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As his storied 20-year NBA career was coming to an end, Kobe Bryant – poster child to many for the prep-to-pro generation – was fed up with the state of youth basketball in the U.S.
“AAU basketball – horrible, terrible AAU basketball,” Bryant told reporters more than a year ago. “It’s stupid. It doesn’t teach our kids how to play the game at all, so you wind up having players that are big and they bring it up and they do all this fancy crap and they don’t know how to post. They don’t know the fundamentals of the game. It’s stupid.”
With more free time in retirement, spent mostly on a variety of media and tech venture projects, Bryant decided to take matters into his own hands and help impact the sport for the next generation. In a partnership with Nike and the Los Angeles Boys & Girls Club, he launched the Mamba League.
The 40-team co-ed youth basketball division ran for eight weeks from February through April, focusing on underserved elementary school children from the nearby areas of Nickerson Gardens in Watts, Whittier, West San Gabriel Valley and Venice.
The premise is simple: teach the basic fundamentals of the game, instill core values of teamwork and find joy through sport.
“The Mamba League is a fun league for kids to learn the game and have fun,” Bryant said in a Nike video about the league. “But also, to understand the connection that the game has with life in general, and convert that into being a better son, a better daughter and a better student.
“There’s also a sense of stripping away the higher stakes that have polarized AAU summer basketball, where there’s become increasingly more and more priority placed on kids making highlight-type plays and moves for scouts peering into youth games, or simply even something as dubious as an Instagram highlight mixtape.
“Right now, I think we’re putting too much pressure on these kids too early, and they’re not learning proper technique of how to shoot the ball, or proper technique of spacing,” Bryant said. “It winds up eating away at their confidence. As teachers, we need to have patience to teach things piece by piece by piece. Over time, they’ll develop as basketball players, but you can’t just rush it all at once.”
Bryant says he didn’t play on a regulation hoop until he was 12 years old. He, of course, grew up in Italy, moving overseas at 6 as his father, Joe, continued his professional career. The former Lakers superstar often credited that environment with honing his fundamentals and advanced footwork.
That upbringing also led him to design the specific framework for the Mamba League: The rims are 9 feet tall and the court itself is scaled down, allowing the league’s 288 players to grow with the game.
“We challenge kids at the age of 8, 9, 10 to shoot on 10-foot hoops, and that doesn’t make any sense to me,” Bryant said. “When I grew up, we actually played on lower hoops. We played on 9-foot hoops, the court was actually smaller and we could learn how to shoot with proper technique. We could go and try a reverse layup.”
In addition to the emphasis on fundamentals, the father of two teenage daughters also placed a priority on inclusion and access, with female players making up more than 45 percent of the league.
To build the coaching base, Bryant tapped into his USA Basketball connections. The league’s 40 coaches, made up of volunteer Nike Store employees from all over Southern California, were trained by USA Basketball to not only teach the fundamentals, but also place an added focus on mentorship and connecting with their young athletes.
“The line for our league is ‘Play, Learn, Grow,'” Bryant said. “When I wrote it, the first thing that came to mind was my journey. Through playing the game of basketball, I learned – not just about the game – but about myself and about others. Through that process, you grow as an athlete and as a person.”
Kobe has plans to expand nationally when the Mamba League resumes in the spring of 2018. His hope is to build an emerging division of youth basketball more focused on the basics of the game, with a long view on player development.
“I like seeing kids get better,” he said. “I like seeing the light go on, where they’re like, ‘OK, I couldn’t do this last week, but now I can.'”
With less of an emphasis on wins and losses and the stress that comes with that, the aim is for children to pick up a bit of the work ethic that powered Bryant’s Hall of Fame-caliber career.
“That’s what Mamba Mentality is,” Bryant said. “It’s understanding that every day you can work on something, every day you get better, and then you can fast-forward years later and it seems like it was a ‘Voila!’ moment, but you know that patience and perseverance every single day is what got you there.”
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