The Optimized Doctor

My inspiration


Kobe Bryant knew me. Not personally, of course. I never received an autograph or shook his hand. But once in a while if I was up early enough, I’d run into Kobe at the gym in Newport Beach where he and I both worked out. As he did for all his fans at the gym, he’d make eye contact with me and nod hello. He was always focused on his workout – working with a trainer, never with headphones on. In person, he appeared enormous. Unlike most retired professional athletes, he still was in great shape. No doubt he could have suited up in purple and gold, and played against the Clippers that night if needed.

Featureflash Photo Agency

Kobe Bryant at the 90th Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre, Hollywood, Calf., on March 4, 2018.

Being from New England, I never was a Laker fan. But at Kobe’s peak around 2000, I found him inspiring. I recall watching him play right around the time I was studying for my U.S. medical licensing exams. I thought, if Kobe can head to the gym after midnight and take a 1,000 shots to prepare for a game, then I could set my alarm for 4 a.m. and take a few dozen more questions from my First Aid books. Head down, “Kryptonite” cranked on my iPod, I wasn’t going to let anyone in that test room outwork me. Neither did he. I put in the time and, like Kobe in the 2002 conference finals against Sacramento, I crushed it.*

When we moved to California, I followed Kobe and the Lakers until he retired. To be clear, I didn’t aspire to be like him, firstly because I’m slightly shorter than Michael Bloomberg, but also because although accomplished, Kobe made some poor choices at times. Indeed, it seems he might have been kinder and more considerate when he was at the top. But in his retirement he looked to be toiling to make reparations, refocusing his prodigious energy and talent for the benefit of others rather than for just for scoring 81 points. His Rolls Royce was there before mine at the gym, and I was there early. He was still getting up early and now preparing to be a great venture capitalist, podcaster, author, and father to his girls.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio, director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio

Watching him carry kettle bells across the floor one morning, I wondered, do people like Kobe Bryant look to others for inspiration? Or are they are born with an endless supply of it? For me, I seemed to push harder and faster when watching idols pass by. Whether it was Kobe or Clayton Christensen (author of “The Innovator’s Dilemma”), Joe Jorizzo, or Barack Obama, I found I could do just a bit more if I had them in mind.

On game days, Kobe spoke of arriving at the arena early, long before anyone. He would use the silent, solo time to reflect on what he needed to do perform that night. I tried this last week, arriving at our clinic early, before any patients or staff. I turned the lights on and took a few minutes to think about what we needed to accomplish that day. I previewed patients on my schedule, searched Up to Date for the latest recommendations on a difficult case. I didn’t know Kobe, but I felt like I did.

Kobe Bryant memorial at Staples Center on Jan. 26, 2020. CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

When I received the text that Kobe Bryant had died, I was actually working on this column. So I decided to change the topic to write about people who inspire me, ironically inspired by him again. May he rest in peace.

Dr. Benabio is director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not represent those of Kaiser Permanente. Dr. Benabio is @Dermdoc on Twitter. Write to him at

*This article was updated 2/19/2020.

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