Richard Sherman's L.A. connection with Kobe Bryant is at heart of his grief and drive to win Super Bowl

Kimberley A. MartinSenior NFL writer
Yahoo Sports

MIAMI — Richard Sherman knows exactly what Kobe Bryant would say to him if he were still here. The late basketball legend would remind Sherman of the passionate competitor that resides within him. He’d remind Sherman that the journey is still not complete. And then, Bryant would playfully, but sternly, tell his friend to simply suck it up.

Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash on Sunday — and the death of his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven other passengers — hit players, of all sports, like a tidal wave. And on a night that was reserved for the two NFL teams playing in Super Bowl LIV, the NBA icon’s presence was still being felt. By both San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs players. And especially by Sherman, who considered Bryant a mentor. 

And now, the 49ers cornerback feels compelled to go out on top, just like Bryant would have wanted. 

“I was really sad yesterday and I was sad this morning,” Sherman said during Super Bowl Media Night at Marlins Park. “I was kind of down, I was in the dumps, and then I just thought about what he would tell me. He would tell me, ‘Stop being a baby. And man up.’ And play it, and do it in his honor and win this game for him. And that’s what we’re going to try to do. I’m going to go out there and try to play some dominating ball, just like he wanted. The Mamba Mentality lives on.”

The Compton, California, native was particularly devastated by the death of the 41-year-old Bryant, who was a five-time champion and two-time NBA Finals MVP during his illustrious career with the Lakers. But the championship rings didn’t fully encapsulate everything Bryant was, Sherman said. Bryant’s work in the Los Angeles community touched the 49ers star in a deeper way, given his local roots,

Jan 27, 2020; Miami, FL, USA; San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman during Super Bowl LIV Opening Night at Marlins Park. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 27, 2020; Miami, FL, USA; San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman during Super Bowl LIV Opening Night at Marlins Park. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

“He meant a lot. He meant a lot to everyone,” Sherman said. “He meant a lot to the city of L.A. He’s a tremendous idol. There’s not enough praise I can give him, there’s not enough words in my vernacular, in my vocabulary to give him the praise and the respect that he deserves. But he deserves every inch, every ounce of respect, every ounce of gratitude. He gave me a ton of inspiration and I’m sure he inspired millions and billions and trillions of other kids. There’s no limit to the impact he’s had on my city and cities around the world.”

The Chiefs were on their team charter plane bound for South Florida when they learned the news. At first, players like Chris Jones didn’t want to believe it. 

“I thought someone was joking,” said the defensive tackle.

Disbelief gave way to stunned silence and then tears, as players on board grappled with the unexpected news. 

“People were crying and everything,” Jones said. “Kobe was a huge motivator for a lot of kids.”

“His wife and their daughters — it’s hard to imagine,” added Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu. “I never thought in my lifetime that a guy like Kobe Bryant wouldn’t be here. I thought guys like him would live forever.”

While talk of their Super Bowl LIV showdown took centerstage on Monday night, personal reflections of Bryant dominated a good portion of the evening. 

“That was a tough one for me,” said Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce. “His mindset, Mamba Mentality. I wore [No.] 24 in football and basketball. I wore Kobe Bryant shoes. I still have my high school shoes I customized for my basketball team, with the snakeskin. Coolest things ever. I just loved the way he attacked the game and there was no one on a higher mountain top than Kobe Bryant and he’s the one that influenced me to play competitive sports.” 

Bryant’s “will to win was nothing I’d ever seen before,” added Matthieu.

And it’s that “Mamba Mentality” that resonated with Sherman too.

“I guess the biggest ‘Mamba Mentality’ moment of my career was getting up from a torn Achilles and walking off the field. I saw him do it,” said the cornerback, whose resurgence from injury last year helped catapult San Francisco to the Super Bowl. “I saw him make two free throws and walk off with a torn Achilles and when I tore mine, I knew I had to walk off. We’re different animals but the same beast. We’re built of a lot of the same stuff and I had to be able to walk that off.”

Sherman said he’s taken time to process Bryant’s passing, but a loss so profound, so gut-wrenching, so unimaginable, might takes years to come to terms with. “This kind of shock takes longer than a few days to process, longer than a week, longer than a month. I’m sure I’ll be processing this for years. 

“This man was gone way before he was supposed to — and you never pick your time, and you never know when you’re supposed to go, but I can’t remember any generational talent like this really going before his time in the way that Kobe did. And I think that’s what’s sad because I think he was going to do so much more than basketball. I think basketball was going to end up being a small part of who and what he was. Being an amazing father and an outstanding person and businessman and entrepreneur and philanthropist was really going to take over and I’m just sad the world never got to see his full capabilities.”

But there’s one thing Sherman believes he can do for his friend and mentor. He can fulfill Bryant’s wishes for the cornerback to win it all on the biggest stage of the NFL season.

“The last thing he left me with was to get enough championship. ‘Get your team back to the championship,’ ” Sherman said, recalling their last conversation. “He was like, it’s going to be hard and he talked about his ups and down in his career with the Lakers, and the dark times and the dark times I was going through and how it is to just really look within yourself and look at the man in the mirror and understand you’ve got to fix yourself, and you’ve got to fix things about yourself before you can fix anybody else, before you can take any steps forward. And I think that resonated with me.”

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