Kobe Bryant and the Aristotelean Ethic

 

I’ve written this piece at least six times.

Each version was painted with a different tone, a slight deviation in message, a catchy introduction.

As I came close to finishing each night, steps away from sharing my words with you, apprehension swept in and seized the day.

What can I add to the narrative? How could my words compare to the waves of commentaries that have reverberated throughout the world? Great men and women who knew Kobe Bryant personally or were directly impacted by his physical presence have rushed to share their stories. Coaches, journalists, athletes, politicians, artists and actors. Leaders of men sobbed in front of cameras, overcome with grief, grasping for a sliver of poignancy to honor a man they respected so much.

Who am I to chime in? Some fan with a ubiquitous Kobe saga and a neglected stack of writings?

Who am I?

That is the question that kept me writing.

And as I observed the unparalleled global reaction to the man’s tragic passing, it became obvious this was a question Kobe Bryant was very familiar with.

From a young age his destiny was clear. Kobe was made to play basketball. His father was an NBA standout, his maternal uncle was too. He had every gift and advantage at his disposal: genetics, lineage, exposure to the life of professional athletics, and an intrinsic predisposition to strive for excellence. It was the latter quality that has perhaps been most salient in the Kobe Bryant postmortem commentary. Words like “passionate,” “perfectionist, “grinder,” “relentless” and “focused,” were used to describe the charismatic lifelong Laker. Heartfelt commentary from opponents and teammates  alike shared similar themes. For me, one tribute stood above the rest. The messenger was a man composed of Kobe-like elements, another outlier in sport, a fierce competitor in the constant pursuit of perfection; surf legend and eleven-time world champion, Kelly Slater. The delivery was humble. Kelly posted a black and white photograph of a young Bryant, sharing a personal anecdote and condolences beneath. But the final words struck a chord, “thank you for following your dreams big and small and letting your unadulterated passion for the game reach so many of us in our own little ways.”

“Unadulterated passion.” What did Kelly mean by that? The term is far from colloquial, especially on a social media platform such as Instagram. It’s definition, “not mixed or diluted with any different or extra elements; complete and absolute,” inspired thoughts of Aristotle.

What is the essence of the mystique surrounding athletes like Kelly? Men like Tiger Woods or Tom Brady or Michael Jordan. Which ingredients allow them to rise above the hordes of mortals on the path to self actualization? How do they capture imaginations by bouncing a ball or riding a wave on a piece of fiberglass? In true Aristotelean fashion, men like Michael and Tiger and Kelly, on first name basis with millions of humans, strived for greatness in the name of the grind itself, transcending sport and inspiring millions along the way. And no one did it better than Kobe Bryant. Let me explain.

 

What does it mean to live well?

How does one obtain happiness?

What is the good life?

These fundamental questions underpin every ethical and philosophical school of thought known to man. The ancient musings seem to outreach our limited collective consciousness, predating recorded history and permeating the modern hyper-polarized, Twitter-obsessed, echo-chamber-loving political landscape. To this observer, the conflicting conceptions of the good life feel further apart than ever before. Perhaps they are.

In his classic and influential work, Nichomachean Ethics, prolific thinker Aristotle laid out his concept of the good life.

Aristotle claimed that every individual innately contains a specific and perfect potentiality, the highest version of one’s self, or telos. His famous example referred to an acorn’s innate or intrinsic telos as becoming a full-grown oak tree.

To Aristotle, the path to Eudaimonia, his version of happiness or flourishing, was virtue. In order to live a good life, one must fulfill their potential through displays of virtue. Most interpret virtue to be a set of standards or qualities passively possessed by an individual. However, Aristotle emphasized that virtue and character are not passive habits or dispositions but are active qualities that require constant attention. In order to reach actualization and completeness, one must display Entelecheia, the continual expenditure of effort required to stay there.

A drive to perfection that must be sought purely for itself. THAT is the good life. Wealth and fame and glory are residual benefits that do not equate to happiness. The pursuit of perfection and the striving towards self-actualization through an unwavering commitment to hard work and practice lead to happiness and fulfillment.

There are only a handful of individuals that embody this ethos, a select few who transcend their respective realms and speak directly to the hearts of men.

Kobe strived to polish every aspect of his being. We all know about his game, many know of his follies. But he constantly strived to improve and maximize his potential. I will never forget his last night on the basketball court. As always, his game was impressive. Mustering 60 points on weathered legs and sheer determination, who else could deliver such a performance but the Black Mamba? But it was his post-game interview that was most striking. As reporters lined to ask their final questions to the star, Kobe spoke eloquently and with confidence, first in English, then Spanish, and finally responding in Italian to media personnel that had travelled from Italy to take in his last game. Michael Jordan was an icon who transcended basketball and established a global brand, but he could never do that. When Kobe left the game he focused his attention on his family and their pursuits. Inspired by the young Giana’s love for basketball, Kobe found passion in telling stories and inspiring youth, eventually winning an Oscar for his first short film, Dear Basketball. Once again, telos… the fulfillment of potentiality.

As news and reactions broke about the tragic passing of Kobe Bryant, his 13 year old daughter Giana, and seven other souls… I began to realize that human beings are as similar as ever. Within each beating heart is a desire to self-actualize. Race and creed and political affiliations be damned. We all yearn to maximize our potentiality and be great. Some hear the call as a whisper they often ignore. Many hear the voice clearly, but fall victim to complacency, injecting their lives with spurts of motivated action when circumstances require such measures. Mortals. Muggles. Whatever you want to call them, these are the regular dudes like you and me. Men like Kobe Bryant inspire us. After years of witnessing their tireless efforts we are forced to ask ourselves difficult questions. What is it that I truly love? What is stopping me from achieving my goals? Am I working as hard as I can be? Am I constantly trying to be the best version of myself? Their relentless pursuit of maximizing their capacities is infectious, enkindling the flame that burns within us all. That is what Kobe Bryant did for me. That is his legacy. That is the Mamba Mentality.

I’ll leave you with the words he prepared for the athletes of the 2016 Special Olympics, for I have found none that encapsulate his ethos and legacy more precisely:

 

 

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