'I feel better than winning the championship': The oral history of Kobe Bryant's Oscar-winning 'Dear Basketball'

In 2015, at the outset of what would be his final NBA season, Kobe Bryant penned a deeply personal poem about his lifelong love affair with his sport — and his decision to retire. The piece, titled “Dear Basketball,” was published in The Player’s Tribune. “My heart can take the pounding/My mind can handle the grind/But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye/And that’s OK.” Bryant, a polymath with an abiding love of pop culture, decided to transform his poem into an animated short film with a dream team of collaborators.

Here, in the words of Bryant — who died with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others in a helicopter crash on 27 January — and his fellow filmmakers culled from vintage Yahoo interviews and other sources, is the inside story of how his bittersweet hoops swan-song became an Oscar-winning triumph. 

KOBE BRYANT: I grew up playing basketball. I never, ever thought that storytelling would be something that I would love as much as the game. 

I heard a lot of people telling me when I started writing and they would ask me, "What are you going to do when you retire?" And I'd say, "Well, I want to be a writer; I want to be a storyteller," and I got a lot of, "That's cute. That's cute. You'll be depressed when your career is over, and you'll come back to playing," you know. And I got that a lot. (Yahoo Sports, 2017)

Bryant had a wish list for collaborators, topped by Glen Keane, the legendary Disney animator behind characters like Ariel, the Beast, Pocahontas and Rapunzel.  

GLEN KEANE: Kobe is an animation geek … He reached out and connected … and we set up a meeting at our little studio here in West Hollywood. Kobe arrived with his wife and daughters, and my wife was here, and my producer, Gennie Rim, and my production designer, Max Keane. So we all sat down in my little office with my animation desk, just to see, do we get along? Can we connect creatively? Can we connect just as people?

Dear Basketball animator Glen Keane. (Photo: go90)

And immediately Kobe and I found that we had this connection of careers that we were really identified with and yet we had stepped away from — him with the Lakers and me with Disney. There was something a little bit scary with this whole new path that we were taking, and yet thrilling. And we both just really connected with the excitement of what lays ahead. It was illustrated in the film: As Kobe walks off the court, through that tunnel, he steps into the light, into something new that’s waiting for him. And that’s what I’ve been feeling ever since I left Disney. (Yahoo Entertainment, 2018)

BRYANT: All of it put me out of my comfort zone. My daughter gave me the best piece of advice. I was a little worried about turning this into a film. I'd never done that — something like that before. And we're in a house and we're talking about it as a family, and my little 11‑year‑old, Gianna, goes, "Well, Dad, you always tell us to go after our dreams, so man up." She's 11. "Man up." So I had to man up and go for it. 

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KEANE: He met with me before he wrote that letter. So he was already thinking, how am I going to communicate a goodbye to the game? But he was visualising it. I mean, the whole letter is surprisingly well-crafted as a screenplay. It has basically three acts to it, and there’s this climax at the end of the second act where Kobe is there, and the crowd is cheering, and there’s confetti falling, and it feels like it could be the end of it.

But then there’s this death, really, as his injuries take over and he has to let go of the game, and the ball drops and rolls and the screen goes black. But then there’s this wonderful resurrection where we find that little 6-year-old Kobe has always been with adult Kobe, and we see them playing on the court one last time, and he sinks the ball and Kobe steps off the court and goes into his future.

It really could be “dear animation,” “dear medicine,” “dear writing,” dear whatever. I just knew that the film was much bigger than basketball. (Yahoo Entertainment, 2018)

Taking reference materials and primitive sketches from Bryant, Keane began storyboarding the project. 

KEANE: Drawing Kobe, he’s not going to be some goofy little cartoon character. This has got to be a finely rendered version of Kobe that everybody can recognise. Wow. It’s not like the Beast. I mean, I could draw the Beast, and he could be any beast. I could define the Beast. But with Kobe, it’s gotta be him. And he’s actually got very delicate features to his face. He’s not easy to draw. That was a big challenge for me.

