Talking to an NBA player is a rare opportunity for anyone. If that NBA player is Kobe Bryant it’s almost surely a once in a lifetime thing, at least for European media. In my case I was lucky enough to have spoken with Kobe a couple of times before. Back when we were both young. The first time was in 1997. Exactly twenty years ago. Also in Paris. Funny how life goes.
A lot has happened since then. I’m not a full-time basketball writer anymore and when Kobe retired last year I was sure I would never talk to the Black Mamba again. Because why would I? Kobe has made it very clear he’d be done with NBA basketball in any official capacity, concentrating on his new passion “storytelling”. So I was sure unless I switch industries and go from sports to entertainment, access to Kobe would be almost impossible from now on.
Still there was a slight chance because unsurprisingly Kobe made his first storytelling project about basketball. A short film called “Dear Basketball” based on this poem he wrote in 2015 to announce his retirement. He is also still very much involved in the development of his Nike Kobe basketball shoe, which gets KICKZ as one of the top basketball retailers in the world a foot in the door. In theory. Players with signature shoe lines rarely introduce their shoes personally here in Europe. Retired players? You’re lucky if you get a YouTube link. Also, name me a retired basketball player that has his own signature shoe line. Except the obvious one. Yeah, the list is short. The list is two names.
Enter October 2017, when our contacts at Nike Basketball (shoutout to Alex & Joscha!) hinted at the opportunity of an invitation to an event in Paris. Kobe would be there but a chance to meet him could not yet be confirmed. In moments like this it is important not to get your hopes up. I have been to many events where things change last minute and plans get thrown out the window in the blink of an eye. But our guys at Nike came through and within a week my colleague Phil and me were sitting on a plane to Paris and I finally had the chance to close that circle. After twenty years I was going to talk to Kobe again.
Kobe was one of my first interview partners ever. (My first was Rik Smits – whadup Flying Dutchman!). Naturally the first thing that came to my mind was if Kobe would remember me. Yes, the normal reaction of any sane person would be “why would he?”. But Kobe and me had a special “relationship”. Back in 1997 I did something that was both incredibly foolish and courageous at the same time. I was young (so was he) and I didn’t know any better. During a press conference in Disneyland (of all places!), French reporters asked the then 19-year-old if it was his first time in France, how he liked Paris and what it was like playing in the NBA. All softball questions from local newspaper people who really had no idea who this kid was. (This was pre-Tony-Parker time. So NBA in France was not really a hot topic)
Anyway, I should mention that I am a Lakers fan. I was not a huge fan of this kid who just airballed my team out of the playoffs. So when it was my turn, I grabbed the mic and asked “What were you – a rookie – thinking taking those four shots that resulted in 4 air balls, when you have the best center in the world posting up in the paint and a team full of veterans?”
The room went dead-quiet real fast. But Kobe laughed and said “Damn! What is this, New York? Now that’s a pro question.” before going on about how the shots felt good when he took them and how instinct took over and bla bla. But the next day when I had my private interview with him he remembered me! “Oh you were the guy who asked me that question yesterday”. One year after that we met again in Berlin and when he saw me he noticed there was something different about me. (I grew a beard and had new glasses). So Kobe Bryant remembered what I look like? WTF? And the year after that he met me in the hotel lobby of that Barcelona hotel that looks like a fish (keep forgetting the name) and yelled “Robbin!” across the room and introduced me to his then fianceé Vanessa with “this is the guy who asked all the tough questions in Paris”.
So yeah, I had reason to wonder if he would still remember me.
So here we were in this beautiful basketball venue called “LeQuartier” and when it was our time to meet the Mamba we were led into this little room, Kobe sitting at the far end close to the wall. We were introduced as KICKZ team from Germany and this is how it went:
Me: Kobe! Long time no see. Almost 20 years!
Kobe: I know right? Can you believe it.
Me: We were young in our first interview. Now we’re old.
Kobe: Yeah, but at least you still have your hair!
Me: Let’s get started.
Kobe: Let’s do it!
Me: There’s a whole new generation of NBA players in the league today. You being a storyteller now and being from a different generation, what are the challenges of reaching these young guys with your message?
Kobe: Well, there’s definitely a generation gap there. But I believe the messages I’m trying to convey are universal. It doesn’t matter how old you are or where you come from or what language you speak. Mamba Mentality is for everyone.
Me: That term gets thrown around quite often these days. Especially on social media. Mamba Mentality. But what is it?
Kobe: It’s the mindset of getting better each day. Of working towards being the best version of yourself you can possibly be. It’s about the journey towards that goal and setting mini goals you can reach. Ask yourself what you did today to get better. And I’m not just talking about basketball or sports. In every facet of life you can can strive to be the best. Now the only question is are you working hard enough to reach that goal and it begins with asking yourself if you did anything today to get you there, no matter how small. It’s baby steps.
Me: Since you retired you took some big steps away from active basketball towards a career of being a storyteller. For example we just watched your first project the animated short film “Dear Basketball” minutes ago. That was impressive by the way. How did that idea come about?
