Kobe Bryant and Glen Keane | The Star Animator Milks the Mamba, Or Was it the Other Way Around?
There’s a sweet spot in the human psyche that Kobe Bryant is particularly enamored with. On display, it’s where tireless practice meets effortless execution. Some may refer to it as being in the zone. For those looking, a quick YouTube search reveals hundreds of highlight reels showcasing two decades worth of footage featuring the former superstar Los Angeles Lakers guard seemingly scoring at will. He knows what it’s like to be on fire.
But as we sit inside a conference room at the Marriott Convention Center in Burbank, where he and Disney animation legend Glen Keane are screening their Dear Basketball short at the CTN2017 Animation Expo, the man whose play was so great that the Laker organization retired both his number 8 and 24 jerseys (he tallied more than 16,000 points in each) just weeks ago suggests that I look up an icon in another realm: Michael Jackson.
He directs me to an ‘80s-era clip of The King of Pop performing “This Place Hotel.” Sweat has dampened Jackson’s shirt, glued several strands of his hair to his forehead. “There’s a point in that music where he loses it—just blacks out,” Bryant says with the excitement of someone who’s clearly watched it dozens of times. “His body is moving. But you can tell he is not there. He’s gone.” Bryant snaps his fingers to signify how fast M.J. likely slipped into that groove. “It’s like the music is literally moving his limbs. He’s not consciously moving. You can see it! That is a level of mastery that you can only get to after years and years of study and repetition, where it just comes from within.”
The five-time NBA champion was known to have a manic work ethic as an athlete. And now that that phase of his life is over, he’s transferring that same energy into storytelling. At the top of 2017, Bryant, through ESPN, released his Musecage series, a collection of playful short films that essentially help viewers turn a hater’s negative energy into motivational fuel for the inner beast.
Storytelling may be a surprise transition to some, but Bryant’s been a creative and author of sorts since grade school. He remembers freestyling a high school project at 16. His assignment was to tell a story to kindergartners. But between juggling playing basketball in amateur tournaments and just being a kid, Bryant forgot it.
“I stood up there and I just made up a story inspired by me never cleaning my room and my mom being upset,” he recalls. “I said that clothes transformed into a monster that lived under the bed. It pulls a boy from the bed, then drags him to the great beyond. The kids were absolutely terrified.” About a week later, the kindergarten teacher called Bryant into her office to show him all the letters she’d gotten from parents saying their kids’ rooms had never been cleaner. “That’s when I was hooked,” Bryant says with a smile.
As Bryant tosses back his cocktail, Keane—who’s responsible for drawing classics like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin—sits to his right, laughing. Together, they just held court for a room of inquisitive cinephiles, explaining what the concept behind Dear Basketball is; it's an animated short that functions as Bryant’s farewell to the game. He narrates, reciting the words from the note he wrote in November 2015 to announce his retirement, as his amazing journey and relationship with the game plays out on screen.
Dear Basketball debuted at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival and earned Best 2D Hand-drawn Animation and the Special Jury Prize awards at the 2017 World Animation Celebration. It’s also an Oscar contender for Best Animated Short, making the final five nominees when the Academy announced their picks on January 23.
Keane’s visuals show various incarnations of Bryant—from his days as a child shooting rolled up socks into the bedroom hamper for imaginary game-winners to a bushy-haired 19-year-old Laker throwing down wild dunks to the wily veteran Bryant, who created the Black Mamba alter ego in his later years, snaking his way to venomous strikes. Keane’s drawings are sketch-like, ruggedly textured with no clean lines, but still gentle and precious, capturing the finesse of Bryant’s movement while also embodying the savage he was on the court.
“I think of drawing as the seismograph of your soul,” Keane says of his creations. The more he knows of his subjects, the more he can feel their rumble. “The lines, there’s an energy.” Creating the early drafts of his “Kobe” were a bit nerve-racking for him at first, until he realized “It’s not a drawing of Kobe. It is Kobe.”
The look of some of Keane’s most famous drawings come thanks, in part, to the teachings of Eric Larson—one of Disney’s “Nine Old Men,” the first generation of animators brought on by Walt himself who helmed the golden age of The Walt Disney Company. When Keane first showed Larson sketches, attempting to join the Disney fold ages ago, Larson flipped through hundreds of the CalArts alum’s drawings, only to give the thumbs up to a handful that, oddly enough, Keane had tried the least on.
Ever inquisitive, Kobe at times tonight steals my job as question-asker and wonders aloud to his buddy, “What did Larson see in those he liked?” “It was movement,” Keane answers. “Line of action. You can’t get that by trying. It’s either there or it’s not.” It’s present in Dear Basketball. The passion they both share for their crafts is immeasurable. Glen was doodling detailed images of the human body and lugging around a book on dynamic anatomy in the fourth grade, given to him by his cartoonist father Bil Keane (famously known for creating the comic strip The Family Circus).
And when Bryant wasn’t watching Japanese anime in Italy (where his dad Joe Bryant played pro ball), he’d be mimicking Laker great Magic Johnson. His stateside family would mail him VHS game tapes. After giving the bulk of his 39 years to basketball, Bryant’s will to be great— that Mamba mentality—is guiding him towards being the best storyteller he possibly can be.
Curiosity and fearlessness, he says, are two of his Mamba hallmarks. “With me stepping into this new area,” Bryant says as our chat wraps, “people are saying, ‘You can’t do that.’ I have to be courageous. And not courageous in the sense of ‘I can do this,’ because I don’t know if I can. But I’m brave enough to know that I will do the work necessary to get better. That’s how that carries over. You drive forward and you learn.”
Written by Brad Weté
Photographed by Ian Morrison
Illustrated by Glen Keane