by Zachary Wood

After making a looping runner with seven-tenths of a second left in the fourth quarter to force overtime—with 6.1 seconds left on the clock, and the Lakers down 98-97—Kobe Bryant chased down the ball near the scorer’s table, dribbled to the right corner of the key and cleanly swished a heavily contested fadeaway over two defenders to win Game 5 against the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the 2006 Playoffs.

The crowd was ecstatic. The Lakers were euphoric. And Kobe was at the peak of his powers.

Anyone who has seen Kobe play at his best, has borne witness to talent and beauty compressed into mesmerizing acts of athletic creativity. No matter how you feel about the Black Mamba, no one can deny that Kobe has redefined the possibilities of athletic achievement within basketball—from being the youngest player to score 32,000 points to being the only player in NBA history to have over 30,000 points and 6,000 assists.

Yet what makes Kobe a standard by which greatness in any field of human endeavor should be measured is not his prodigious talent, nor his exceptional career. What separates Kobe from any and every player that has ever played the game of basketball, is his work ethic.

While any basketball fan will remember Kobe’s outrageous scoring performances and phenomenal skills on both ends of the floor, what we should admire is the relentless drive that stemmed from the depth of his love for the game.

For 20 years, Kobe has trained for four hours a day in season and six hours a day in the off-season. He goes to the gym alone after games and practices for hours without a basketball, taking imaginary jump shots, rehearsing the myriad of moves he deploys in the clutch. He uses a polyphasic sleep schedule, taking only two two hour naps a day, to achieve total body optimization. After weight lifting and conditioning, right before shooting drills, he does three sets of seven suicide push-ups, on game days. He eats no sugar, no pizza—only lean meat. He even made Nike shave three millimeters off of the bottom of his shoes to get a hundredth of a second better reaction time.

Kobe’s love for the game of basketball has been manifested in his individual will to play through injuries that have ruined the careers of many. Although now we might see him and think to ourselves, “The Mamba is no more,” there are many who still feel inspired by his example. The way he uses every flaw, every fault-step, every failure and fissure on and off the court as motivation, as fuel to keep the fire flaming inside of him, the fire that for over a decade made him the greatest player in the game.

When Kobe walks away from basketball at the end of this season, we will have a chance to ponder his legacy. Debates will continue about whether he’s in the top ten, the top five, the top two, or even the greatest ever. But regardless of where we rank him, all of us can learn from him about what it means to work as hard as we can to be the best that we can be at doing what we love.

For every shot he took in an empty gym, for every sprint he ran after practice, and for every hour of sleep he lost, mastering sophisticated levels of physical expression to hone his athletic genius, I salute the greatest Laker of all time!