With a single free throw to mark the last of his 33,643 points, Kobe Bryant has cemented himself as a legend in the sport of basketball. His final appearance wasn’t in the NBA finals as he would’ve liked, but his 60-point performance reminded us again of an era he helped define.
The fairy-tale ending for the 18-time All Star couldn’t have been written any better: an emotional tribute, an enchanted crowd, an improbable comeback. Yet for Kobe, his greatest accomplishment that night came after the final buzzer. As everyone celebrated his illustrious career, he did the one thing that many before him could not – he left the game behind.
From a BodyArmor towel draped over his shoulder to his iconic “Mamba Out!” Kobe’s speech after the game was as much a farewell as an introduction. He tactfully showcased his first investment in BodyArmor and left the crowd with a buzz-inspiring slogan. Kobe’s NBA career might be over, but he seamlessly transitioned into his new role as the spokesman for his company: Kobe Inc.
The company, founded in 2014, aims to invest in ideas that redefine the sport industry. In Kobe’s words – to create a medium for story-telling. It is far too early to gauge how much success he will have, but he is only one of a handful of athletes with even a post-career plan.
A single statistic from Sports Illustrated illuminates the severity of this problem – 78% of National Football League (NFL) players either bankrupt or commit suicide within two years of retirement.
It is a daunting figure. But rather than revisiting the age-old question of why professional athletes so often fall from stardom, I think it is worth exploring the question from another angle: what can we learn from professional athletes who have seemingly nothing in common with us?
The answer is plenty. The vast majority of us would not have accumulated enough wealth by our early thirties to entertain business ideas such as Maria Sharapova’s Sugarpova or Wayne Gretzky’s winery, but there is a common denominator. For those of us trying to explore a new profession or take on a new hobby, it is in many ways similar to an athlete trying to prove themselves again.
For them, the difficulty is finding a new passion where they can prove that they are the very best in front of millions of people. And for us, it is convincing ourselves that changes are normal and that we are not just wasting the golden years of our lives.
If there is a takeaway to how quickly we turn on our childhood heroes for their poor life decisions, it is that by any measurement of success, our lives are not defined by a singular achievement. We can start strong and end poorly, or the other way around. We may have taken a job for the wrong reasons, or stuck with someone because we were scared of change – and that’s okay.
With life expectancy at over 80 years in most economies, we have every opportunity and resource to reposition ourselves1. We can anticipate the changing world and make ceaseless adjustments to adapt to it. I’m too young to have experienced a career change, but there are other applications of this mindset just within our education system.
For many disciplines at school, there seems to be an invisible hand that ushers us down a certain path. Yet, there is so much more to consider than the reputation of one field (and let’s be real, it’s mostly ranked based on $$). The most sought-after career might be the one for you, but that’s for you to decide. Don’t be afraid to double back or be cynical; our decisions are not final.
So – what can we learn from Kobe’s last game? You can be as close to being the face of basketball as anyone. But if circumstances change, as they often do with age or with anything else, we have to be vigilant for new opportunities. In the words of NFL’s Deion Sanders: “It is important to walk away from the game and not have the game walk away from you.”
1See here for a great lecture on why immortality would suck.