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Kobe Bryant, What It Takes To Be Successful (In Life)
Part 2: What Is Success?

Posted by Charlie Recksieck on 2020-02-13
Click here to read Part 1

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Magic Johnson once said that a team's philosophy is always dictated by its star player. And that the star can lead one of four ways: 1) Lead quietly by example (a la Tim Duncan), 2) Ride the lesser players to get the best out of them (Jordan and Bryant's approach), 3) By counseling and talking with their teammates (Magic's approach) or 3) Some combination of 2 or 3 of those things. There's no "right" answer, a lot of approaches have worked. (All described in the aforementioned podcast from Bill Simmons.)

Since retirement, Kobe could have become a coach or a TV talking head. Instead, he pursued his interest into learning more about what motivates people to work and to succeed. Towards the end of his career it's been the focus of the 2009 Spike Lee doc "Kobe Doin' Work", Kobe's own "Musecage" series and his film "Dear Basketball" which won an Oscar. Bryant was clearly writing his second chapter around his fascination for motivation.

He notably became a serious mentor to current NBA stars Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum among others.

Kobe’s second act outside of his family sure seemed like it was going to be all about teaching people how to be successful. That’s what the public was denied from last week’s tragedy; his on-court performance is something we can watch on YouTube or NBA TV whenever we like.

What Does It Take To Win In The NBA?

When people point out that Kobe falls just short of Michael Jordan it’s also important to remember that MJ was the greatest of alltime in terms of riding his teammates (too?) hard. He allegedly made Bulls guard BJ Armstrong miserable, went too far with Bill Cartwright and punched Will Perdue and Steve Kerr in the face, Kerr even saying it helped their relationship.

Great NBA players usually do not make for great coaches. Former NBA role players do fairly well - but Jason Kidd, Isaiah Thomas, Magic Johnson not so much. It must be difficult for them to truly understand not having the necessary talent and skill to do what they want whenever they want on the court.

Larry Bird may be the exception to this, having success as Indiana Pacers coach, but retired saying a coach can only keep a team's attention for 3 years. (Personally, I'm curious if that's also a good rule of thumb in the workplace.)

What Is "Success" In The NBA

Then we get into what is "success" in the NBA. There are countless voices, opinions and articles on this. "Have you won a ring?" is increasingly becoming the yardstick for a player's career. It seems like a lazy argument. Charles Barkley and Elgin Baylor are all-time great by any measure other than NBA Titles. Robert Horry has played on 7 NBA champion teams. Nobody in their right mind would say Horry is better than Barkley, Baylor or Michael Jordan (6 titles).

Is Dwight Howard wrong because he doesn't have Kobe's work ethic? Is he lazy? Or does he have a work-life balance? Did Andrew Luck let down his team and the sport or is he one of the few who gets it right?

Shaquille O'Neal is often thought of having a relaxed attitude towards his training. It drove Kobe Bryant "crazy" by Kobe's own admission. Personally, I think this is a bad rap on Shaq. Plenty of "can't miss" stars like Marvin Barnes or Stanley Roberts (Shaq’s LSU teammate) floundered in the NBA. You do not get as good as Shaq simply by athletic ability. Shaq has achieved 100 times more in his life than the majority of armchair sports talk radio callers who criticize his effort. And he is beloved by just about every person playing in or working for the NBA.

Has Shaq "won life"? Quite possibly. If it’s not him, then it might be Charles Barkley.

Do You Have To Be An A-Hole To Succeed?

I think that's a personal question for each person. I'd encourage you to look at the Google results for exactly that.

We celebrate Vince Lombardi as a paragon of old-school sports motivation and he coined the phrase "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." But he had a complicated relationship with his children. And he did die of colon cancer, which isn't a direct result of stress but it sure doesn't help.

Speaking of complicated parents and legacies, Steve Jobs is not an easy case. By most yardsticks, he was a huge business success. He ran Apple with a "culture of fear" - Is this your business goal?

Was Kobe Right?

Again, I'd like to direct you to what I said about Magic Johnson earlier, how there are lots of approaches to motivation. Magic himself is famously one of the more beloved, nurturing-style leaders in NBA history and he says Kobe's style is completely valid.

As for winning as a prime pursuit, Kobe did not mean you shouldn't be well-rounded and also dedicated to your family. (It's easy to make the case that being well-rounded and having a happy family will HELP you win.) It’s a huge misinterpretation of Kobe that he was literally "single-minded" towards basketball; he was a highly visible loving father who beamed whenever discussing his children.

Let's also be careful not to lump Kobe's pursuit of excellence and winning in with the "win at all costs" mantras of Steve Jobs and Vince Lombardi. He famously loved being a father. He died being a basketball dad. Watch this video of ESPN’s Elle Duncan sharing an anectode about Kobe’s love of being a "girl dad" and see if it doesn’t get a little dusty in the room. Watch that video here

Parting Question

What does success mean to you? Would you not mind being thought of as an asshole, perfectionist or difficult if it means you made 30% more money? If you were famous?

Personally, I don't think success at all costs is worth it. But if you disagree, perhaps be aware of it & what it's costing you.

Additionally, is your drive at work REALLY bringing out the best in the people around you? Whatever you might think of Kobe Bryant, that’s exactly what he was trying to do.

Let’s let him get the last word in this excellent breakdown of Kobe defining his own drive