When you dominate and destroy the competition in the Best Animated Short Film category.
Photo: Matt Petit (A.M.P.A.S via Getty Images)

During the question-and-answer session that followed the screening of Kobe Bryant’s short film Dear Basketball at the Tribeca Film Festival last spring, Bryant said a lot of things that would have been very hard to credit from anyone less driven or deeply weird than Kobe Bryant. He used a lot of the odd and self-authored jargon that he created to express the dimensions of his odd and self-authored worldview—phrases like “seed of muse” instead of “inspiration,” for instance. He talked about receiving a phone call from Michael Jackson at a time when Kobe remembered that he was being “getting criticized for being too obsessed” and said that Jackson reassured him that he should just keep on doing what he was doing. Kobe said that, on the last day of his NBA career, before the game in which he scored 60 points on 50 shots, he had forgotten that there was even a game scheduled for that night because he was “at the office, polishing off some stories.”

There’s no way to verify things like this, but there’s also no real need to do it. To the extent that they reveal anything, it’s about Kobe Bryant and how he sees the world as he moves through it. Whatever Michael Jackson did or didn’t say to Kobe on that phone call—shit, whether the phone call happened at all—is less meaningful than Kobe taking from it precisely what he would invariably take from it. The lesson that Kobe takes from any interaction or experience is that More Kobe Is Required Here. As he has made his post-NBA pivot into storytelling—not to little kids at libraries, this is more storytelling in the rich-man-who-speaks-with-his-eyes-closed contemporary sense of the word—Bryant has dedicated himself to bringing that lesson to the biggest possible audience.

In his new career as in his old one, this is fundamentally about belief. Whether you believe that Kobe forgot that he was about to play the last basketball game of his perverse and brilliant career because he was too busy thinking of new sports cartoons matters less than the fact that he had clearly chosen to remember it that way. He is, his dedication to bespoke Kobe-jargon aside, radically devoted to clarity, to a specific goal and the pursuit of it. This is the story he tells everyone else, and also himself. So, no, he probably didn’t forget he was about to play in his last NBA game, but you can see why such a fiction might be useful to him. In his mind, Kobe had already thrown himself with full headlong Kobe-ness into his next act—he had left aside the old obsessions of his youth and committed to being a visionary.

In the year and change since then, Bryant and Dear Basketball won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film and he has sporadically continued to provide Kobe-branded chunks of avant-garde basketball analysis to ESPN’s NBA coverage. Originally, these were short videos that are, and my apologies for the film critic lingo, floridly psychotic—full of shrieking puppets and weird imagery and completely uncalled-for children’s choruses and Morricone-influenced songs attesting to the power of playing basketball with hate in your heart. The “Musecage” video series, in particular, was the equivalent of having 500cc of dangerously pure Kobe injected straight into your heart by way of having a massive syringe driven through your sternum. The production values were high, Bryant’s creative control was evidently total, and the results are unimaginably, preposterously cursed.

Later videos, which were branded “Detail: From The Mind Of Kobe Bryant,” were less luridly strange, but most of his analysis on camera and off has resolved to explaining how things are either Like Kobe and thus good or Insufficiently Like Kobe and therefore wanting. (It’s hard to imagine any other analyst advising Kevin Durant and LeBron James to take more Kobe-style pull-up two-pointers, for instance.) Kobe’s is a coherent worldview, at least, but not terribly useful in an analytic sense. That last bit, of course, doesn’t really matter. Bryant, like a lot of rich people whose leisure reading tends towards the Success Studies side of the continuum—the infinity pool of Steve Jobs hymnals, Warren Buffett’s investor letters, books with names like The 55-Minute Workweek or Gandhi On Management Best Practices—now sees himself as a storyteller, and this is the one story that he wants to tell. It is fundamentally the same every time and unlikely to convince anyone whose interests extend much beyond Kobe Bryant, but there are as many different ways to tell it as there are things in the world to compare and contrast with Kobe Bryant. He could go on forever, and there’s no reason to assume that he won’t.

