When Los Angeles Laker superstar Kobe Bryant decided to make a film of “Dear Basketball,” his farewell poem to the sport he loved, he chose two collaborators who knew nothing about the game: former Disney artist Glen Keane, who had animated Aladdin, Beast and Tarzan, and Oscar-winning composer John Williams. They were good choices. Their film won the Annie Award, the animation industry’s most prestigious prize, for best short film of 2017, and is considered a likely favorite for the Academy Award for animated short.
“Even though, in his own words, I ‘couldn’t have picked a worse animator for basketball,’ I felt Glen and I shared an emotional connection that enabled him relate to the piece at a deeper level,” Bryant, who retired in 2016, said in a recent telephone interview. “He was at a time in his career that was parallel to my own — leaving Disney after so many years and starting something new.”
“It was pretty surreal to see myself animated,” he added with a laugh. “I once dreamed of having a signature Nike shoe, but I never thought I’d be animated by Glen Keane — that pretty much tops everything!”
Keane said it “was the most difficult thing I’ve ever animated,” adding: “I was trying to draw a moving sculpture in space that had to look exactly like Kobe. I could draw Beast any way I wanted: Nobody knows what Beast really looks like. Everybody knows Kobe.”
The film has generated considerable excitement in the animation industry for its celebration of traditional drawing. “Lou,” from Pixar, which has won the category four times, “Revolting Rhymes” and “Garden Party” are computer-animated; the fifth nominee, “Negative Space,” was done in stop-motion.
There is also some controversy surrounding the nomination: #MeToo activists say a 2003 sexual-assault case against Bryant is reason not to reward the movie. (The case was dismissed.) An online petition is seeking to rescind the nod, and the argument has been taken up on social media.
Bryant deliberately chose an artist who didn’t know basketball: “Someone who’s been watching basketball their whole lives — and playing it — tends to miss the small moves, the details. When you come at it with fresh eyes, you look at every single thing because it’s all new.”
Keane said, “I’ve always believed animation can help an audience understand an action in deeper ways than live action.”
“You can edit the movement, leaving out extraneous details and emphasizing the important points,” he added. “There’s something deeper and more emotional that art can communicate, even though you can take a photo of the same thing.”
Bryant’s poem begins with recollections of himself as a boy, practicing dribbling with a basketball made of his father’s tube socks. He attains his dream of playing professionally, then realizes his career must eventually end: His aging body can no longer endure the demands of the sport. Keane’s drawings juxtapose the boy and the adult.
Bryant, who spent two decades with the Lakers in a run that included five NBA titles, said he wanted a younger generation of athletes to see the film and learn “about the emotional journey of having a dream, believing it’ll come true; it comes true, then the realization that you have to wake up from that dream and move on to another.”
Keane added, “The film doesn’t have to be ‘Dear Basketball,’ it’s ‘Dear Animation,’ it’s ‘Dear Medicine,’ it’s ‘Dear Whatever-You-Dreamed-of-When-You-Were-a-Child.’”
At Disney, Keane was known for loose, powerful drawings. Some of their strength was inevitably lost when they were traced, inked and painted for the films. Although this practice is standard throughout the animation industry, Bryant wanted the spontaneity and roughness of Keane’s original drawings — which appear on screen.
“My career — like other things in life — was never perfect. There’s beauty in those imperfections, and the last thing I wanted to do was create a film where all the lines were perfect and the coloring was perfect,” he explained. “That would have taken away from the humanity of the piece, which is about creating and enjoying that journey of imperfection. It was really important for the animation to be 2-D and feel almost sketchy.”
Three years earlier, Bryant had reached out to John Williams, but not about film. He thought understanding the composer’s writing and conducting process might help him on the court: “How did he lead a large orchestra to create such beautiful music? I was trying to relate the art of conducting to leading a basketball team to a championship.”
The composer was surprised when the athlete contacted him. “I couldn’t imagine why Kobe wanted to meet me,” Williams recalled. “I told him I had never been to a basketball game — high school, college or professional.”
Nevertheless, they quickly became friends, and when he was asked to compose the score, Williams agreed immediately: “I thought ‘Dear Basketball’ was a very reassuring and contributive little piece.”
Although they’re excited about the Oscar nomination and enjoyed working together, Keane and Bryant will not be collaborating in the immediate future. Keane is slated to direct the feature “Over the Moon” for Pearl Studio in China. “This has been an amazing moment in my artistic life, pushing me into a field where I felt I had no business,” he said. “Then I realized, animation can go anywhere, can’t it?
Bryant is developing other ideas for films. “Aging can be very difficult for athletes,” he said. “We train our whole lives, we dedicate ourselves to a craft we have to leave early because our bodies will not allow us to go on.”
“What you’ve done for so long becomes who you are, and it’s very, very difficult to walk away from it and do something else,” he continued. “So to be two years into retirement and have an Oscar nomination means so much.”