeaky voice and childlike looks, pulverized an imposing Australian fast bowling attack in Sharjah. India's'God of Cricket' had officially arrived.
Just a day after Tendulkar's 'Desert Storm' innings on 22nd April 1998, another 'God' by the name of Michael Jordan was gearing up for his sixth and final Playoffs run with the Chicago Bulls. The 1998 Finals garnered the highest ever Neilson TV ratings in NBA history, a record still unbeaten. Jordan's title-clinching jumpshot over the Utah Jazz in Game six has since gone onto become one of the most iconic moments in basketball lore.
But all this was far away from India, where it was all Sachin and Sachin alone. Back then, 'MJ' was simply a set of two initials that could mean anyone from Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson or Michael Johnson.
By the turn of the century, the internet boom had truly begun taking over the globe, and Jordan had been replaced by Kobe as the global face of the NBA.
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"Like all Indian kids, I also played cricket," Abhishek John, 32, recalls. Based out of Bengaluru, it was only a matter of time before he would transition to hoops, showing enough early signs of becoming Mambafied. "During my high school days, my teammates were annoyed that I didn't pass the ball. Once the ball was in my hands it was either going into the basket or I ended up drawing a foul."
The millennials and Gen Zs of Indian basketball were soon busy choosing email IDs, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram handles with their names prefixed or suffixed with a 'Kobe', 'Bryant' or 'Mamba'. Some enterprising fans even came up with "Bharatiya Mamba" or "Brown Mamba", a nod to Bryant's global appeal while staying true to their desi roots. A perfect Indian khichdi if you will.
But Bryant's following in India stretched way beyond casual supporters, as he deeply influenced even future National Team stars.
De facto coach for Indian ballers
Guard Raspreet Sidhu has been a stabilizing presence in the Indian women's squad for over a decade. Sidhu started following Kobe at age 13. Her go-to mid-range jump shot is all thanks to the Black Mamba. "I was just so obsessed with his mid-range jump shots (the spring action and the shooting form while shooting the jump shot). I used to practice those shots for hours, and would just try to imitate him at all times. And I can proudly say that I was one amongst the very few female ballers in the country who could take proper jump shots. And this was all because of Kobe."
After joining college, Abhishek John continued picking up nuances from Kobe's game. "One of my favourite moves of his which I used often in the game was the right side baseline jumpers/fadeaways," says the point guard who would take his Christ University all the way to the All India Inter-University Championship.
Meanwhile, others like Kabir Saxena's future college teammate Adarsh Dadala were studying Kobe's actions out of the triple threat position.
"About 11 years ago there were a set of videos released by Nike which had all of Kobe's signature moves. I'd watch them every day to learn his footwork and get a shot off. I'd go down to the court and try various permutations and combinations: triple threat, drive-by, one dribble pull up; triple threat, drive-by, pump fake, pivot, jumpshot; the head fake, turnaround jumper yelling Kobe," says the 24-year-old who now works at a multi-national company in Gurugram.
Perhaps Kobe's greatest contribution to Indian ballers is by way of inspiring them to play through pain. "When I partially tore my ankle ligament and was in a cast, I could have sat and watched TV or hung out with my friends. But what I did was look at it as an opportunity to work on my handles. So I looked up some drills I could do sitting on a chair. I used to dribble all day and worked on my weak hand. I also worked on shooting off of one leg which immensely helped in my game going forward," John says.
Last September, 17-year-old Vikramaditya Jaswal from Delhi was representing his school in a tournament when he badly injured his right shoulder in practice and was unable to move it an inch. Later that night, his elder brother sent him a video of Kobe shooting left-handed (versus the New Orleans Pelicans) after a similar injury. Inspired, Jaswal would play the next day as a southpaw.
Kobe as an off-court inspiration
By 2008, Abhishek John had graduated from college. He had already represented his state of Karnataka at the Junior and Senior National Championships. Living in a country that lacks a National 5x5 Pro Basketball League, it was time for him to weigh his career options. With no scope for playing professionally in India, he went to the US to study sports management in the hopes of getting an athletic scholarship. When that didn't pan out, he returned to Bengaluru where he completed his MBA and has worked in the corporate sector ever since. From time to time, he has had short professional playing stints with the UBA Pro Basketball League (now defunct) and the 3x3 Pro Basketball League ('3BL').
MORE: Thank you, Kobe | Kobe's arrival as an All-Star legend
Kobe's words and deeds continue to aid John in finding the perfect work-play-life balance. "Kobe never let anything get to him and always kept a calm mind. That is something I've incorporated into my life. Be it a situation at home or work, I am able to maintain my composure and think rationally and resolve the issue."
