For most of my life, I despised Kobe Bryant and very actively rooted against him.
I grew up in Boston loving the Celtics during their ‘80s heyday, so it’s a big part of my DNA to be a Laker Hater. And thus, like a loyal ‘Masshole,’ for the first 15 years or so of his prolific NBA career, I complied with the public narrative of non-Laker loyalists and considered Kobe selfish, arrogant, combative, and cancerous toward his team. Sure, the basketball aficionado in me—who grew up with Larry Bird as a boyhood hero—recognized that Kobe was a cut above your average NBA All-Star, but I never allowed that kernel of objectivity to cloud my green-colored glasses.
Even when I moved to L.A. in 2002, I kept my antipathy for the Lakers and Kobe alive. As an avid hoops fan, I went to games at Staples Center regularly and rooted for whichever team the Lakers faced off against. As Kobe waded through successes and failures on and off the court, like everyone else I observed with a perverse sense of curiosity. He was the star in the city of stars. I wondered to myself what it must have been like to have such celebrity and yet seeming isolation at the same time. Still, I kept my intrigue for the man in check; too much curiosity kills contempt.
Cut to June 2008: my beloved Celtics are facing off in Game 4 of the NBA Finals against the Lakers. I scored amazing seats behind the Laker bench at Staples. As every disciple of the Religion of Sports knows, there’s no more transcendent experience than attending a game in enemy territory and watching your team triumph. The Celts stumbled out of the gates, falling behind by as much as 24 points in the 3rd quarter. Then they raced back into the game and won by 6. I was beyond ecstatic (and certainly boorish). Being within earshot of the Laker bench, I ripped into Kobe as much as I could. His performance was peculiarly average. He struggled from the field, shooting 6-17 and couldn't stem the Celtics’ historic comeback. I let him know it the best I could. And I swear during one timeout, we made the most fleeting eye contact. A flash of rage and animosity from him. It was palpable. And I fucking loved it.
Five days later, the Celtics beat the Lakers by 39 to win their 17th Championship. I rejoiced.
Two years after that, in a rematch between the historic NBA rivals, the Lakers triumphed. They were tougher, more unified, and meaner than their 2008 model and it earned Kobe his fifth championship ring, cementing his status as one of the game’s all-time greats. Even though his series performance earned him the MVP Award—generally considered an individual accolade—it was his role as a leader and facilitator that demonstrated the iconic player Kobe had become. Despite myself, I was impressed.
And two years after that, I found myself at a private dinner sitting next to Kobe. Since I do have some manners, I chatted politely with him. I eventually confessed that I was a diehard Celtics fan. He smiled and said Larry Bird was one of his childhood “muses.” I was disarmed. He asked me a million questions, one of which kicked up an old friend we had in common. Well, not just any friend. A certain transformative artist who shaped both Kobe and my and millions of others’ vision of greatness: Michael Jackson.
Kobe shared his MJ anecdotes. I shared mine. His love for Michael wasn’t really the standard fare—the Moonwalk or Thriller creep or litany of other fan-fueled curiosities—it was Michael’s obsession with his craft. If you knew Michael, you knew how he obsessed over Fred Astaire’s pivot or how much he yearned to outsell Saturday Night Fever, the highest-selling album prior to Thriller. And it wasn’t just that, it was Michael’s relentless discipline to achieve greatness; his willingness to sacrifice everything in his life to be the best ever. At one point, Kobe said of his muse Michael: “He was greatness.”
I left that dinner impressed by Kobe Bryant. I also left with his cellphone number, and we started texting regularly. Kobe was curious about documentary filmmaking, my passion. He fired off questions to me. I replied—or better yet sent links to books or articles that detailed the art form. Kobe voraciously read them, digested them, and came back with more questions. I found myself intensely researching my own trade just so I’d have answers for him. I read clinical books on interview techniques for documentaries. I watched a hell of a lot more films just so I could refer them to Kobe. Even amid his own crazy schedule, playing in the 2012 Olympics and then training for the Laker season, he seemed to watch every single film and have strong reactions and ideas on the art form itself. And then one day, he casually remarked: “We should make a film about greatness.”
This stuck with me for most of the 2012-2013 NBA season. Toward the end of it, as the Lakers geared up for a playoff run, on a move he’d made a million times in his career, Kobe stumbled. He clutched the back of his left calf. Any basketball fan worth his salt knew what had happened: Kobe had ruptured his Achilles.
An hour later, I texted Kobe that I was sorry. He said, “Thanks.”
A few minutes later, I texted him with an idea for a film: Chronicle his comeback and use it as the narrative to explore greatness.
He replied: “When do we start?”
Kobe Bryant’s Muse is not a film on Kobe. It’s a film with him. Not only is he in virtually every frame of the movie because there’s that much story (and more) to tell, his fingerprints are all over the film itself—the music, the graphics, the way in which it was shot, lit, and now marketed.
Kobe and I wrestled every step of the way. And I brought on other young, passionate creators willing to do the same. I knew from watching him—and rooting against him—that Kobe plays his best when in conflict, when challenged, and when he was pushing everyone else.
The film speaks for itself. It’s honest and authentic and passionate—because that’s what Kobe was willing to be. And because there’s some Celtic part of me that still can’t admire the guy too much, I could never say this to his face: Kobe is like his muse Michael Jackson. He is greatness. And next season when he returns to the court, I’ll root for the Lakers.
Except when they play the Celtics.
Kobe Bryant’s Muse premieres on Showtime at 9 p.m. Saturday, February 28.