Few in the history of the Association have climbed as high up the mountain of hoops (aka the Himalayups) as Kobe Bryant. Past boulders of frontcourts and crevasses of double-teams, Kobe has ascended like a sure-footed mountain goat (or, G.O.A.T.) to the Mt. Rushmore of Ball with the likes of his idols Magic and Mike (not to be confused with the modern film noir, Magic Mike XXL). How did Kobe Bean Bryant reach such heights? Past legions of seemingly soulless, clotheslining (shout-out Raja Bell) defenders and the ever-present leer of injury? He started by laying down steps of bricks and floating on the air of his goose-necked miscues (a la 1997 Jazz semifinals).
For Kobe Bryant, it has never been teamwork that made the dream work – it was hard work, some good genes, and then more hard work. I’ve combed through the archives to try and figure out how Kobe went from Bean to Black Mamba to Vino - and the answer apparent is his work ethic. From a kid practicing with Italian teams to an old man calling his own team ‘soft like Charmin,’ Kobe’s never left his Fortress of Ballitude (except for that one rap video). This is a tribute to what made and makes Kobe the name we take in vain whenever we throw one thing into another thing: his work ethic and absolute insistence on following the holy mantra – get shots up.
We have 15 carefully curated and peer-reviewed instances of Kobe’s growth from young Italian Bean to international predator and all of the broccoli, hardwood, and social isolation it took for him to get there. We’ll start with the less impressive bouts of work ethic from his childhood and then work our way up to the miscellanea of his pro-level legend. These are the top 15 tales of Kobe Bean Bryant’s insane work ethic.
15 Bean A.K.A. Baby Mamba
Let’s start off way back. When the Mamba hadn’t quite gleaned its taste for blood yet. We all know Bean’s been cutting through the lane ever since he cut through his umbilical cord, but most don’t know when he started getting acclimated to the rhythms of the pro-level game. As a kiddo, Baby Mamba would watch his pops Joe “Jelly Bean” Bryant’s games on TV with a little hoop set up nearby and a tank-top with the Bryant insignia across the back.
Kobean would put up shots the entire time they played, only resting while they took their time-outs. The buckets had begun being gotten, and the kid was already starting to get a sense for the pro tempo.
While Papa Bean was enlisted by Italian clubs like Pistoia and Reggio Emilia, Kobean continued to cement his affinity for getting shots up. Italian teammates and coaches explain that the little American was always at practice with a ball in his hand, shooting around whenever there were breaks in the action. He would also be at the games, immediately grabbing the game ball from the last player at game’s end so he could shoot around on a professional court.
Of course, knowing Kobe’s game and Italian racial curiosities – it is no surprise that fans would often stay after the game to watch the young Mamba go to work. Before it actually became his work.
13 High School: Playground to Lab
Kobe returned to America at 12 years old, was immediately thrust into a tournament and failed to score a single point. He explains that before the age of 13, basketball was for fun. And afterwards? High school Kobe would start practicing at 5 AM and finish at 7 PM, making sure he hit over 1,000 shots. He would play teammates 1-on-1 until 100, with his closest game being 100-12 (no wonder his coach brought their brother, an ex-D1 standout, to practices to match up with him).
He reportedly unleashed on a teammate because his turnover lost his team a scrimmage during practice. Kobe’s HS teammate Evan Monsky summarizes the growing Bean’s work ethic illuminatingly: “He played ball. Ball was his best friend. Weekend nights when he was younger – he didn’t go to parties or hang out – he played ball.”
12 Pre-Draft Workouts: The Eye of the Tiger
Kobe’s pre-draft workouts are the stuff of legends. Although these workouts were short, they show exactly what years of prioritizing practicing over partying amounted to. Jerry West had Kobe go 1-on-1 with Michael Cooper (the ex-NBA defensive specialist) and Dontae Jones (D1 stud). Amidst rumors that Kobe had similarly ripped Jerry Stackhouse in a 1-on-1, the results were quite lopsided.
Onlookers like Raymond Ridder (Warriors PR VP) describe a workout where "He just destroyed [Cooper]. It was unbelievable. You're talking about Michael Cooper, one of the greatest defensive players in the history of the game, and he just made him look silly." Jerry West’s reaction was succinct: "Best workout I've ever seen. He's better than anybody we have on the team right now. Let's go.” And the first of Kobe’s many victims in the Association, Cooper, agreed, adding that “there was no fear in him,” and that he possessed the “eye of the tiger.”
