When you scan the annual Oscars Class Photo featuring this year’s nominees all gathered and beaming on a set of risers at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, your eyes are immediately drawn to the outlier. Right there front-and-center, seated in the front row where, supposedly, his height would be slightly masked: Is that Kobe Bryant!?
The retired Laker is, indeed, an Oscar nominee this year, credited as creator, animator, and executive producer of Dear Basketball, which is up for the Best Animated Short trophy. Making what is typically designated as a pee-break category suddenly must-see viewing, Bryant and Dear Basketball are the odds-on favorite to win.
Yes, Kobe Bryant will very likely be an Oscar winner this year.
At the height of the #MeToo movement and the Time’s Up awards season, an NBA star accused of rape will likely win an Academy Award trophy. And he’ll win it for a truly awful animated short at that, proving just how much Hollywood is willing to forgive and forget in the name of celebrity star-fucking and athlete idolatry.
In a poll of 22 awards pundits and film writers on the awards website Goldderby.com, 17 of them currently predict Dear Basketball to win Best Animated Short. It’s also the clear favorite on betting odds website Oddschecker.
We have to assume this is due to the expectation that Academy members will, in a category in which most voters have little knowledge of the nominees, vote based on name recognition. We have to assume that because this film is really, really bad. Would, all things being equal and fair, anyone possibly vote for this?
Dear Basketball animates a poem that Bryant wrote to announce his final season playing for the Lakers. That sentence is utter lunacy in and of itself, but whoo-ee wait until you hear that poem.
If someone was handed this writing with no author attached, you might assume that it was a homework assignment from someone’s sixth grade Language Arts class. Maybe, if you found out that an adult wrote it, you would assume it was for some children’s book.
But, no, it is not. It is a poem that Kobe Bryant wrote as part of a decade-long image rehab campaign to bury any lingering distaste over his rape case and further commoditize his lucrative NBA goodbye tour.
It’s literally a love letter to basketball, chronicling his life-long passion for the sport that he was bidding farewell to. “I knew one thing was real: I fell in love with you,” Bryant narrates, as pencil-sketch animation illustrates memories of him as a child, playing trash-can ball with rolled-up tube socks (Bryant had an upper-middle-class upbringing and is named after Japan’s pricey Kobe beef). “A love so deep I gave you my all, from my mind and body to my spirit and soul.”
It’s five full minutes of nauseating schmaltz, climaxing with this doozy of a passage: “I had played through the sweat and the hurt, not because challenge called me but because you called me. I did everything for you. Because that’s what you do when someone makes you feel as alive as you made me feel. You gave a 6-year-old boy his Laker dream, and I will always love you for it.”
What sort of reaction has the film gotten from critics?
“In my opinion, it is the worst short film I have ever seen nominated for an Academy Award,” wrote Chris O’Falt at Indiewire. Well then. “This piece of hagiography is completely empty of form and substance. It doesn’t belong on the ESPN halftime show of Bryant’s last game, let alone being recognized as one of the five best animated shorts of the year.”
That the dreck has been so warmly embraced by Hollywood is hardly a surprise, he argues. In fact, it’s almost annoying predictable.
“Branded content like Dear Basketball, designed to create a counter-narrative of the great Kobe, is something that has induced eye rolls from sports fans for 13 years—except for those in Los Angeles and especially Hollywood, where good seats to Lakers games are a status symbol,” O’Falt writes.
“It was this powerful and recognizable fanbase—the b-roll cameras for every televised game finding the endless array of celebrities in the crowd—that made what seemed like Bryant’s near-impossible comeback in 2004, following the events in Eagle, Colo., possible.”
The events of Eagle, Colorado, are, of course, the ones underlying the accusation that Bryant had raped a 19-year-old employee of a hotel that he had checked into in advance of knee surgery.
The details of the case are graphic.
A hotel worker at the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera claims that Bryant invited her to his room after a private tour of the property, during which time he kissed her (she says that part was consensual). But when he started to take off his pants and she attempted to leave the room, she says that he started to choke her, grope her, and force her to touch him. With his hand around her neck, she says he bent her over the side of two chairs, lifted up her skirt, and raped her.
There was considerable evidence against Bryant, who was charged with sexual assault and false imprisonment after the encounter, but the case was dismissed just one week before trial because the accuser informed the court that she would not testify.
In exchange for the dismissal of the sexual-assault charges, Bryant’s attorney read an apology in court from Bryant that partially confessed to the incident, but characterized it as an encounter he misunderstood to be consensual: “Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.”
As we all know, Bryant’s career rebounded swiftly, his legacy barely tarnished in the decade that followed. But still, given the prevalence of the #MeToo movement, the optics are pretty pathetic should Bryant win March 4.
We asked awards expert Gregory Ellwood, a writer at The Playlist, about this. “I mean, Kobe’s jersey was retired by the Lakers in a massive ceremony in December smack dab in the most intense period of the #MeToo movement and you barely heard a peep about his sexual assault case,” Ellwood said. “Everyone will simply look the other way.”
Ellwood also gave interesting context behind Bryant’s nomination, which, it turns out, is more nuanced than simply “because he’s Kobe Bryant.” (Though that certainly is a major factor.)
The basketball star managed to wrangle some pretty top-tier talent to work on the film. John Williams scored the short, while legendary animator Glen Keane directed and animated it.
Keane is best known for bringing characters from The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin to life, but, as an animator, wasn’t eligible to share in any of the awards glory for those films. Honoring Dear Basketball is an opportunity to reward Keane for a lifetime of achievement.
Keane’s stature in the industry runs in tandem with the desire to exercise a fan-boy vote for Bryant. (It should be noted that only “Dear Basketball” appears on the ballot, not Keane and Bryant’s names—though most voters will put two-and-two together that the short with “basketball” in the title is Bryant’s film.)
“That being said, many members actually take their voting pretty seriously,” Ellwood said. “It’s why you’ve had upsets over the years that surprise pundits, but thrill critics. Most who vote in this category will watch all the shorts and they may be won over by Pixar’s Lou or the adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes instead.”