This, quite literally, is a whole new game. But trust that Kobe Bryant is ready to suit up for this next chapter. One of the NBA’s biggest stars officially left the game on April 13, 2016, five months after he announced his retirement from professional basketball on Nov. 29, 2015, via a poem that he wrote called Dear Basketball. Bryant was nominated for an Oscar (best short, animated), becoming the first former professional athlete to ever get such a nod, after he set his retirement poem to animation with illustrator Glen Keane, who is best known for his work at Walt Disney Animation Studios for feature films such as Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid.
On the eve of Bryant’s first Oscar moment, we sit in his Orange County, California, offices — storyboards are hidden in the back, but there’s a wall of portraits for all to see. He points at a Michael Jackson portrait. “My first mentor,” he said.
Books about animation and film production are stacked on bookshelves. And the small group of people working for Granity Studios are buzzing at their desks nearby. This is Hollywood Kobe Bryant. And you should get used to him because he’s going to be here for a while.
Here are 14 nuggets from our conversation, and some outtakes as well.
1. On writing.
“I always enjoyed writing. I had a really great teacher … who taught me the art of storytelling and writing and composition. When I came to the league, I kept writing, kept practicing. When I got injured and we were making a news film — that’s when it kicked in for me. I found enjoyment in writing that film, and writing each chapter … what should we do next? That’s what really kicked it off.”
2. On creativity.
“I love the art of creating. It’s like putting together a puzzle.”
3. Why Dear Basketball is an animated film.
“Once I wrote the story … it called for animation. … Games where you play great games, where you play terribly, days where you’re training, you feel unstoppable, and days when you feel like [you’re] not going to get through it. It had to be hand-drawn animation because of the imperfections that come along with [all] that because … as a viewer you can feel the soul of … Glen Keane as he’s animating. You can feel the texture of it. Twenty-four frames per second. No step skipped.”
4. On what being nominated for an Oscar feels like.
“I’ve always been told that as basketball players the expectation is that you play. This is all you know. This is all you do. Don’t think about handling finances. Don’t think about going into business. Don’t think that you want to be a writer — that’s cute. I got that a lot. What do you want to do when you retire? ‘Well, I want to be a storyteller.’ That’s cute. This is … a form of validation for people to look and say, ‘OK, he really can do something other than dribble and shoot.’ ”
5. On what types of projects he’s gravitating toward …
“They all center around sports. How do we take sports and tell beautiful tales, beautiful stories that connect to human nature? If you look at sports as a whole, it connects people worldwide, on a global scale. Much like music does. But what separates music from sports is that sports is something that unites people, something people do together.”
6. On what he’s working on for ESPN …
“[Detail] is the first show. The original concept came from, how can I help the next generation of elite basketball players? What information can I pass along, from what I learned from some of the most brilliant basketball minds? A thing that came to mind, aside from going out on the court and actually working with them, is how to study the game. … It’s a very intricate look into how to study the game.”
7. On Oprah Winfrey.
“Oprah’s been a really big mentor. When I … had the original idea of starting a company, a studio, she was the first person I reached out to. And she was gracious enough to give me about an hour on the phone and tell me how she built Harpo Productions from its start to where it is today. She’s been absolutely amazing.”
8. On Shonda Rhimes.
“Shonda [Rhimes] was gracious enough to open up her doors for us to … spend the day in Shondaland, the sets of How to Get Away With Murder, and actually sit in on a table read for Scandal. She’s been great to talk to over the phone as well. I actually picked her brain — we were at the White House waiting in line to take a picture with President Obama and the first lady, and she was standing in front of me. And I was like, ‘Excuse me, Shonda, I have a couple questions … OK, so, when you write a script, like, where do you start? Do you start with plot first or character first?’ And then we just started talking. I said, ‘So when you write, how much room do you leave for the actors to be able to kind of make the characters their own?’ The relationship started from there.”
9. On helping make Hollywood more diverse.
“I’m looking at this industry, the animation industry, the writing industry, novelists … and I’m seeing a serious lack in gender diversity. And I want to make sure that we bring the opportunities to children to express themselves, even if they don’t ever want to grow up to be writers.”
10. On what he gets from Hollywood that he never got from basketball.
“The ability to make sure things are as good as we believe they can be before we release it. Basketball, you don’t get that chance. You practice all you want, but when the lights come up, if you play like an idiot, you look like an idiot. There’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t say, ‘Cut! Take two!’ In Hollywood, we can sit around as a team and nitpick plot, nitpick character and shots and movement of the story, and go over it and over it and over it again and again and again until we feel like it’s where we need it to be.”
11. On how filmmaking makes him feel …
“I love it. I do. I love it. I’ve been really fortunate to love basketball as much as I have, but I love storytelling every bit as much as I love basketball.”
12. On applying his life as a former NBA star to that of a budding filmmaker …
“Trust. That’s been the thing that was the hardest for me to deal with as an athlete — trusting the guys around me. Trusting that they’ll do the work, trusting that they’ll make the right play when it matters most. That was the hardest thing for me to deal with as an athlete, and because I went through that progression as an athlete, it’s a lot easier for me to do that as a creative.”
13. On working with Ava DuVernay …
“Our studio … is a part of the … fund that she’s championing, along with the city of Los Angeles. We’ll have plenty of internships here. That’s the best way to learn as well. You can sit down in the class all you want, but the best way to learn is to actually have interns come in and put boots on the ground and get to it. Actually give them responsibilities, actually give them assignments that lead to the execution of ideas.”
14. On where he’ll put his Oscar if he wins one this weekend …
“I’ll probably sleep with it! When I was a kid, the first time my parents bought me an official, leather NBA basketball, I slept with it for about a week. So it will be [wife] Vanessa, [third daughter] Bianka, me, Oscar. That will be our sleeping arrangement.”