11 Breaking, Entering, and Bucketing
The Lakers made a long-term investment by trading away starting center Vlade Divac for a 17-year-old. As with all investments for the future, they wanted to ensure that he lasted. Bill Bertka, then an Assistant Coach, took away Kobe’s key to the Lakers facilities because management was worried that he would overwork himself to the point of injury. That’s a story in itself... but there’s more.
The dad of one of my sources was working with a rehabbing Laker at the time, and at around 1 AM they noticed Kobe heading to the practice court. Before they could ask how he got in, Kobe shouts out “Y’all didn’t see shit,” and goes to train until 2:30 AM. When on the way out, our source’s dad asked Kobe how he got in – to which he replied “I got my ways.” Later they found a sock wedged between the doors to the facility, propping them open. Not even literal locks on doors can lock down Kobe Bryant. Mamba Work Ethic: 1, Building Security: 0.
10 The Red Viper's Regimen
For a profession where your health is your wealth, Kobe’s diet and exercise regimen is still pretty impressive. For much of his career he has been on a custom paleo diet that prioritizes greens and lean meats, often emphasizing organic green tea and bone broth and officially cutting sugar, fatty meats, and empty carbs for Vino's sake in 2013.
His workout plan is known as the “666” plan (6 hours a day, 6 days a week, for 6 months) and consists of track, basketball, cardiovascular, and weightlifting with a minimum of 700 shots made daily. His regimen helped him lose 16 pounds ahead of the 2012 Olympics (to be easier on Vino's knees), and his training is so renown that it’s inspired celebrity trainers like Harley Pasternak. That vert's always been pretty crazy too.
9 Horry's Story: Mamba Extends its Fangs
Robert Horry is known for being clutch, having range, and now, for giving us a glimpse into how Bean became Mamba. In 1997, Kobe was a rookie without three-point range so he had daily shooting contests with fellow Lakers Horry, Brian Shaw, Mitch Richmond, and Kurt Rambis. As Horry explains it:
"Kobe would lose every time. We would get to practice the next day and sure enough, Kobe would already be there shooting nothing but threes. And we would beat his ass again. He would never stop. It was incredible. He practiced until one day, a couple months later, he finally won. And that’s what people don’t understand when they talk about champions — when they talk about a winner’s mentality. Kobe’s dedication to the game is unreal..."
8 The Unfortunate Tale of Tony Gaffney: Mamba Spars
Tony Gaffney was a defensive specialist and new to the Lakers. His introduction to Kobe came with a “Who the hell is this?” from the Mamba and an explanatory “Kobe doesn’t like **mfers like you” from Lamar Odom. Gaffney became Kobe’s personal punching bag when Mamba told him: “I heard you’re a defensive lockdown player. So, lock me down.” For weeks the Mamba would practice offense 1-on-1 against Gaffney, creating new rules to tweak the difficulty. And not once did he let Gaffney play offense, let alone get there earlier than him. “No matter how early I showed up for practice, it wasn’t early enough: Kobe was on the court with three trainers doused in sweat.”
7 Follow the Leader: That’s a Nice Move, I Might Need it Though!
Just as Bean took form using the water of the Showtime Lakers as his nourishment, Mamba has always been committed to figuring out the best way to get the ball in the hoop. A young Kobe claims to have learned the sky hook from Kareem, baby hooks from Magic, runners from James Worthy, and the Pull Up J from Byron Scott.
Once a pro, that knack for basketball plagiarism (and its requisite hard work!) resurfaced – namely from two of the greatest power forwards of all time, Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan. Kobehas emulated Dirk’s trademark one-footed fade-away, and he's told Spike Lee that he stole Timmy’s bank-shot. “I actually stole that shot from Tim Duncan. Played against him in the All-Star game and got bank shot from him. I swagger-jacked him.”
6 John Celesthand Races the Mamba
John Celestand was a new Laker and used to being the hardest worker on any team he played for. He had always been the first one in the gym and the last one to leave. And then he joined Kobe’s team. But then Kobe broke his right hand one day, and Celestand admits to being a little excited that he would finally get to practice first the next day as an injured Mamba nursed his wounds.
