Written by Charles Solomon and Michael Cooper
Even before he wrote the poem on which the Oscar-winning short Dear Basketball was based, Kobe Bryant was interested in animation.
He approached former Disney animator Glen Keane after seeing his film Duet. Bryant explained in an interview in 2017, “Animation can capture the emotion in the story in a much more compelling, visual way than live action.”
Dear Basketball illustrated the poem Bryant wrote in 2015 as a farewell to the sport he loved; it served as his announcement that the 2015-16 season would be his last. In the poem, recognizing that his body can no longer bear the game’s demands, he accepts the inevitably of retirement.
Keane’s rough pencil drawings depict Bryant as both a Los Angeles Lakers superstar and as a small boy, executing the same leaps and dribbling maneuvers. The film, featuring a score by composer John Williams, won both the Academy Award for best animated short in 2018 and the Annie Award, the animation industry’s most prestigious prize.
Looking back Sunday after hearing of Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash at age 41, Keane said sadly: “Kobe was the most passionate man who was led by his heart and his intellect. He was a great thinker with an insatiable hunger for learning: As soon as he stepped into animation, he eagerly began soaking up every aspect of it. Working with him was a dream and one of the high points of my career.”
Keane, who hadn’t touched a basketball since high school gym class, insisted at the time that the athlete “couldn’t pick a worse animator for basketball.” In a 2017 interview, Bryant explained why he thought the contrary.
“Glen came to the sport with fresh eyes,” he said. “Someone who’s been watching basketball their whole lives — and playing it — tends to miss the small moves, the details. When you come at with fresh eyes, you look at every single thing because it’s all new.”
The two men bonded through a shared love of Beethoven. Keane, who had animated Beast in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, was amazed to learn that in one championship game, “Kobe structured his performance and the strategy of the game to the rhythms of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.”
Bryant explained in the 2017 interview: “Every game has a structure, just like a piece of music has structure and momentum. You have to be conscious of how that momentum is building to be able to shift or alter it.”
Keane recalled studying game footage with Bryant. “Kobe remembers everything about those plays, and talked about what was going through his mind,” he said. “It was really important to me to animate not just the physical action, but what he was thinking.”
Keane said that in a way, “I believe I know Kobe better than he does, because he hasn’t had to draw himself.
“I’d see the way his knees would angle in as he was shooting the ball, the way he’d kick his feet out to throw his hips around to give himself some lateral movement,” he said.
To score the short film, Bryant asked Williams, the five-time Oscar winning composer for the Star Wars series, Schindler’s List, E.T. the Extraterrestrial and other films.
They had already begun a relationship of sorts. Bryant had previously reached out to Williams, thinking he could learn a thing or two from another master of the score.
“What makes a John Williams piece timeless?” Bryant mused to The Los Angeles Times. “How is he using each instrument? How is he building momentum? As a basketball player, what I found myself doing a lot was essentially conducting a game, right?”
And Bryant confessed to an ulterior motive: each night he would lull his daughters to sleep with Williams’ melodies — especially “Hedwig’s Theme” from the Harry Potter films — and he wanted to take a picture with the composer to show them.
“I lay them on my chest and I hum it to them, and the vibrations of it just relaxes them,” Bryant said.
Williams said in a statement Sunday that Bryant’s death was “a terrible and immeasurable loss.”
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“During my friendship with Kobe, he was always seeking to define and understand inspiration even while modestly, and almost unknowably, he was an inspiration to countless millions,” Williams said. “His enormous potential contribution to unity, understanding and social justice must now be mourned with him.”
Bryant had plans to create animated projects that would attract African American audiences — and artists, who are underrepresented in the art form.
“I see so much opportunity to add diversity and bring back the beautiful art of hand-drawn characters that allow the animators to deeply express themselves,” he said in 2017.
On Sunday, Keane said he “can’t help but think about the final shot in Dear Basketball of Kobe walking into the light and hearing ‘Love you always, Kobe.’ ”
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