Accolades and records are recognized as the standard to determine the greatness of an athlete. Championships, individual records, trophies, and signature moments are what fans and pundits point to when assessing the greatness of sports icons—from Lionel Messi’s six Ballon d’Or trophies to Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships.
But greatness fades. As bones become brittle and the body withers, athletes who once stood at the pinnacle of the sporting world are replaced by quicker, stronger, and younger sportsmen, as is the cycle of an athletic career. New heirs take their place on the throne, while legends take a bow.
Legacy, on the other hand, stands the test of time. It cannot be measured in moments; accolades and records contribute to an athlete’s legacy, but they do not encompass it. The true metric for legacy is the lasting impact that these athletes leave on the lives of former teammates, fans, and the world as a whole.
January 27, 2020 was the day that the meaning of legacy became clear to me. There was a somber mood that morning, more so than any regular Monday. Social media was flooded with news of the passing of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna Bryant, and seven other individuals in a tragic helicopter crash.
Many prominent players have gone before Kobe, each with their own stories and legacy. But their passing arguably had not shaken the world the way Kobe’s had. What felt like the entire planet stopped to mourn the passing of not only a great athlete but also an astounding man.
Kobe was an exceptional sportsman, but there is an abundance of such. What set him apart was how he set out to achieve his greatness. Always the first person in the gym and the last person out, Kobe was living proof that hard work pays off.
A person’s legacy is apparent in the lives that they touched, and Kobe had an impact on an extraordinary amount of people. His work ethic was like no other, infectious in his zeal to get better everyday. The “Mamba Mentality” became his trademark, signifying his passion for the game and his outlook in life.
According to Kobe, this frame of mind is all about “focusing on the process and trusting in the hard work when it matters most.” His example inspired a generation, and the Mamba Mentality reverberated around the world.
Kobe’s legacy transcended sports; being an NBA legend was only part of who he was, but he was so much more. Sports was his platform, but the Mamba Mentality, being a “girl dad”, and his social activism, meant that the lives he touched beyond his greatness in basketball are his legacy.
The sporting landscape has changed and evolved exponentially from its inception. Athletes are no longer just athletes—they are icons, not only within their sports, but also of humanity as a whole. The stardom and the pedestal society bestows upon them has put these individuals in a position of great influence, which is why their responsibility is greater than ever.
Athletes have the ability to steer conversations in society, inspire young generations who look up to them, and stand up for issues they believe are right. The opportunity to make meaningful and lasting change has never been more pronounced for these sportsmen, which is why the legacy of an athlete is not confined within the sphere of sports.
Part of having influence is being judged on what you do with that influence. Whether athletes like it or not, their ability to make a lasting impact on people, even after they’re gone, is the true determinant of what their legacy is; it is about how people remember the way they lived their lives as a whole. Once an individual has passed, they leave the world to judge their lives without any means of defense besides the testaments and the marks their stories have made on those who still live.
Greatness is fleeting in the grand scheme of things, existing only in the moment that it occurs. It feeds into one’s legacy but does not determine it. The stories leading up to the great moments, the grit and determination, the hardwork and sacrifice—these are where legacies are written, crafted as a lifelong endeavor.
Legacy has the power to stand the test of time; when the world looks back on the lives we lived, we can do nothing but hope that, like Kobe, we inspire the living through the memories and stories of our lives.