Kobe Bryant's other great gift was storytelling
We didn't just lose a basketball legend. We lost a magnificent storyteller.
The smaller the ball, the more formidable the literature. So said the storied journalist and founder of The Paris Review, George Plimpton, in his 1992 "Game Theory of Literature." Nearly 30 years on, it more or less holds true: Golf and baseball are surely the most literary of all the sports, rhapsodized by Updike and Wodehouse, Roth, and, of course, the great athlete-turned-writer Jim Brosnan. But the basketball shelf is "slim," Plimpton wrote; with the basketball clocking in at 29.5 inches, only the beach ball is less graceful, both in hand and prose.
Plimpton died in 2003, when a 25-year-old Kobe Bryant was still in dizzying ascension, although the editor's snobbish sensibilities meant neither Bryant's Mamba Mentality nor "Dear Basketball" likely would have convinced him to rework his theory. Still, while the basketball star's writing might have been modest compared to what he accomplished on the court during his two decades with the Los Angeles Lakers, it is a large part of what makes his tragic, premature death on Sunday so hard to absorb. Kobe Bryant clearly had so many stories left to tell.
April 13, 2016, was a day awaited by many fans with hushed and awed anticipation. Five months earlier, Bryant had announced his retirement unconventionally, with a 52-line epistolary poem published in The Players' Tribune. Addressed to the sport itself, "Dear Basketball" is almost more of a love letter or an ode: "I fell in love with you/A love so deep I gave you my all." The literary world reacted with pleasant surprise; it's not every day that one of the great American athletes makes a foray into free-verse poetry. "It's not the worst poem I've ever read," the poet Nick Twemlow offered to The New York Times. While the author of the article, Andrew Keh, admitted himself that "Bryant may not be Shakespeare," he and Tremlow both couldn't help but admire "how purely Bryant's obsessive personality came through" — and what more can you ask from a writer than that sort of honesty?
The beats in the poem, too, loaned themselves to being read aloud, and they eventually were, by Bryant himself, in the lovely animated short "Dear Basketball," which went on to win an Emmy and Oscar in 2018 (over 17,000 people signed a petition at the time, saying Bryant did not deserve the award due to a 2003 rape allegation). The poem also signposted a creator who had a real ear for words, and could understand their rhythm and musicality. Bryant had even reportedly bonded with Glen Keane, the short's animator, by way of a mutuel appreciation of Beethoven. "Every game has a structure, just like a piece of music has structure and momentum," Bryant had said in 2007. "You have to be conscious of how that momentum is building to be able to shift or alter it." Writing, it would turn out, would not be so different.
Perhaps it's obvious, then, that Bryant first started discovering his creative voice through music. It was a short-lived career, although one that would connect him with his eventual wife, Vanessa, on the set of a Snoop Dog music video, where she was a teenage dancer. His colleagues during this period in the late 1990s remember Bryant, who had turned down college to enter the NBA draft, as innately talented. "He liked to dig into the beat and flow and mess with rhythms and tone and pitches. You could tell, he wasn't dope by accident," Al Price, a Philly MC, told Grantland in a fantastic piece about Bryant's failed rap career. Grantland goes on to posit that while Bryant had talent writing "lyrically complex underground rap," he was done wrong by Sony, which pushed him disastrously toward radio-friendly pop and dumped him when the experiment had less than satisfactory results.
But even if music didn't work out, Bryant's attraction to storytelling had taken root. Even his brief farewell speech at his retirement game in April 2016, which famously concluded with "Mamba out," had an authorial flair of drama and preparation: "As last lines go, this falls somewhere between 'Rosebud' and whatever the last line of Ghost in the Shell was," quipped Bleacher Report at the time. "Like Kobe Bryant's trademark playing style, it seemed to be both totally extemporaneous and meticulously planned."
As Bryant transitioned out of basketball, his urge toward storytelling deepened and widened. Bryant was reportedly almost late to the last game of his career because he was engrossed in editing short stories. "I was actually at the office until 4 or 4:15 editing a bunch of short stories, and lost track of time,” Bryant had told The Wall Street Journal. "And I looked at my watch, 'Oh … I better go home. I got my last game to play.'" While it's unclear what happened to those stories, Bryant would go on to publish The Mamba Mentality: How I Play in 2018, which served as something of a memoir, motivational guide, and yearbook all in one. It has the same rawness that Tremlow recognized in Bryant's poetry years earlier; a bit rough-around-the-edges but earnest and sparkling with energy and enthusiasm about the game.
What struck me most, though, revisiting Mamba Mentality this weekend is Bryant's boundless generosity. Even though it's Bryant's book, and one he'd been dreaming of writing since at least 2013, it wasn't the kind of erratic vanity project popular with so many other celebrity athletes. Rather than use the book to author his own legacy, many of the pages are spent deeply praising his staff, teammates, and rivals. It is steeped in intention, clearly reaching beyond its pages. "It feels great to see the book finally finished," Bryant told one interviewer. "But the greatest part is that I hope it teaches the next generation about what it means to really go after something — I mean, obsessively go after it."
What is so heartbreaking now is that this story gets no second act. At the time of his death, Bryant had been working on building up his production company, which Deadline reported was "zeroing [in] on creating and producing inspiring, youth-oriented sports-meets-fantasy-themed content with a diverse array of characters within publishing, television, feature, and live theater genres." At first glance, such a venture might seem like a disconnected sequel to the story of one of the greatest athletes to have ever stepped on a court, but as sportswriter Alexander Wolff told The Library of America, "basketball becomes a way of working through things" on the page. Basketball and writing are both calculated and emotional, both instinctual and practiced — and are far more married than Plimpton ever gave them credit for. Bryant understood this.
"The world revolves around storytelling," he had told CBS This Morning just last November, before adding, "I get excited to try to, you know, play my small part in it."