COSTA MESA, Calif. – In a previous life, Kobe Bryant cared about specific hardware.
He had spent 20 years in a Los Angeles Lakers jersey collecting five NBA championship trophies, two Finals MVPs and one-regular season MVP. When he sat in a room of his production studio recently, though, Bryant turned his head toward something he considered more meaningful. He stared at the Oscar, Sports Emmy and Annie Award that he won for his short film, “Dear Basketball“.
“They’re at the top for me,” Bryant said in a wide-ranging interview with USA TODAY Sports. “It’s not something that was expected. As a kid, you kind of have the goal of winning championships and all these sorts of things. Being in the industry that I’m in now? It wasn’t something that was thought of me winning an Oscar.”
What was expected? Consider what Bryant experienced on his farewell tour during his final season with the Lakers in 2015-16. Teammates, team officials and opponents did not just shower Bryant with praise. Some of them also shared their misgivings.
“ ‘I don’t know what you want to do when you retire,’ ” Bryant recited. “ ‘You’re going to go through a state of depression. You’re going to have an identity crisis.’ These are all things that were said to me because people were genuinely concerned.”
Nearly four years later, the 41-year-old Bryant seems just fine.
He founded Granity Studios, a multimedia company that has produced an ESPN+ series that analyzes professional athletes’ performances (“Detail”) and a No. 1-ranked kids and family podcast that teaches life lessons through melodies and sports (“The Punies”). He partnered with director Glen Keane and Academy Award-winning composer John Williams to produce “Dear Basketball”, which was based on a poem he wrote to announce his retirement.
Instead of displaying NBA-related memorabilia, Bryant’s workspace features shelves of his published work, other biographies and fantasy novels. As author Ivy Claire said, “sometimes, I forget he’s Kobe Bryant. To me, he’s just a guy with a bunch of book ideas.”
King sees similarities in Bryant’s work ethic.
“He’s approaching this in the same manner with the same passion as he did with basketball,” King said. “That’s not necessarily the case with a lot of other athletes. Some have put out books, but have been more hands off. But he’s in the trenches and wants to work on every sentence possible.”
Bryant still has informal conversations with Lakers’ controlling owner Jeanie Buss, general manager Rob Pelinka, LeBron James and young player Kyle Kuzma. He attended two Lakers games this season and attracted attention from NBA stars and fans alike. Yet, Bryant maintained he has “zero” involvement with his former team and has higher aspirations than chasing nostalgia.
Bryant has overseen his storytelling company that has 12 full-time employees and various contractors. He opened two training facilities dubbed the “Mamba Sports Academy” in Thousand Oaks and Redondo Beach. And he has coached his second-oldest daughter’s AAU basketball team, naturally called “The Mambas”.
“I had a strong level of belief that Kobe would thrive after his playing days were over,” Pelinka wrote in an e-mail to USA TODAY Sports. “It was simple to see this because Kobe is one who truly lives in the moment. He gets zero value from reminiscing on past accomplishments. It’s all about making the most of the current day.”
‘You got to do what you love’
Bryant showed signs his post-basketball career would play out this way.
Over two decades ago, Bryant took creative writing classes at Lower Merion High School from Jeanne Mastriano. She considered Bryant a “charismatic storyteller” when the class spoke to preschoolers or wrote short stories.
“I was hoping he would coach. I was hoping I could watch him with the Lakers,” Mastriano admitted. “But it makes a lot of sense he would take a bold leap like this. It’s not easy, which is going to get him salivating.”
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When Pelinka worked as Bryant’s agent, Bryant said he once told Pelinka he would win an Oscar. Even if Bryant considered the conversation to be a “pie in the sky thing,” his prediction was not that outlandish.
Though he did not read much during his childhood, Bryant became an avid fan of Harry Potter, Star Wars and Disney movies. He read biographies to learn what made accomplished people tick. He watched movies to study character development and story arc. While nursing three consecutive season-ending injuries before his final year, Bryant brainstormed project ideas. That led to Bryant overseeing “Muse,” a Showtime documentary that detailed his successes and failures during his career.
