Spike Lee’s new documentary Kobe Doin’ Work should’ve been called Spike Doin’ Work—Spike really had to hustle and use all of his filmmaking genius to make an interesting film out of the material he shot. He shot one Lakers game (against Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs late in the 2007-08 season) and it’s not a particularly good game for a documentary all about Kobe Bryant’s basketball prowess: Kobe scores just 22 points in a blowout win. He makes a great lefty block, a pretty layup soaring past Duncan, and some cool long shots including a backbreaking three as the third-quarter buzzer sounds, but, tragically, never gets loose for a big dunk, and, surprisingly, makes a lot of mistakes. He misses shots, blows defensive assignments, goaltends, brings the ball up on the fast break, seemingly on the verge of something beautiful, then just loses the ball and the moment devolves into slapstick as Kobe fumbles for the disobedient ball. Early on in the game, he goes up in the air then decides to make a behind-the-back pass instead of the easy layup and ends up turning the ball over and looking foolish. “Dumb play by me,” he says in the voiceover. “That’s just me tryin’ to do too much.”
“I bought Denzel’s seats, he has two courtside directly opposite the Laker bench,” Spike said. “I had a small camera and during timeouts I raced from Denzel’s seats and shot behind the Laker bench.”
The game is essentially over midway through the fourth quarter, with the Lakers up by 20. Kobe has his knees wrapped well before the end and sits on the bench for a while. It’s disappointing for a sports film centered on a single game to have it be so anticlimactic, but that’s how the dice fell. When I spoke to Spike about it, he said, “I had no control [over the action]. It’s not like a narrative film where I have control. You’re filming a live sporting event. The whole conceit is a crapshoot. You gotta take what you get and go with it. There’s excitement and beauty and it makes you a nervous wreck, too. I remember telling him, please don’t get in foul trouble or get thrown out.”
Spike also argued that while he may not have had control over the game itself, he did have creative control over the film, curtly refuting a New York Post story that said Kobe had final say. “That’s some New York Post bullshit,” he snorted. ”That’s all I’ll say.” So even though Kobe Doin' Work was shot for ESPN, where it will air on May 16, it’s a Spike Lee Joint, approached with Spike’s normal intensity. “The medium doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “It’s still filmmaking. Anything we do we have the cinema mind-set. Kobe’s film, whether it’s shown in film festivals or on television, it’s a film.”
Spike’s film consists of a game that’s not that good, on a night when Kobe doesn’t have that good of a performance—but it doesn’t really matter. We’re getting a focused perspective on one of the most balletic athletes on the planet from a master filmmaker who knows and loves basketball. Spike had 30 cameras trained on Kobe throughout the game and even manned one himself. “I bought Denzel’s seats, he has two courtside directly opposite the Laker bench,” Spike said. “I had a small camera and during timeouts I raced from Denzel’s seats and shot behind the Laker bench. So there’s some shots of mine. Like the shot where Kobe pulls out the white chalkboard and starts diagramming the play, that’s me right there.”
The film is a collage of visually stunning shots from all sorts of angles edited beautifully (including gorgeous black-and-white stills that leap out from the moving color images). It’s shot on film of such rich texture that even Kobe’s missteps look astounding. And though the fourth quarter is a wash from a basketball standpoint, that’s when we get to see a different dynamic: Kobe on the bench, watching the game, talking to his teammates—including jabbering with Slovenian Sasha Vujacic in Italian and, after Vujacic goes back in, gently dissing him in English when the small guard presses his luck, drives overaggressively for a dunk, and ends up committing a sloppy foul. “God blessed him with a sweet shot,” Kobe says, “but he ain’t blessed him with jumping ability.”
Kobe’s articulate voiceover breaks down the strategic nature of the game, explaining the complicated triangle offense in a simple way. Spike says he never understood the triangle offense until hearing Kobe speak on it. “He’s really professorial with this and with his approach and he’s able to communicate intricacies of the game,” Spike said. This makes Kobe Doin’ Work more than just entertainment—it is an astounding basketball document that can be studied in basketball schools for a look into how an elite player thinks about the game and conducts himself during it.
Kobe seems to have a Zen attitude toward everything basketball—when he gets pushed, elbowed, fouled, or cheated, he just laughs it off and says that’s part of the game. “You gotta love it,” he says. Speaking about another game, he says he knew he was going to do well because he was so calm beforehand. You might think he’d be looking inside for a ton of energy, but he knows serenity is a better fuel, which is a valuable peek inside the emotion-management of a superstar. But Spike is quick to remind me that Kobe recorded the voiceover the night he scored 61 points against the Knicks. “He was in a great mood!” Spike says. “I’m telling you, if the Knicks had won that game and he’d had a bad game, I put my money down, that commentary would’ve been a lot different. He said so himself. He said, 'I didn’t want to come do this commentary with you talking shit so we had to win that game.' And the irony is we’ve been trying to get him for months to do this and when he finally did it, he scored 61 points against the Knicks, and that was the spirit there that manufactured that.”