Unfortunately for John, the Mamba had other plans. “As I walked through the training room, I became stricken with fear when I heard a ball bouncing. No, no, it couldn’t be! Yes it could. Kobe was already in a full sweat with a cast on his right arm and dribbling and shooting with his left.”
5 Larry Shadows Vino
Larry Drew II wanted to succeed in the Association and figured training with the Mamba would be a good way to see how much work it really took. Larry asked to shadow the Mamba for a day, and Vino acquiesced – promising to pick him up at 3:30. Unfortunately for Larry, 3:30 came and passed without a glimpse of Vino, so he spent his evening self-reflecting over a bowl of Wheaties and got ready for bed.
Larry should have realized that ball is like global warfare for Kobe so he probably uses some amalgamation of military time and the 24-hour clock. The Mamba arrived at 3:30... AM on the dot, ready for their morning workout. Hard Work = Being a Hall of Fame lock in your 30s that kids in their early 20s can’t keep up with.
4 The USA Trainer Story: No Sleep Till Beijing
As this story is told, an athletic trainer working with Team USA, Rob, is about to fall asleep at 4 AM (before the Redeem Team’s first scrimmage in 2008) when he gets a call from Kobe asking if they can work on conditioning together. Rob knows one ought to satiate the Mamba so he gets to the gym at 4:35 AM, finding Kobe already drenched in sweat (‘as if he had just taken a swim’).
They work out for two hours and Rob goes home to get some long-awaited sleep. At 11 AM, a sleepy Rob returns and finds Kobe shooting around while people hang out. He commends Kobe for the late night workout and asks when he got home. A confused Mamba then explains that it wasn't a 'night' workout: he wanted to hit 800 shots and had just finished. While others sleep, Kobe eats.
3 Beijing Heat: Early Mamba Gets the Bucket
It's the first day of training camp ahead of the Beijing Olympics when Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have their Kobe work ethic 'kobepiphany'. They get to the opening team breakfast only to find that Kobe is there for lunch because he's already done his day's first workout. Wade helped put things in perspective: "Everybody else just woke up. We're still stretching and yawning and looking at [Kobe] like, 'What the f---?'" Bosh's account shines a similar light: "I felt so bad. I'm like, ‘What is he trying to prove?' But he was just doing his normal routine. We're all supposed to be big-time NBA players, Olympians and stuff. And then there's Kobe, taking it to another level from Day 1. And I had been off for like three months."
2 Vino Teaches: Soft Like Charmin
Perhaps most impressive of Kobe’s work ethic is its evolution into the Vino stage. Even with a slower step, Vino’s still got some butter in the barrel and words sharper than the Sharper Image. In 2014, Kobe gave a rookie Jordan Clarkson his, in his own words: a "Welcome to the NBA Moment." J.C. was matched up with Kobe and immediately fell victim to the infamous turn-around J followed by a “Hey, don’t hurt yourself, young fella.” Again in 2014, videos surfaced showing Kobe calling the team ‘soft like Charmin! Soft like s---!’ explaining to Mitch Kupchak that “We’re supposed to practice to get better. These m---f--- ain’t doing s--- for me.”
Then, in October 2015, Kobe struck at practice once again, verbally sparring with and then outplaying his teammates. Larry Nance Jr. summarized the experience well: “I think we’ve learned from that mistake: Don’t poke the bear.” But, Kobe summarizes it best: “Practice gets real uncomfortable when I’m in this m---f----.”
1 Fun Doesn’t Win: Champagne is for Championships
Since high school, Kobe has put basketball over his social life. His old coach described him as ‘popular from a distance’ and former teammates have contended that they ‘didn’t know him.’ Bean’s passion for ball has outdone his interest in leisure time and people time (just ask Smush Parker).
When a Mamba in his 20s was asked about going out with teammates, this is what he had to say: “Guys wanna go to strip clubs. What I wanna go to a strip club for? For what? I’m here to play basketball man, not do that type of stuff. Magic had a comment that I had to hang out with the team. You know, go to clubs, go to bars and that, in order to build team camaraderie – for us to win. And I respect Magic so much, but to me, that was just an off-the-walls statement. You know what I mean? Cause, how is that gonna make us win a championship?”
I'm not sure that it ever really was work for him.