Kobe: The idea came to me actually while I was writing the poem. If you notice the writing of it it’s very visual. I decided to show my love for basketball through these visuals everyone could picture in their head. For example when I say that I love the game so much it means a lot more, if I can show you how much. Rolling up the tube socks, watching the old highlights of the Lakers and the Celtics, these are all visuals that work great in a movie and it gave Glen Keane the ability to visually represent that. And it also gave John the opportunity to score it in a really big way.
(For those of you who don’t know: Glen Keane is the Michael Jordan of animation. He was responsible for the drawings in Disney movies like Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocohontas, Tarzan and many many more. If you have a favorite, pre-Pixar, animated movie, Keane was probably the one who drew it)
Me: When did you decide to do it as animation instead of live action?
Kobe: From the beginning.
Kobe: Two reasons. One, animation brings the imagination to life more than live action can. Secondly, the career that I built and the story you see in the movie is step-by-step. You can see me at different stages of my life, which you can’t do convincingly in live action.
Me: And the decision to let Glen Keane do it …
Kobe: I wanted the best. I wanted not only animation, but hand drawn animation. There’s no computer generated effects. If you look at it closely it has the same kind of craftsmanship my career had. It’s not perfect, it’s not super clean. It’s a bit dirty. It’s organic.
Me: Drawing by hand is a lot more work.
Kobe: Oh man, you have no idea. The movie is 20 frames a second. 20 frames that have to be drawn each by hand for every second in the movie. And it’s a 5 minute film! That’s a lot of drawings! (I did the calculations afterwards. 6.000 drawings to be exact) That’s something I wanted to leave in the hands of the very best.
Me: Speaking of the very best… The “John” you were just talking about who wrote the music to “Dear Basketball” is none other than the great John Williams, composer of legendary movie themes like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Superman, Saving Private Ryan… I could go on and on and on. How did you get this living legend to score your movie?
Kobe: (big grin) Yeah, I knew John before I knew Glen. I met John in 2008 and I just called him out of the blue…
Me: Basketball player Kobe Bryant cold-called the greatest movie composer of all time?
Kobe: Well, yeah. We had just lost to the Celtics and I contacted a lot of people I knew I could learn from to get us over that hump.
Me: What could you possibly learn from John Williams?
Kobe: He’s not only a composer but also a conductor. I was curious how he does it. Getting all the different sections of the orchestra to play as one cohesive unit. I saw a lot of similarities of how he conducts an orchestra to what I needed to do to lead the team. There’s percussion, there’s strings, there’s winds. Every section has their own responsibilites and doing their things, but there’s one guy who pulls them all together and harnessess their individual talents so they can play together. How do you communicate clear instructions for that? That’s what I learned from John. And we’ve been friends ever since.
Me: I don’t even have to google to know that that was probably the first and only time in the history of the world that a basketball player looked for help from a composer…
Kobe: Perhaps. But when you look around and see every discipline in the world you can find something you can learn from. It’s different, but at the core it’s the same. The process is the same. Sometimes you can learn more about your respective field by looking outward. Then you get a fresh perspective.
Me: As I said before the result is amazing. I think everyone who has a love for the game will not only understand the message but feel it. Not only that but it looks like Hollywood critics love it as well. There is some serious Oscar buzz around “Dear Basketball”. How do you feel about that?
Kobe: (shakes his head) I can’t tell you it’s a dream because I never even dreamed that this would happen. You know sometimes something happens that is beyond your wildest dreams? That’s what this is. Me writing someting that Glen Keane animates is absolutely crazy and now people talking about it possibly getting an Oscar nomination. It’s beyond anything I could ever dream of.
(That’s when we were softly reminded that our time was up and we needed to end the interview)
Kobe: Ah c’mon. (turning to me) Do you still have one question?
Me: Well, let’s talk about your shoe.
Contact: (smiles) Ooookay, in that case I will allow it.
Kobe: Hahaha! See that’s how it works!
Me: Okay, last question Kobe. With you being retired now, is the approach different of designing and developing a basketball shoe than when you were still playing?
Kobe: Yes, it is. Very much so. When I was still playing I always looked at it from the perspective what do I need to perform at a higher level. Now the burden gets shifted to a younger different generation to players like Giannis and Kyrie and so forth. So now I go to them and ask them, what do YOU need? Then our innovation process takes over and we always look forward. Never look back. That’s why we don’t do Retros.
Me: Yeah, I was wondering if that will ever happen.
Kobe: Nah, why should we? It doesn’t make sense. You always want to push the boundaries of what’s possible. Always pushing forward. Always innovating. New technologies to create something better, better, better… Why would we go back backwards?
Me: There will never be a Kobe retro shoe?
Me: Alright. I guess that’s a good way to end the interview. Thank you so much for your time!
Let’s hope it doesn’t take 20 years until we see each other again.
Side note: Two years ago, I wrote a short piece on Kobe’s retirement. You can read it here.