27-year-old Jaipur based hotelier Amandeep Singh, like John, had to find another way of making a living outside of basketball. "Kobe taught [me] what hustling means. There have been days while I was running my restaurant where I was out of staff and conditions were unfavourable. It was the 'Mamba Mentality' that helped through those tough times. I did everything from cooking, cleaning (not just the utensils but also the property) and collecting supplies from vendors, while still delivering the best to the customers."
Dealing with Kobe's Death
Animesh Gautam, a 26-year-old video editor with FIBA Asia, started following Kobe and the Lakers right around the time of his historic 81-point game against the Raptors in 2006. From the lows of the mid-2000s to Lakers' return to championship form between 2007-11 and then back to the disappointing 2011-16 phase, Gautam had seen it all.
Kobe's death had initially made no sense to Gautam. He had woken up early that fateful Monday morning to find his phone flooded with notifications. At first, he refused to believe the news. Once he did, he couldn't process it, and knew his daily routine would go for a toss. "I went for my usual driving school lesson... but couldn't do it... so I skipped that and went to Manikarnika Ghat."
The setting was poignant. Manikarnika Ghat, on the banks of the mighty Ganges River in Varanasi, is popularly known as the 'Burning Ghat'. It is where, for thousands of years, Hindus have been cremating their departed loved ones.
Staring at the smoky haze billowing from the many blazing pyres, Gautam slowly came to terms with the loss.
"I just sat for a good two hours and realized that nothing is permanent. I thought to myself that 'My dream of meeting Kobe wasn't permanent or possible, so just enjoy the moment and work as hard as you can so that even if you can't see the results you'll just be happy that you did that... and that's going to make you better somehow...'"
Mamba Mentality lives on in the next generation
Last August, a Pune college student by the name of Yousuf Sayyed dropped 80 points in a single game. As his coach Ashish Kumar (aka '@_mambalicious_24' on Instagram) explained, this Mamba-ésque feat had been no coincidence.
"I get my players to do the Kobe shooting toughness drill. Players have to shoot from four locations and after each missed shot it's minus one. You have to make 50 shots individually and if you miss after making 40 you'll move to zero," says Kumar, who coaches at the Sports Arena in Dhanori.
When Bryant finally hung up his boots in 2016 at age 37, then 15-year-old Shaurya Bansal from Delhi was just beginning his basketball journey. In fact, the first ever NBA game that Bansal watched happened to be Kobe's last. "I was supposed to go for training to a local basketball arena but it was closed on account of a holiday. With nothing to do, I switched on the TV and caught Kobe from the third quarter. That was his retirement game. I had seen some [of his] clips and highlights [before] but I saw him drop 60 live on TV."
Since then, Bansal, who was recently selected to the Indian Public Schools Conference (IPSC) National team, has been training as if he has Kobe watching over him. "Growing up I didn't have a coach, other than Kobe. I would always be very hard on myself, giving goals to myself and not going home till I made a certain type of shot from a certain position or in a certain way. I always thought that I must become so good that if I play in front of Kobe someday, I will be able to hold my own and impress him. His death left me shook."
Three years ago, 15-year-old DAV Public School, Chennai student Arjun Shivakumar had almost quit playing basketball after a horrid performance in his annual inter-school tournament. With his coach yelling at him and his confidence shattered, Shivakumar "suddenly felt useless, small and lost interest towards the game."
He started finding reasons to flake practice after school. Then one day he came across a video of Kobe where he spoke of turning all of life's negative energy into fuel to grow. Deciding to give basketball another shot, Shivakumar started binging on Kobe games and tutorials, often staying back on the court for hours after his teammates left, practicing in the dark. He returned the next year to that very same tournament, having vastly improved. "None of this would have been possible if I hadn't stumbled upon that one video of Kobe that day. He was like a mentor to me, though he had no idea I even existed."
There'll never be another Kobe
Kobe Bryant was the first NBA superstar of the internet generation. And for India, he was the first star people could actually watch regularly on television or online through the majority of his playing career.
As 35-year-old Indian basketball player Prashanti Singh aptly pointed out in a recent interview, "When we started playing, Michael Jordan was already like God, but we heard only one name - Kobe Bryant. The basketball world in the West has witnessed the Jordan era and after cable television reached us and the internet followed, Indians witnessed the Bryant era."
All things considered, comparatively few people in India ever wanted to be 'like Mike'. But a majority did aspire to become like Kobe. Before Bryant, most people in India got introduced to basketball first and the NBA later. But after Bryant, it will invariably be the NBA first and basketball second. It was Kobe who was at the vanguard of such a fundamental shift in India, and perhaps even the rest of Asia. It was Kobe who bathed India in purple and gold. And that's a legacy that will forever be unmatched.
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