It has now been over two years since the world lost basketball legend, writer, and producer Kobe Bean Bryant.
We fondly remember Kobe and his moving Oscar-winning short film Dear Basketball.
Kobe was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1978. In 1996, he graduated from Lower Merion High School, entered the NBA draft, and was drafted 13th overall by the Charlotte Hornets. Immediately, the Los Angeles Lakers traded for him. And so began one of the most iconic careers in professional sports.
For 20 years, Kobe dazzled and inspired as a Laker. In his prime, he was arguably the greatest basketball player in the world for over a decade. During those years in particular, he averaged over 25 points per game. Year after year, NBA season after NBA season, game after game, there was Kobe, a constant, a consummate pro, delivering for the team and the fans, in the regular season from early in the fall until early in the spring, and in the playoffs until the arrival of summer. One night in January of 2006, on a Sunday in Los Angeles, he scored a shocking 81 points, the most points any player has ever scored in the modern NBA. Kobe was, in essence, a magician out there on the basketball court. In one week in the spring of 2007, he had four consecutive 50 point games (two of which were actually 60 point games), a feat as impressive as any for an NBA player given the fact that the vast majority of players finish their entire careers without ever having had a single 50 point game. His skills and the stats they translated into were downright jaw-dropping.
His brilliant artistry was, without a doubt, earned. Ever the relentless Virgo, Kobe believed in ‘squeezing every drop out of the orange.’ He would famously wake up every morning at 4 AM to begin training. When fellow teammates arrived at the gym to begin their workouts, they would find Kobe there, drenched in sweat, hours into his training. He was tireless. All professional athletes have to work extremely hard to rise to the heights they manage to reach, but it was widely known that nobody worked as hard as Kobe worked.
Kobe, ever the fan of cinema, adopted the nickname. Even his most prideful opponents would attest that Kobe truly was the Black Mamba.
In 2003, Quentin Tarantino released his long-awaited kung fu epic, Kill Bill. In it, Uma Thurman plays an assassin who is nicknamed the Black Mamba. Her deadly character is named after the highly venomous snake. In one scene, we learn that "in Africa, the saying goes, 'in the bush, an elephant can kill you, a leopard can kill you, and a black mamba can kill you; but only with the mamba – and this has been true since the dawn of time – is death sure.'" Kobe, ever the fan of cinema, adopted the nickname. Even his most prideful opponents would attest that Kobe truly was the Black Mamba. The vigor with which Kobe tackled the challenges that came his way, both on the court and off, came to be known as the Mamba Mentality.
Of course, it’s impossible to win every single game. Although his storied career was one filled with exciting victories, he also experienced his share of tough losses. But Kobe’s resolve always proved unshakeable. No matter what happened, he remained committed to being the best.
On the night he tore his achilles tendon in the spring of 2013, he once again stunned the sports world. It just so happened that he was fouled on the ill-fated play. Kobe walked up to the free throw line on his own, swished two free throws to give the team the lead in the final minutes of the hotly contested game, and then, gingerly walked off the court on his own, to the shock of watching fans. It is, after all, customary for an athlete to be carried off – or at least helped off – the court or the field upon suffering this devastating injury.
Sadly, several other season ending injuries would follow in the subsequent years. Nevertheless, even when he suffered serious injuries in his final years in the league, Kobe persevered and battled back. He would get surgery, recover, build himself back up during an arduous rehab, and make his welcome return to the court.
On Thanksgiving Weekend in 2015, during his 20th season in the NBA, Kobe penned a letter in The Players Tribune announcing that the 2015-16 NBA season would be his last season in the NBA. The letter, "Dear Basketball," is written to the game of basketball, telling the game that he will soon be walking away. Although his heart still wanted the next victory as passionately as ever before, the miles and miles had added up. Kobe knew that no athlete plays forever. Father Time, as they say, is undefeated. He wrote, "I can’t love you obsessively for much longer. This season is all I have left to give. My heart can take the pounding. My mind can handle the grind. But my body knows it’s time to say good-bye."
I can’t love you obsessively for much longer. This season is all I have left to give.
The rest of his final season was not easy for him. There were still games when he reminded fans of what he used to do nightly when he was younger, but there were other nights when he appeared to be what he was – an athlete at the end of his career. He would famously take ice baths to help his body recover. This tenacity is what made his unbelievably epic Laker finale possible. The night he said good-bye in April of 2016, he scored an unfathomable 60 points, an absurdly impressive accomplishment for even a player in his prime, much less for one playing his final game at the end of his 20th season.