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The weirdest part of all this is that Kobe wants to tell this story about The Power Of Being Like Kobe Bryant to children, and not just because what Kobe Bryant is known to be—a winner, sure, but also a tyrant and a bully and quite possibly a rapist—is not the stuff of high aspirations. Walt Disney is a familiar totem in the Success Studies community—he showed that imagination and the power of stories could change the world—and very much the type of figure that a grandiose weirdo would want to emulate; when Kobe has talked about being inspired by Disney in the past, he has called him “Walt.” The Disney comparison seems like a strange fit with Kobe’s previous storytelling goals, given that Kobe only really wants to tell stories about himself. But it makes more sense if you think of it the way Kobe does—he took some personal lesson from, say, Beauty And The Beast and believed that lesson, whatever it was, was the film’s purpose. The Musecage series had the stated aim of helping young athletes, in another of Kobe’s favorite phrasings, “better their best” when it came to humiliating, subjugating, and otherwise destroying the competition. You know: kids stuff, for young minds.

As it turns out, though, that perfectly Kobe objective did not quite reflect the full depth of his ambitions as a storyteller. In Sports Illustrated, Lee Jenkins caught up with Bryant in the offices he’s set up in Costa Mesa, Calif., to see what kind of stories he and his 10-person staff—a chief marketing officer, a small development team, two full-time writers and a producer—are working on. One is a podcast for children called The Punies, which Bryant “conceived two years ago while watching A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving with his family, an annual tradition.”

He began jotting descriptions of characters for his athletically inclined Peanuts: Puny Pete, the lovable loser; B.B. LaBelle, the bossy leader; Gordo Lockett, the affable oddball; Kimberly Spice, the smart one; Lilly Sparks, the hyper one; Clark Mayhoff, the troublesome one. The crew has nothing in common except a passion for sports, from surfing to soapbox derby.

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The podcast, which Jenkins reveals features a song called “Coaches Are People Too”—relatedly, Bryant is coaching his 12-year-old daughter’s AAU team; Jenkins reveals that they run the triangle offense—is the tip of this iceberg of normalcy. The fullest expression of Bryant’s creative goals, Jenkins writes, will be seen in the three upcoming young-adult novels that Bryant has commissioned, set “in a fictional universe where nothing is real except the sports.” That universe is of Bryant’s own devising—“I came up with the name of the world, the history, the rules, the kingdoms”—but he entrusted the broader expression of his vision to some freelancers.

“If Harry Potter and the Olympics had a baby, that would be the world we’re trying to communicate,” Bryant says. “There’s fantasy—dreamlike, magical elements—but it’s a magic kids can experience.” He discovered this world, which he calls Granity, during his last training camp at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Honolulu. Bryant had suffered three season-ending injuries in a row and recognized his basketball career was waning. He wrestled with what to do afterward ... “What I love,” Bryant said one rainy afternoon at the Hilton three years ago, “is storytelling. I love the idea of creative content, whether it’s mythology or animation, written or film, that can inspire people and give them something tangible they can use in their own lives.”

Aside from speaking the word “content” aloud, which is unforgivable, all of that is mostly harmless grandiosity—just because Kobe wants to teach the world to be more like Kobe doesn’t mean that anyone needs to listen. But there’s still something almost sad about Jenkins’s story, as comparatively content as Kobe seems, and it comes down to the loneliness of living in a world with just one person in it. Kobe knows what he knows and doesn’t really seem to want to know anything else, he’s a deeply weird dude who makes up children’s songs about how good Brad Stevens is at coaching while waiting to pick his daughter up at school and whose singleminded pursuit of dominance has seemingly crowded out just about everything else about him.

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None of that is really new, and none of it makes him a victim, but it’s still strange to behold. It is easy to imagine that Bryant will spend the rest of his life telling these stories about himself to himself and creating a world (or worlds) around himself and his obsessions. It is easy to imagine Kobe wandering the long halls of his mind palace, alone, inspecting every mirror. There’s nothing else he’d rather do, and I suppose there’s no reason not to just leave him to it, but the longer you think about that palace the lonelier and more haunted it seems.