The Kobe Bryant farewell tour fluctuated from career celebration to a Tom Sawyeresque tale where the recently deceased (or nearly retired) goes from quietly viewing his career eulogy to running down the aisle, slapping fives on his way to announce the epilogue. For many, Kobe’s epilogue promises to connect the dots for one of the most well-covered, yet inaccessible athletes of recent times. The public doesn’t so much agonize over no longer getting to see Kobe play—20 years’ worth of material will suffice—the agony is in the prospect of never hearing Kobe talk about his life just when he became so masterfully capable. Who other than Kobe can make sense of his aloofness among teammates, a sudden candid nature with the media, and the measured mannerisms that all contribute his public persona?
Luckily for us, Kobe has announced that he—or his new production company, Kobe Inc.—will focus on storytelling and surely (maybe?) answer the remaining question of what makes the man besides his unquestionable determination. Until the answers roll in, either through Kobe directly or his production company, there’s nothing left to do but refresh ourselves with first seasons of the Kobe story.
From Kobe’s early days, his story came from an outside perspective of journalists, producers, and unauthorized biographers, in the wake of his willful silence. In the rare moments Kobe chose to speak to the press outside of league-mandated availability, the world discovered that the clinical diagnosis of what makes him tick is found in his #mambablood. Instead of the Twitter declarations and meditation reflections found in recent press conferences, we had Adidas commercials to explicate him.
One early example uses the prêt-à-porter trope of an athlete telling his opponents exactly what he’s going to do to them before he inevitably does it. In this ad we find a gleeful Kobe playing the role in a manner that lives up to the image of a young, brash athlete whose single-minded focus on his craft comprises his entire world. Reflecting on the commercial almost two decades later, the spot is less convincing in its tone than it is in spirit. There’s no doubt that Kobe wouldn’t hesitate to wax poetic of the skills that reduce defenders to fold-out chairs—that we can consider convincing. It’s the familiar tone used between Kobe and The Guys that casts this commercial in doubt. Magic Johnson, Kobe’s childhood idol, didn’t get an extended conversation until recently, so what makes us think that scrubs from the playground would get the time of day? The scenario is affected but functions as a larger truth because it explains Kobe’s drive by revealing the form that it doesn’t take, all the while proving that Kobe knows how to play the classic role as if it was written expressly for him. Where the commercial falls short of explaining Kobe the person, it succeeds in building intrigue.
Other media of the era has a similar feeling: the rookie playing the young upstart in a way that betrays nothing about himself beyond his capacity to show exactly what the camera wants to see, further cementing our preconceived notions of how the child prodigy interacts with the world. In our collective obsession with Kobe, we searched for compendium pieces explaining the exposed fragments of a distant childhood, only to have Kobe put the quest to an end with a simple and disarming, "What’s up, Inside Stuff?”
In the clip, you hear Derek Fisher’s workman-like thinking—“whether it’s your first year or tenth year, you can help your team in some kind of way”—contrasted against Kobe’s Italian-born aristocratic understanding “that when [we’re] on the floor together [playing basketball] it’s beautiful.” Who wants to think of labor when you can transcend it? Kobe mentions the well-known French realist novel, The Three Musketeers, but that could be another instance of him talking to us in terms that he believes we understand: a brotherhood, a causality. Or would his image of hardwood beauty more closely resemble the work of his fellow Italian, Italo Calvino, whose wildly inventive style leaves us grasping at the plot?
Long ago Nike saw the career arc of Kobe and spotted the fertile grounds of playing around with the reverential Kobe as Basketball Thought Leader, a figure capable of teaching in methods other than the Smush-cratic. Although there’s no shortage of condescension found in a seven-part commercial series titled "Kobe Systems," there’s the pretense of bettering his students. These pupils, despite their unquestioned success in their respective fields, need the sleek and conveniently distributable corporate wisdom of Kobe. In this commercial’s world, our understanding of late-career Kobe is parodied at La-La Land University where the tenured professor explains his understanding of domination, an understanding that somehow evades his acolytes Serena Williams, Jerry Rice, and Paul Rodriguez. As Kobe explains, summoning his alter ego, The Black Mamba, everything from music, a press-conference, and yes, even retirement can be dominated and pushed to one’s favor if they channel the wisdom flowing from his obsessive studying. These lessons purportedly transcend sports, speak to something timeless, and give Kobe a reason to never abandon the thought of basketball or stray from basketball-centric themes, not even when he can no longer play the sport.
Regardless of the time spent speaking to real or imagined audiences in front of Hollywood green screens, Kobe hasn’t forgotten to mention that the real NBA cultural space in which he exists is found in the 80s Eastern Conference style of play. Part of Kobe’s legend involves his upbringing in a less globalized Italy, back when watching NBA basketball was out of the question for most international fans. We’re told that with the aid of his grandparents, the three year old was able to study the moves of Laker greats in his Italian living room, mirroring what the players did on the court an ocean removed from America. When Kobe goes on to say that he loves when Bruce Bowen guards him because it reminds him of the 80’s, it’s easy to forget he never played in the league when gold chains were commonplace because he’s placed himself in that context more than once. All the history lessons and studying of the game have certainly left their mark. When Kobe spoke to the media after a 61-point outing, he deftly placed himself next to past Knickerbocker villain Reggie Miller, whose choking motion left the MSG crowd wondering which team really took away their chance at the finals. Kobe’s tendency to historicize himself most likely won’t stop in retirement, not when a whole career can be positioned for the public’s eager eyes.
It’s easy to imagine Kobe dragging his loafers along his study’s floor to write the memoir that will become the artifact that cements his legacy. Except Kobe has decided he won’t write that dot-connecting memoir, not yet anyway. Instead we’ll see him take alternative avenues for his stories.
In a recent interview where Kobe discusses his new production company, he tells Mario Lopez how he “grew up digesting a great detail of content that got him to this point today,” which may indicate that a more commercial angle will be used in his future storytelling. It’s difficult imaging today’s auteur producers using the term “content” in relation to their theatrical releases, but maybe, just maybe, Kobe will sit behind the lens and produce commercials that reference his past in a way that’s unmistakable to the Kobe fan. Even better, envision him referencing his background by channeling Italian director Federico Fellini’s bizarre commercials or readapting…somehow…the famed Isabella Rossellini’s set designs in his new inspiring sport content. It’s not out of the question for Kobe to consider these directors his muses in the same vein he does Giorgio Armani, and we know Kobe wouldn’t hesitate to pick up the story where they left it.
Kobe picking up the pen and telling his own story might be better described an instance of mercy than luck. Speaking for himself, unguarded and exposed like he’s become more inclined to do, isn’t without its risks. Although limping around the basketball court at the age of 37 shouldn’t be considered an act of vulnerability when everyone acquainted with basketball knows the truism Father Time is undefeated, perhaps he does have sage advice for the adoring fans who, in moments of what look to be genuine distress, look to him for guidance. Or perhaps more candid yarns will dissuade us from believing the story that’s been built up.
We should temper our expectations for the Kobe epilogue, which may or may not be told by the man himself. While we wait, let’s pass the time by imagining Kobe pacing in a sparsely decorated study, ruminating over the details of a revelatory passage. A team of accomplished producers push open the door hard enough that it barely leaves enough time for the assistant to scuttle in after, where the water carafes need to be refilled before the noon meeting. Walking through Kobe’s path, they circle around a mahogany table, staring down at the sealed envelope in disbelief that the project could be finished, that the man who now stands by the window chewing his fingernails has apparently finally made the call.