Kobe’s equanimity is good for teaching hot-tempered young athletes the right way to emotionally process a game, but it doesn’t quite lend itself to good storytelling. The film has none of the human drama of Hoop Dreams or Spike’s 1998 movie He Got Game. “People have various opinions about Kobe but that’s not what this film is about,” Spike said. “I want to present the man on the court and any stuff that happens off the court, that’s not what we’re dealing with. That wasn’t something Kobe asked me, it was just about one game, him doing work at the highest level.”
The film that Spike says inspired this one, Zidane, A 21st Century Portrait, takes a similar approach—filmmakers used 17 cameras to follow French soccer legend Zinedine Zidane through an entire 2005 game—but in the voiceover Zidane occasionally goes back to childhood emotions and memories, giving you some insight into himself. That’s not what Spike wants. The Zidane film is at best a loose inspiration—that film maintained an obsessive focus on the soccer star to the point that it was difficult to know what was going on in the game. When Zidane passes to someone in front of the goal, all we see is Zidane’s impassive face, watching the play conclude. In Kobe Doin' Work, the focus broadens slightly so we can tell what comes of Kobe’s passes, or, in one interesting sequence, what happens when Kobe’s calling for the ball and not getting it.
“The thing about team sports is, if the head coach is always talking, players tune them out. So to be a successful coach you gotta have your superstar on board. That’s what the great players did. Same thing Jordan did. Magic did. Bird.”
One of the bigger questions the film raises is: Who is the true coach of the Lakers? Phil Jackson is a minor figure in the film, an almost spectral presence, while Kobe is vocal in discussing strategy before the game and during timeouts. In one seminal moment in the second quarter, as Kobe’s on the bench, he yells to assistant coach Brian Shaw, just calling out Shaw’s name, but that’s enough to get his point across: He’s telling Shaw and, more importantly, Jackson, who’s sitting beside Shaw, that he wants to go back in the game now. On the voiceover, Kobe laughs sheepishly, as if he knows he’s not right for that, then admits that many other coaches would not allow him such leniency. At another point in the film, as the game is going on, Phil and Kobe simultaneously call a play—both raise five fingers—but neither is aware of the others’ call. Kobe talks about it in terms of how in sync he and Phil are, but it made me think, what happens when they call different plays? “I don’t think that happens a lot,” Spike said. “They’re locked in. They’re both students of the game, they know what the defenses are, and they know what play to call based upon the defense and the personnel on the court for both teams.” Still, all that seems to suggest that Kobe may have become the real coach of the team. “I’m not gonna say that,” Spike said, “but he’s the leader of the team and leaders do that, they’re gonna take control. The thing about team sports is, if the head coach is always talking, players tune ‘em out. So to be a successful coach you gotta have your superstar on board. Players are gonna listen ‘cause it’s coming from the best player on the team. That’s what the great players did. Same thing Jordan did. Magic did. Bird.”
Kobe Doin' Work is visually thrilling and a great look at basketball, but Kobe is such a controversial figure off the court—i.e. his longtime reputation for not being a team guy, and the unresolved issues around the dismissed rape charge, and snitching on Shaq during his interview with the police, and allegations that he forced the Lakers to trade Shaq away—that it feels strange for Kobe to go under this microscope and simply play basketball and not talk about anything more. The film made me respect Spike Lee—for constructing a compelling piece out of a so-so night for Kobe—but it didn’t make me like Kobe.
Kobe’s trash talk is lame; he isn’t cool. Listening to him discuss basketball strategy is illuminating, but the film didn’t make me want to hang out with him. Kobe is charisma-free, blessed with none of the charm of Magic or the cool of Jordan or the likability of LeBron. For a long time, he’s come across as a self-entitled, spoiled prince and though age has given him some maturity, his personality is as compelling as a cracker. Like A-Rod, there’s this haughty air about him that just makes him hard to like. Kobe Doin’ Work takes you so far inside the game you almost feel like a Laker but one who, thankfully, never has to talk to Kobe.
Kobe Doin Work airs on ESPN on May 16, at 7:30PM EST.
Touré is the host of BET’s The Black Carpet and the host of Treasure HD’s I’ll Try Anything Once. He is the author of Never Drank the Kool-Aid, Soul City, and The Portable Promised Land. He was a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, was CNN’s first pop culture correspondent, and was the host of MTV2's Spoke N Heard. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Times.