Kobe Bryant Oscar winner? The basketball great is one step further along to that improbable feat, with his first attempt at filmmaking since his retirement from the game and the Los Angeles Lakers has been shortlisted as a finalist for Best Animated Short this year. Ten films were named, and Dear Basketball — from Bryant’s poem, about his love for the game and having to let it go — is one of 10 shorts to make the cut for a shot at being one of the five nominees when the Academy announces January 23.
It will have its official premiere tonight at Staples Center, where the Lakers play the Warriors and where a ceremony will take place in which Bryant’s numbers, 8 and 24, will be retired. The five-minute film will be shown in the arena as part of what is sure to be an emotional night for the hoops superstar. Also, Verizon has just announced this morning that its go90 service (in partnership with Granity Studios and Believe Entertainment Group) launches the short today on go90 and across Verizon’s Yahoo Sports, AOL and Complex platforms.
Veteran Disney animation veteran Glen Keane (Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Tangled, Aladdin) helmed the short, which is essentially Bryant’s “farewell letter” to the game he once dominated. None other than five-time Oscar winner John Williams supplied the original score despite the fact the composer admits he had never set foot at a basketball game before. The short was an official selection of the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival and recently won Best 2D Hand-drawn Animation and the Special Jury Prize at the 2017 World Animation Celebration.
When I spoke to Bryant late last week, he was still reeling from the idea he could be an Oscar nominee (the Academy lists Keane as director and Bryant as writer — with both eligible). “How crazy is that? It’s fabulous. It is pretty insane, nuts. I am just enjoying it all,” he said, adding that this kind of recognition for his ode to the game — first published on The Players Tribune in 2015, generating more than 50 million views worldwide — was the furthest thing from his mind. “I love storytelling and writing and producing, and working with other young talent to bring stories to life to either inform or inspire or challenge the next generation. I figured this project would let me create something that would let the next generation look at and process and interpret how they see fit.”
Bryant says it was important that the film be done in the old-fashioned process of hand drawn animation and not computer generated since it connects directly to his own growth as a player, where he says no shot is ever the same, no training is ever the same. At first he wasn’t sure about narrating his own words since he does not feel like an actor (nor does he ever want to be one), but Keane insisted on it for pure authenticity. “Glen said, ‘Trust me , it will work fine.’ You can’t tell Glen how to be Glen. It would be like someone comes on a basketball court and says, ‘Kobe, I think you should shoot a fade-away this way’,” he laughed, adding he is proud of how it all turned out.
That includes the music. Back in 2008, he had reached out to Williams to learn something about how he conducts an orchestra to create one cohesive sound — he felt it was the same approach he took with basketball. But when he shyly asked the five-time Oscar winner about doing this film, Williams was in the middle of working on a Star Wars project.
“He said, ‘Kobe I would love to do this for you but I am working on Star Wars right now, but I would love to take a couple of weeks off now to do this piece for you.’ I think my tongue came out. And then he said, ‘If you don’t mind I would like to use the same orchestra that I am using now for your film too,’ and I said ‘Uh, yeah, that would be fine with me!’ ” Bryant recalled. Bryant was one of the featured speakers at the AFI Life Achievement Award dinner for Williams in 2016, further emphasizing their close connection.
“What is happening right now is absolutely bonkers,” Bryant says. “I could never imagine having these conversations or working on a project, let alone having a piece of music scored by John. Like how did I get to this point?”