Kobe gave absolutely everything he had to his team, the city of Los Angeles, and basketball fans all across the world. When it was all said and done, Kobe had played 1,346 regular season games and 220 playoff games for the Lakers, and scored a total of 33,643 points in the regular season and another 5,640 points in the playoffs.
As a retired player, Kobe could no longer inspire on the court. Instead, he wanted to tell inspirational stories that would captivate and motivate audiences. He loved heroic stories himself, and was a huge fan of the Harry Potter franchise.
Kobe formed Granity Studios, a multimedia original content company. When he was deciding on a name, he plucked letters from a term that spoke to him, ‘greater than infinity,’ and created the word granity. For an ambitious man who always pushed himself to the limit, granity, meaning to him greater than infinity, was the perfect word for his company.
As a storyteller, he decided that producing the visualization of his “Dear Basketball” letter would be appropriate. He was certainly not new to film production. Over the years, he had appeared in countless TV commercials for Nike, Adidas, Sprite, McDonald’s, and several other companies. In addition to appearing in them, Kobe had been heavily involved in the writing of many of the commercials in which he had appeared. He had plenty of experience to draw upon.
As an executive producer, Kobe turned to none other than Glen Keane to direct the short film. Keane had previously worked on The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, among other Disney classics. Keane not only directed Dear Basketball, but he was also one of the animators.
For the score, Kobe turned to the one and only John Williams, who is, of course, the 52-time Academy Award nominee and 5-time Oscar winner who has composed the scores for Jaws, Schindler’s List, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Home Alone, Saving Private Ryan, and several other monumental films. John Williams’ score for Dear Basketball is in parts delightful and in other parts devastating, capturing the tone of the good-bye, while celebrating the many years of success. It is undoubtedly a touching and beautiful piece of music.
Kobe narrated Dear Basketball himself. Even a harsh critic would have to admit that Kobe pours his heart and soul into the voice-over narration. The pain in his voice as he bids the sport good-bye is undeniable. Hearing him saying the familiar words that had appeared in his published letter a year and a half earlier, one feels that it is not just a love letter to the sport of basketball, but to the years of his life that he spent on the court, often times all alone in otherwise empty gyms or parks, as a player perfecting his craft. It is evident that he is truly leaving a part of himself behind. As snakes grow, they get to a point where their skin is stretched to the limit. They shed their skin to allow for further growth. Here, the Black Mamba is shedding his skin to leave his past behind him, and to begin a new chapter in his life.
Dear Basketball was released in April of 2017, a year after Kobe retired. Upon its release, it was hailed as a remarkable achievement. The following winter, the short film was recognized for its greatness when it was nominated for an Academy Award, and, at the ceremony weeks later, Dear Basketball won the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film.
On the stage, delivering a heartfelt acceptance speech, a stunned Kobe held his Oscar close, thanked several key collaborators, and told his wife Vanessa and their daughters, “Ti amo con tutto il mio cuore,” which is Italian for ‘I love you with all my heart.’ And then added that they were “his inspiration.” Kobe, having lived in Italy for the better part of a decade as a young boy while his father, Joe Bryant, played professional basketball there, spoke Italian fluently.
Having already won five NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers and two gold medals as a member of the United States Men’s National Basketball Team (the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and the 2012 Summer Olympics in London), Kobe was used to performing at the highest level and winning. But even he would not have guessed that he would become an Oscar winner before the age of 40. When asked about how he was feeling during his backstage interview immediately following his acceptance speech on the Oscar stage, an overjoyed Kobe said, “I feel better than winning a championship to be honest with you.” It meant everything to him to know that his work as a writer-producer was being received with respect and adulation by his new peers in the arts.
Not only did Kobe become the first former professional athlete to become an Oscar winner, he also became the first African American to ever win an Oscar in this category. Appearing on Jimmy Kimmel Live! days later, and proudly showing off his Oscar, Kobe acknowledged that there was still work to be done to make the field of animation more diverse, pledging, “I’m excited to push that forward.”
Tragically, the world lost Kobe far too soon.
The hundreds of meticulously painted murals around the city of Los Angeles, and the countless murals in other cities – across the country and the entire world – are a testament to what Kobe meant to basketball fans. Other players have won multiple championships in the NBA and other players have had iconic games, but Kobe’s drive was simply unmatched. He was truly special. As the great Michael Jordan said at Kobe’s Celebration of Life, "Kobe left nothing in the tank. He left it all on the floor."
Today, we warmly remember Kobe. There will never be another like the Mamba.