The place that manifested Kobe Bryant’s motivation in life and became the site of unimaginable mourning after his death honored the superstar once and for all Tuesday.
The Mamba Sports Academy, the Thousand Oaks training complex to which Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others were traveling when they were killed in a Jan. 26 helicopter crash, announced it is retiring “Mamba” — Bryant’s iconic nickname — from its title.
“The changing of the name from Mamba Sports Academy to Sports Academy, the original name from 2016, is not a decision we came to lightly or on our own,” the Sports Academy said in a statement. “It was a mutual agreement made in accordance with the wishes of his estate. Thank you for respecting that decision in these turbulent times.”
Bryant started coming to the Sports Academy as a coach of his daughter’s youth basketball team in early 2018. That December, when Bryant joined the gym as an official partner, “Mamba” was added to the name.
"I want to emphasize that this isn't a licensing deal," Sports Academy founder Chad Faulkner told the Ventura County Star at the time. "I wasn't interested in that. He wasn't interested in that. If Kobe puts his name on something, it's because he believes in it and intends to be involved.”
In his year-plus working with the Sports Academy, which includes the elegant 100,000-square-foot flagship facility in Thousand Oaks and another training center in Redondo Beach that opened last December, the five-time NBA champion was a familiar face around the gym, his name alone creating an unmistakable, uncompromising aura for its athletes.
“It had been in existence before he became involved and it was a stellar facility then,” said Dr. Sari Shepphird, a sports psychologist in Calabasas whose clientele includes several professional athletes that train at the academy.
But when Bryant brought his name and, just as important, his “Mamba mentality” on hard work and otherworldly dedication to the facility, “that lent a lot of credibility to what they’re doing and how they’re wanting to help athletes improve,” Shepphird said. “His influence can’t be understated.”
Before long, “train the Mamba way” became a common catch phrase for the academy’s roughly 50,000 athletes, ranging from youth players of all sports to professional stars such as the Rams’ Aaron Donald and New York Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard.
Bryant organized training sessions and pickup games at the academy with current NBA icons including Kawhi Lenoard, Paul George and Kyrie Irving. He mentored promising men’s and women’s basketball prospects, most notably former Oregon guard and No. 1 overall WNBA draft pick Sabrina Ionescu. And he continued coaching his daughter’s club team, known as Team Mamba, in the newly minted Mamba Cup Tournament Series.
“His name brand brought so many different athletes,” said Eric Rosenthal, a high school assistant coach in Newbury Park with two younger brothers who play youth tournaments at the academy. “My two little brothers have met, and taken pictures with and gotten autographs with so many different NBA players, NFL players, because Kobe’s name is trusted and idolized. It became a pillar of the community.”
Bryant, Gianna and other members of the Team Mamba squad were flying to the academy for a Mamba Cup event when their helicopter crashed in the Santa Monica Mountains. By the end of the day, the facility’s front entrance was covered with flowers, candles, jerseys and posters in a makeshift vigil.
The mementos continued to pile up for more than a week, athletes and fans paying their respects to Bryant at a place his legacy was physically embodied.
“Kobe exemplified the best of the best,” said Tyrell Corbin, a former G-League player who began going to the Mamba Academy after Bryant got involved. “So when you walk into a gym that literally is one of the best gyms I’ve ever been in, you just feel a way when you’re there. This is Kobe Bryant’s gym. You want to give it your all.”
The Sports Academy has been closed since March 17 because of the coronavirus outbreak. It’s unclear when it might reopen. But whenever it does, it won’t need the Mamba name to remember everything Bryant stood for.
"We were fortunate to learn from Kobe,” Faulkner told ESPN. “We will carry on many of those learnings in a respectful way."