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  • Chris OBrien

Receive a negative book review? Lessons from Kobe Bryant's four airball game in 1997

Updated: Sep 4, 2019

It was May 12th, 1997. The Lakers were down 3-1 in the Western Conference Semifinals against John Stockton, Karl Malone, and the Utah Jazz. If they lose: season's over. Win and at least they would be one series away from the NBA Finals against Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls.


The game was tied 89-89. Eight seconds left. The fans in Salt Lake City were all up on their feet, the place is as loud as a basketball arena can get. An 18-year-old rookie named Kobe Bryant has the ball in his hands, slowly dribbles across half-court. This is an enormous stage for any player, but especially one who is barely old enough to vote. Yet there he was looking incredibly calm.


Kobe makes a move, pulls up, ball heads toward the basket. It's... an airball. Fans go crazy. We're headed to overtime.

It's a weird feeling watching those five minutes of overtime. Kobe proceeds to shoot three more airballs in the final minute of the game. Re-watching this video in 2019, you're left thinking, "Wait, that's THE Kobe Bryant?? The Black Mamba?" It's hard to imagine the five-time NBA champion, a player who I remember always hitting clutch shots have such a humiliating performance. I mean this is the same guy who would score 60 points against the Utah Jazz (how's that for poetic justice) in his final NBA game.


So how did Kobe handle the public humiliation? Did he go home and hide all summer? Consider quitting basketball?


In a recent interview (highly recommend watching this whole thing) with Patrick Bet-David, Kobe explained his response to those airballs and how he used the whole experience to improve his game.


First thing he did, remove the public humiliation out of it. Yeah, sure, it happened in front of millions of people. But it's over. So why did it happen? What was the specific basketball reason?


His conclusion: His legs weren't strong enough. At 18-years-old, he'd never played an 82-game season before. He didn't know what playoff basketball was like. In Kobe's mind, he didn't shoot four airballs because he was a choke artist, a loser, a failure, he shot four airballs because he had nothing left in his legs.


How to correct that: Time to hit the gym. Running. Squats. Hang cleans. Get stronger.


The results: Well, the rest is history. The next season he doubled his points per game and played 11 more minutes per night. He then went on to have one of the greatest NBA careers of all time.


Applying this to the writer


Let's say you publish your first book and you log onto Amazon to see if there are any reviews or any new reviews. There it is. A glaring 1-star. It's not pretty. It says something like:


The grammar in here was atrocious.
I was so bored, didn't even finish the first chapter.
I hated this book. The dialogue was terrible, it didn't even sound like real people speaking. Highly recommend reading something else.

Doesn't matter how thick your skin is, these things always hurt to see, especially when you deeply care about the book you've written.


We tend to react to negative reviews in one of two ways.


First is to completely brush it off. Maybe even make fun of the reviewer. "It's a troll. I bet they live in their mom's basement." Their review no longer matters, because we've stripped away their credibility.


The other way is to give them too much credit. Let the words beat us up. They're right. This book probably does suck. Why did I think I could do it? I'm not a writer. I'm no good.


Neither approach results in any sort of growth. Ignore and we miss out on potential areas to grow. Take it too personally and we stunt our future confidence in working on our next project.


The Kobe Approach


Remove the public humiliation out of it. Alright, why did they write a negative review? Why did I shoot an airball? Ok, this one says my grammar is bad. This one couldn't get through the first chapter. This one says my dialogue was lacking.


Remedies: Maybe I need to use Grammarly next time. Or work with an editor. Let's study the great first chapters. How did JK Rowling get people hooked on Harry Potter? How does Stephen King do it? How does Gillian Flynn do it? Pull ten books off the bookshelves. Study their first chapters. What do they have in common? Find a YouTube video, podcast episode on how to write an opening chapter. Take a class. Practice it. Same thing with dialogue. Seek out the top dialogue writers. Go see a few plays. What does great dialogue look like? Keep soaking things in from the greats the same way Kobe watched Michael, the same way some kid today is watching old footage of Kobe.


You could unpublish your book, work on these things, republish or let that work be what it is and improve these things for the next book. Start building the rest of your career.


Kobe Bryant doesn't ask YouTube to take down the four airball video and when I watch it in 2019 it doesn't diminish his overall career. He was awesome, but that airball game twenty years ago really hurt the full body of work...


If anything, the airball game adds to the overall legend. It's an example of overcoming adversity.


As writers, we don't have to be in denial about the mistakes, the negative reviews, the airballs but, at the same time, don't let them derail our process. Simply head to the gym (aka the laptop) the next morning, watch the game film, and ask, "How can I get better?"

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