Kobe Bryant, the man who had everything, didn’t think he had everything.
There was one plaudit he always thought was missing from his resumé, one goal that remained unfulfilled, one dream he chased until the end.
He would talk quietly about it, work tirelessly toward it, and even eventually sacrifice his career for it.
In 2012-2013, at age 34, Bryant played nearly 40 minutes a game in dragging the mediocre Lakers into the playoffs before tearing his Achilles tendon in the final days and essentially ending his time as an NBA superstar.
All for that sixth championship ring.
He desperately wanted, and despaired over not winning, that sixth championship ring.
He wanted to catch Michael Jordan. He wanted to pass Magic Johnson. The ultimate competitor wanted to be considered the ultimate champion.
A sixth championship ring was the one piece of jewelry he always wanted, yet it was the one thing he could never wear, and in the wake of his death Sunday in a helicopter crash, it is perhaps the one thing that could honor him most.
The Lakers know what to do.
As they slowly pull themselves back together in anticipation of restarting their season Friday, there is a sense the Lakers understand their responsibility exactly.
Their directive is to deliver to Kobe Bryant’s memory that sixth ring.
Call it the Mamba Mandate.
The burden seems extraordinary and unfair, but it’s nothing that Bryant wouldn’t have shouldered himself. The task is large and daunting, but these giant and powerful Lakers seem perfectly built for it.
More than halfway through the season, they have a first-place record, two of the five best players in the world, and the hearty endorsement of Bryant himself.
During what was perhaps his final interview, in a phone call with me nine days before his death, I asked Bryant to evaluate the current team.
He loved them. He thought they could win it all.
“Man, I tell you, I think Rob [Pelinka] has assembled a helluva team, bro,” he said. “I like their size, I like their length, their shooters are coming along just fine, man, I like their chances.”
He said he felt as if they faced but two obstacles.
“The biggest thing for them is just health,” he said, then added, “The Clippers are tough, though. The Clippers are tough. Hopefully we finally get our dream series.”
For the Lakers, the dream would be to stay healthy, survive the charge from their Staples Center roommates, and wind up winning a championship inspired by Bryant.
They are well aware of this. They’re already writing and talking about it.
Although LeBron James has yet to speak publicly about Bryant’s death, he issued an emotion-filled Instagram message that included a vow to Bryant himself.
“I promise you l’ll continue your legacy man!” he wrote, later adding, “It’s my responsibility to put this [bleep] on my back and keep it going!...I got US here!”
This theme continued Wednesday when coach Frank Vogel, the only Laker to speak on their first day of media availability since Bryant’s death, answered two questions about Bryant’s influence on this season.
To the first, he said, “We want to represent what Kobe was about more than anything. We always wanted to make him proud. And that’s not going to be any different here.”
To the second he said, “We want to represent what he stood for. That’s the most important thing for us. We want to represent what he stood for.”
Bryant stood for leadership, which James will need to demonstrate down the stretch. Bryant stood for toughness, which Anthony Davis will need to continue showing. He also stood for shooters, and the Lakers could stand to add another before the trade deadline next week, and this is where Bryant’s former agent, Pelinka, enters the picture.
As much as Bryant endorsed the team in the final interview, he also was backing the strong work of their new president of basketball operations.
When Bryant was being heavily criticized during his career, he said he would be consoled by Pelinka. When Pelinka was being criticized last summer, Bryant said he was doing the consoling.
“Roles are just reversed,” Bryant said. “When I was playing, I would get a lot of [bleep], I would call Rob … and he would just always, say, ‘Listen, just put your head down and do the work’… then when he was getting all the criticism, I said, ‘Rob, remember when I played, put your head down, do the work, do the work.’”
Sure enough, said Bryant, Pelinka has done just that.
“I think he’s done a fantastic job of just keeping his head down and just grinding man, and it’s paying off,” Bryant said.
If the Lakers and their boss can keep grinding, the biggest payoff awaits at the end of what would be surely the most spiritually emotional title run in this city’s sports history.
Can you imagine if they can somehow live up to the Mamba Mandate and win a championship? Can you envision the size of the ceremony celebrating the new Lakers legends for so wonderfully honoring a late Lakers legend?
The first ring would go to Vanessa.