'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Kobe Bryant ('Dear Basketball')

Kobe Bryant - Getty - H 2017
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"I'd be writing stories," Kobe Bryant says, without hesitation, as we sit down to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast at his Granity Studios production company in Newport Beach, California, and I ask him what he'd be doing today if something had prevented him from entering the NBA draft in 1996 and spending the next 20 years as a shooting guard for the Los Angeles Lakers — a period during which he was an 18-time All-Star, won a league MVP Award, played an instrumental role in delivering the Lakers five championships and established himself as one of the greatest basketball players of all time. "Storytelling is something that's just a part of me, something that I love every bit as much as I've ever loved basketball, which I'm very fortunate to be able to say," the 39-year-old explains.

Indeed, writing stories — and working to bring them to screens — is what Bryant has spent much of his time doing since he announced his plans to retire from the hardwood on Nov. 29, 2015, with a moving poem that he titled "Dear Basketball." In terms of his second career, the first fruit of his labor, and that of the team he has built at Granity, is an adaptation of that poem, Dear Basketball, a moving five-minute-and-22-second animated short that he — a lifelong animation buff — executive produced and narrated. He made the film in collaboration with two fellow legends, 38-year Disney animator Glen Keane and composer extraordinaire John Williams. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, screened again at the Hollywood Bowl in September and since then has begun to stir up Oscar buzz.

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Bryant, the son of a professional basketball player, was born in Philadelphia, but spent much of his childhood in Italy, where his father temporarily relocated the family after his NBA career came to an end and he signed on to play in European leagues. Bryant first took up the game there, and recalls always being "a huge Lakers fan," and particularly a fan of that team's star Magic Johnson. But he soon realized that he approached the game much more like Johnson's rival, Michael Jordan, particularly after his family returned to Philadelphia and he struggled to fit in: namely, "from a place of darkness and the need to prove something," he says, because "I was trying to prove to myself that I belonged."

Bryant's hoop dreams began to look a lot more realistic by his junior year in high school, by which point he had earned a reputation as an incredible talent and people were scalping tickets to see him play. In 1996, at the age of 17, he became only the sixth person ever to enter the NBA draft right out of high school, and was picked 13th in the first round by the Charlotte Hornets, who promptly traded him to the Lakers. When Bryant first stepped onto the court at the Staples Center on Nov. 3, 1996, he became the youngest person ever to play in an NBA game. Though he spent much of that season "deep on the bench," still adjusting to playing with grown men, he won the NBA Slam Dunk Contest and began to establish himself as a fan favorite.

Things really took off for Bryant and the Lakers after Phil Jackson was hired as the team's coach in 1999. Over the next few years, Bryant and his teammate Shaquille O'Neal brought out the best (dominant play) and worst (constant clashing that Bryant says dates back to a pick-up game during which O'Neal trash-talked him) in each other. They carried the team to three consecutive NBA championships (2000, 2001 and 2002). Then came a "very tense" period for Bryant: The Lakers struggled, and Bryant even requested a trade, after O'Neal left the team in 2004, but before Pau Gasol, another big man, joined it in 2008. At the same time, he faced allegations of sexual assault stemming from an encounter in 2003, which led to more than a year of legal proceedings before the case was dropped.

During that time, Bryant began referring to himself as “Black Mamba,” which many assumed was just a nickname he liked. However, he explains that creating a different persona for himself was the only way he was able to continue to focus on the game. "I felt the need to separate myself, in a sense," he says. "There was a lot of things going on personally with the situation going on in Colorado, and flying back and forth for games, and trying to hold my family together, as well. It just felt like the game, which was always like a safe haven for me, was being compromised, as well. I needed to create some sort of an alter ego, just for myself, so when I step out on the court I'm somebody different, not the person that was sitting in a courthouse. I'm somebody different. And it helped me for my sanity. And then it just turned into something more."

By the time Bryant came through his legal troubles, he was able to devote his full attention to proving that he and the Lakers could win a title without O'Neal. "It was just an itch," he recalls. "They kept putting me in the bucket of, 'You're a supporting cast player, you're a supporting cast player,' and I was like, 'Dude, no I'm not.' You know? And it became this obsession to prove it." In 2008, Bryant was named the league's MVP, and in both 2009 and 2010, the team did indeed win titles. However, as had been the case throughout his career, his body was also increasingly failing him, and it only got worse as time went by — there was tendinitis in both of his knees, torn cartilage in his right knee, a finger fracture and then, most devastatingly, a torn Achilles in 2013. That, in turn, forced him to begin pondering life after basketball. Bryant remembers, "Having to accept reality? That's always a tough thing."

As 2015 wound to an end, Bryant decided the time had come to announce that he would retire at the end of the 2015-2016 season. He sat down to script his announcement and wound up with 52 lines of free verse. "When I started writing, it just started coming out that way," he marvels. "I said, 'I want to speak to the game. I never really got a chance to talk to the game. So what would I say?' And once that was the foundation, then it just came pouring out." After sharing his composition with his wife and a few others in his inner circle, all of whom reacted emotionally to it, he decided to post it on the Derek Jeter-created website The Players Tribune, in which he had been an early investor. "I couldn't have imagined the reaction on the broad scale that came with it," he says. Even people who rooted against Bryant and the Lakers acknowledged that he had created something very special.

Four months later, Bryant played his last NBA game (going out with a remarkable 60-point performance), and then embarked on life after basketball. He remembers, "I said, 'What do you love to do?' Well, I love telling stories. 'Alright, then, let's do that.'" After forming what would become Granity Studios, and with positive feedback to "Dear Basketball" continuing to pour in, he adds, "I thought, 'It'd be pretty cool to have this be the first film that we do.'" He reached out to Keane, who animates by hand, because he felt animation was "the best way to communicate a dream," and to Williams, to whom he had reached out during his playing days with the hope of studying his process, and who, consequently, became his good friend. Both men happily signed on to the project — Williams took two weeks off from scoring Star Wars: The Last Jedi to compose its score, and Keane declared, "It was the hardest thing I've ever animated in my entire life."

As for Bryant, he couldn't be happier with how the film turned out — or more pleasantly surprised by the growing awards buzz around it. "To even hear 'Oscar contender' next to Dear Basketball is beyond the realms of dreams," he tweeted shortly after our conversation. Bryant still keeps an eye on basketball — he says that he thinks college athletes should be paid, that the Oklahoma City Thunder's Russell Westbrook is the up-and-comer who most reminds him of himself, that Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time and that he would kneel during the national anthem if he was still suiting up for games — and he's looking forward to Dec. 18, when the Lakers, during a halftime ceremony, will retire the two numbers that he wore during his career, 8 and 24. "It means I've been fortunate enough to have a really long career with one organization — been fortunate enough to have a chapter — and then been fortunate enough to start another book and have that be successful, as well. So I've been very, very lucky."