I never liked Kobe Bryant growing up.

To me, a life-long Dallas Mavericks fan, he was a smug, self-indulgent rival who wasn’t as good as everyone else thought he was.

As a film aficionado and budding critic, it bothered me even more that one of my most-disliked sports antagonists won an Academy Award. It reeked of the bravado that annoyed me watching him dunk on Mavs centers or bank in game winning jumpers in route to another championship he didn’t deserve.

Part of the pageantry about sports is creating and hating the villain. It’s what endears us to our heroes who best someone else’s hero that we view through the lens of the enemy.

I was in a movie theater Sunday afternoon watching the film I intended to write this review over, Guy Ritchie’s crime caper “The Gentlemen” starring Matthew McConaughey, Colin Farrell and Hugh Grant.

About halfway through the film, I was strangely moved to do something I rarely do in a theater; stop watching and check my phone.

The screen flashed up with several text messages, a missed phone call and an ESPN news alert, all of which were commonplace for me to see once the credits start rolling on a movie.

For some reason, instead of putting my phone away, I walked down the aisle and into the hallway, far enough out of view to not interrupt other audience members, but close enough to keep myself inside the world of the film.

I opened my phone again expecting to see some text messages that wouldn’t matter in the long run and someone I needed to call back on my way home.

The ESPN alert jumped to the top of the screen, “Breaking News: Kobe Bryant killed in helicopter crash at 41.”

It was an unexpected, stunning revelation and one I couldn’t stop thinking about amid the ensuing diatribe and violence that concluded Ritchie’s film.

It’s lingered in the back of my mind all afternoon and evening; someone I grew up watching and reviling was gone in the most tragic of fashions along with eight other people I’d never known of or met, among them his 13-year-old daughter Gianna.

The thoughts that clouded my mind brought me to the one piece of Kobe lore that I’d never seen before: “Dear Basketball,” the five-minute film based on his retirement poem that won Bryant an Academy Award in 2018 for best animated short.

Director and animator Glen Keane takes Bryant’s words penned for an article in The Player’s Tribune and vividly animates them through hand-sketched pencil work that leaps off the screen in spite of its two-dimensional style.

As Kobe narrates his own story, audiences are shown his legacy not through championships, but through the impact Bryant’s relentless passion for a sport had on him as a man, illustrating his growth from a six-year-old boy shooting hoops with his dad’s rolled-up tube socks into a legendary member of the Los Angeles Lakers.

It’s a touching short that grows more poignant now on the day of his passing, hearing Bryant talking about savoring “every moment we have left together, the good and the bad” in a way that becomes a rallying cry for renewed hope in whatever passions we may have.

Oscar-winner John Williams pens a sweeping score that combines the majesty of athletic competition with the final notes of impending exit. It veers slightly toward the point of excessive, but still hits home hard enough to draw tears from even the most stubborn of viewers.

Keane’s expert use of color palette keeps the focus on Bryant, muting nearly everything but the yellow and purple of Kobe’s jersey and layering black strokes to enhance detail in life-like comic book form, enveloping the Bryant of “Dear Basketball” to superhero status in the mind’s eye of Kobe as a child.

“Dear Basketball” perfectly illustrates not the myth that was created for him, but the inner soul of the man himself.

Poetry and poignancy was something I never expected from Bryant.

The Kobe I thought I knew wasn’t capable of that.

It’s saddening to think that only his untimely passing – and especially that of his teenage daughter – would bring me to reframe the image of him in my mind’s eye.

The power of film comes from its ability to have an impact on its audience and to preserve eternally people and moments in time.

In this regard, “Dear Basketball” is a perfect film, keeping the memory of a legend, but more importantly a man, alive.

 

The animated short film, “Dear Basketball,” can be seen online at believeentertainmentgroup.com/portfolio-item/dear-basketball.

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