“You got to do what you love to do,” Bryant said. “I love telling stories. I love inspiring kids or providing them with tools that are going to help them.”
‘It’s as if the Olympics and Harry Potter had a baby’
Bryant formed the basis of his inspiration during his final season. Then, he spent part of that time constructing the so-called “Granity Bible,” a 150-page book filled with words and illustrations that details his mythical world.
“I have an idea for an entire universe that centers around sports, fantasy and magic,” Bryant said. “It’s as if the Olympics and Harry Potter had a baby.”
That idea might sound strange. So just consider how Claire and King reacted when Bryant contacted them and expressed interest in turning these ideas into books.
“It’s really important not to shut him down with all of this wild creativity,” Claire said. “I let him go until we found the simple version of it, as opposed to disregarding all of his ideas.”
Bryant realized traditional publishers did not share his ideas. So, Bryant launched his own publishing company. That maximizes his creative freedom and protects his intellectual property.
Then, Bryant became restless just as he did when he played basketball. Bryant admitted “it takes them a little getting used to” when he texts or calls writers at all hours with feedback. Claire mused, “If it wasn’t Kobe Bryant, my husband would’ve wondered, ‘Who is this man calling you all the time at 2 in the morning?’ ”
Despite those late-night exchanges, Bryant still often reports to his office at 8 a.m. After leaving at 2 p.m. to pick up his daughters from school, Bryant returns around 3:30 p.m. for more work. Beyond obsessing over plot development and sentence structure, Bryant also cares about preparation.
“I would lie if I first got the call, I wasn’t a little hesitant,” King said. “But it’s been absolutely a great experience.”
How Bryant approaches coaching
Because of that workload, Bryant rarely watched NBA games after he retired. He only did so if a player asked him to review film. Otherwise, he spent most of his time on his projects or with his family.
That changed last year when his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, wanted to watch NBA League Pass almost every evening. Bryant took her to two Lakers games this season so she could see James and Anthony Davis, Atlanta’s Trae Young and Dallas’ Luka Doncic.
After predicting he would not have the patience to coach NBA players, Bryant has shown he does have it while coaching Gianna’s AAU team the past two years.
“Coaching youth sports is so important to take very seriously because you’re helping the emotional (development) of young kids,” Bryant said. “So it’s understanding not to be overcritical and understanding that (there) are going to be mistakes.”
Therefore, Bryant spends most of practices teaching fundamentals involving ball handling, defensive positioning and reading opponent’s tendencies. But when the games start, Bryant often sits and watches.
Bryant had the same approach when he held workouts at his training facility last week for WNBA players, last summer for a handful of NBA players and when he broke down game footage for “Detail.”
“It is not for fans. It is for one percent of people that will actually understand what the hell we’re talking about,” Bryant said. “The funny thing is by doing that, we seem to have really connected with everyone, everyone else. But that was absolutely not the mission.”
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Next up? Making books into films
Bryant spent most of his career striving to win more NBA titles and to set more records. So why should it be any different with his storytelling projects?
ESPN has renewed “Detail” for three more seasons, which will feature 52 episodes per year and undisclosed guest appearances. “The Punies” podcast will launch its third season in August, which will feature 10 episodes plus a Christmas special. In 2020, the podcast will be produced into an animated television series.
Bryant recently received early drafts from Claire and King for the next editions of the “Epoca” and “Wizenard” series. Bryant wants to hire more writers so he can expand his sports fantasy universe.
“Our challenge now is taking books and making them into films, feature films and in series, some of which will be animated and some of which will be live action,” Bryant said.
“So it’s figuring out how to do that, while understanding that owning the intellectual property is absolutely essential. It’s fun to figure out the journey, but it’s also extremely frustrating. Things don’t move as fast as you want them to. But that’s OK.”