“What really inspires me is finding different creative ways to try to effect change.”
Kobe Bryant joins Mamba League participants at the first Mamba Challenge tournament in 2017. This year's tournament will take place on March 15. Image via Nike.
Los Angeles hosted the 2018 NBA All-Star Game at the Staples Center downtown last weekend, but basketball’s future stars were quietly practicing drills mere miles down the road on the USC campus.
Well, maybe not quietly. Nearly 600 boys and girls aged 8 to 10 excitedly crowded into the Lyon Center’s gymnasium with their Mamba League jerseys on and their sneakers laced up, ready to play. This wasn’t just any recreational basketball league in any city — this is Kobe Bryant’s league in L.A., home of his legendary five-time championship-winning Lakers basketball team.
It’s that exuberance found in youthful play and magical love of the game that Bryant wanted to capture when he conceptualized the league last year with Nike and Boys & Girls Clubs across Los Angeles. The organizations have partnered together to bring the 8-week program to kids free of charge.
Guided by the mission to help kids “Play, Learn, Grow,” Mamba League launched in 2017 and is currently empowering kids from five L.A.-area neighborhoods to build life skills and self-confidence while learning the fundamentals of basketball.
Now in its second year, the opportunities to participate in Mamba League have more than doubled, and ensuring greater female inclusion has been a key component of the program’s mission.
“I think it's very important to get young women active in the sport of basketball and [to] find the beauty in that,” said Bryant.
Caitlin Morris, general manager of Nike Global Community Impact, agreed, adding, “We were very intentional in ensuring 50% participation for girls. We wanted girls to feel welcome and to feel confident they could build skills on all-girl teams with female coaches supporting them.”
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]What really inspires me is finding different creative ways to try to effect change and help the next generation of athletes understand the connectivity between sports and life, and life and sports, and how, in turn, that can help them be better.[/quote]
That’s not to say the future stars of the WNBA aren’t still taking cues from the rest of the staff of volunteer coaches — or from the “Black Mamba” himself.
“She wants me to call her ‘Kobe,’” said Boys & Girls Club Teen Center staff member Arella Taghdis of Kiki, one of her young students in San Gabriel Valley, adding, “She wears No. 24, and on game days, she begs me to call her ‘Kobe.’ She gets so excited to play. … They want to know everything about him and want to make it to the tournament so they can meet him.”
The league’s unique approach is informed by Bryant’s personal insights and directives based on how he learned the game growing up, so each child is exposed by proxy to legendary teachings from coach Phil Jackson and other Hall-of-Fame teammates who inspired Bryant.
The program is also eager to meet Nike’s mission to provide positive early experiences in sport and play, as well as to help meet some of the needs revealed in LA84 Foundation’s 2016 Study on Youth Sports in Los Angeles. The report found that nearly 20% of LA youth did not participate in a sport, with kids from families with lower incomes and females likely to be more inactive.
The Mamba Mentality — that is, the mental toughness that helped Bryant become and stay a champion professional basketball player for two decades — is what makes the league truly special.
It means more than just a way for kids to win basketball games. Each week, in addition to learning a new basketball skill or drill, the young players also learn one of the Mamba Mentality pillars: passion, optimism, fearless, focus, and honesty. Mamba League coaches are USAB-trained and also receive social-emotional training from Nike’s community partner UP2US.
For Bryant, he knows those skills must be taught and practiced over and over again.
“I was very fortunate to have great coaches who understood the details and nuances of the game and to connect that to a greater purpose, a greater significance in life,” he said. “I want to pay that knowledge and information forward. So training the coach is extremely important.”
Jewell Loyd of the Seattle Storm was a surprise guest coach at the Nike Mamba League Showcase. Photo by Justin Paysan/Nike.
Andrew Solis of Whittier, California, has been coaching basketball for six years, but this is his first year coaching with Mamba League. A former high school player himself, he said he wished he had started earlier, and that’s the idea of the program’s focus on the crucial 8-10 age range. He’s been amazed to see the Mamba Mentality teachings become a living and breathing ethos integrated not only into the coaches’ playbook at the Mamba League but also in nearby participating schools.
“At this age, they’re allowed to make mistakes,” said Solis. “But the teachers will say ‘Mamba Mentality’ and it clicks. If they’re having a hard time learning math or something that’s challenging, they think about breaking it down into smaller parts so it becomes possible.”
When Bryant’s jerseys were retired by the Lakers in late 2017, he spoke about the lasting legacy he wanted to leave behind beyond his basketball career, particularly as a father of three girls.
Now, he’s seeing that legacy come to life in LA’s youth, one dribble drill at a time.
“What really inspires me is finding different creative ways to try to effect change,” he said, “and help the next generation of athletes understand the connectivity between sports and life, and life and sports, and how, in turn, that can help them be better.”
According to the kids, it’s working.
“This is my second year in the Mamba League,” said 9-year-old Karen L. “I try to tell my friends who are afraid or confused that I felt that way once, and now I don’t. I hope to keep building on my skills so I can play in high school.”