Kobe Bryant in animated action in Dear Basketball. (Photo: go90)

I got every photo of Kobe that he had when he was a little kid. There weren’t a lot of them. I used those very carefully, had them on my desk. And there are different ages that I got — really little Kobe to adolescent Kobe to teenage Kobe — and I was able to use those as my inspiration for him. So that’s kind of how Kobe looked when he was a little kid, a really cute little guy. The posters on the wall were all the real posters that were on Kobe’s wall as a kid. Kobe was constantly texting me the details, images that he really wanted to use. The videocassette player that he’d have on his bed, looking at the Lakers game. The videocassettes that his grandfather would send him. The way the chairs were set up on the court — Kobe sketched out the little pattern of chairs. I mean I’ve still got his horrible little drawing [laughs] of the chairs there. Everything had to be true. (Yahoo Entertainment, 2018)

The 6-year-old Kobe in Dear Basketball. (Photo: go90)

While Keane was bringing the poem to life with hand-drawn images, Bryant sought out another legend to compose the score: five-time Oscar winner John Williams.

BRYANT: We all grew up listening to John Williams’s scores, right? Whether it’s the Olympics theme or Jaws or Indiana Jones or Harry Potter or Superman, all that stuff. And so I’ve known John for a while. I’ve known him since about 2008. (Yahoo Sports, 2017)

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Aside from Williams being the acknowledged maestro of the movies, Bryant had a personal reason for asking for the composer’s help. “‘Hedwig’s Theme’ [from Harry Potter] puts Natalia to sleep, that has put Gianna to sleep and now it puts Bianka to sleep,” Bryant told the Los Angeles Times in 2017, mentioning each of his daughters at the time (he and wife Vanessa welcomed their fourth daughter, Capri, in June 2019). “I lay them on my chest and I hum it to them, and the vibrations of it just relaxes them.” “The first thing I told Kobe was, I’d never seen a basketball game,” Williams said in that same Los Angeles Times interview. “High school, college, professional or television. And of course he laughed.”

BRYANT: He immediately wanted to do it, And what he asked me was, “When do we need to get this done?” Because he’s working on Star Wars, he’s a little busy doing The Last Jedi, but he was able to work it out. He took a couple of weeks off from scoring Star Wars and worked on Dear Basketball. (Yahoo Sports, 2017)

HOLLYWOOD, CA - JUNE 09: Retired NBA player Kobe Bryant (L) and honoree John Williams pose in the audience during American Film Institute’s 44th Life Achievement Award Gala Tribute to John Williams at Dolby Theatre on June 9, 2016 in Hollywood, California. 26148_001 (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Turner)

KEANE: John had written the score. … He wrote the whole thing out by hand, in pencil. Just like the film itself is in pencil. He's an old‑school craftsman, and with 80 instruments, he wrote that. And the day that we were recording it, he was like this little kid, just so energised. (Keane in the press room of the Academy Awards after winning an Oscar for Dear Basketball on March 4, 2018.)

Williams premiered his composition during a September 2017 concert at the Hollywood Bowl. Bryant came out to a standing ovation to provide live narration to Keane’s animation with the orchestra booming behind him. Four months later, when the Academy Award nominations were announced, Bryant’s Dear Basketball was shortlisted for Best Animated Feature.

Then, on March 4, 2018, in front of Hollywood royalty, the film captured the Oscar. Keane and Bryant took the stage together to accept their statuettes.

KEANE: Thank you … Kobe, for writing Dear Basketball. It's a message for all of us. Whatever form your dream may take, it's through passion and perseverance that the impossible is possible. (Keane’s acceptance speech at the Academy Awards after winning an Oscar for Dear Basketball on March 4, 2018.)

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BRYANT: I don't know if it's possible. I mean, as basketball players we're really supposed to shut-up and dribble but I'm glad we do a little bit more than that. Thank you, Academy, for this amazing honour. Thank you, John Williams, for such a wonderful piece of music. … And to my wife, Vanessa, our daughters Natalia, Gianna and Bianka. Ti amo con tutto il mio cuore. You are my inspiration. (Bryant’s acceptance speech at the Academy Awards after winning an Oscar for Dear Basketball on March 4, 2018.)

Backstage, stars and journalists and industry executives jockeyed and jostled to congratulate the beaming Bryant. He patiently posed for selfies and seemingly hugged everyone he came across. Later in the press room, he assessed his Oscar win and looked ahead to the future.

BRYANT: I feel better than winning the championship, to be honest with you. I swear I do. … But, you know, the hardest thing for athletes to do is when you start over, you really have to quiet the ego and you have to — you have to begin again. You have to be a learner all over again. You have to learn the basics of things. And, you know, that's really the hardest part. … I wake up in the morning, I can't wait to write. I can't wait to get to the studio, you know. So when you find the thing that you love to do, then everything else tends to make sense. (Bryant in the press room of the Academy Awards after winning an Oscar for Dear Basketball on March 4, 2018.)