Kobe Bryant on Tennis, Storytelling and Life After Basketball
NEW YORK — Kobe Bryant may have retired from the NBA in 2016, but he hasn’t exactly gotten back on defense, so to speak. Now 41, Bryant has added an Emmy and an Oscar to his stash of five NBA Championship trophies, as his animated short, Dear Basketball, was a critical darling last year. He also created The Punies, a podcast based on an eclectic group of neighborhood friends who play sports and embark on adventures together.
What’s more, Kobe has discovered tennis. And he’s combined his new favorite sport with his foray into kids content with the publication of Legacy and the Queen, a sports and adventure book, co-created with Annie Matthew, which releases next week.
In New York on a book/tennis tour, Kobe discussed this new venture. Some outtakes from a conversation we had Thursday at the U.S. Open from the Tennis Channel set:
Jon Wertheim: You’re a tennis guy aren’t you?
Kobe Bryant: I am. I enjoy playing. I enjoy watching. Now, enjoying playing tennis and actually being good at playing tennis are two different things. But I enjoy it.
JW: Some moles in southern California tell us you hit it pretty nice. I’m wondering what skills in basketball translate and which ones don’t to tennis.
KB:I think footwork—being comfortable being on your feet, having to change rhythm, having to pick up pace relatively quickly. You gotta get to a drop shot, not having to drop the back foot before you move up and try to get the drop shot. Things like that, I use in basketball.
JW: You’re a man of the world, and grew up all over the world, but when did you come to tennis?
KB: Well, it was about a week after I retired. About a week after my last game. So, I mean, it feels like it was recently but I think it was like three years ago. It’s amazing how time flies. But Rob [Pelinka, Kobe’s former agent and current Laker’s general manager] and I, who’s a good friend and we live close to each other, he is a part of a tennis club said lets go and hit some balls. We started hitting, and things got competitive, and we were out there for about three or four hours and that’s when it started.
JW: Given what we know about your skill set, do you ever wonder how you’d do in the individual sports?
KB: Yeah, I used to wonder that quite a bit sometimes. There would be things sometimes during the Lakers season when things would be really stressful. And I would just sit around thinking man, I wish I played an individual sport. There’s something even more challenging in individual sports, you have to deal with the inner challenge. You have to be able to deal with the uncertainties from shot-to-shot or the disappointments in shot-to-shot, Because it’s just you out there. Right, so having to navigate through those emotions presents a new set of challenges.
JW: Cant blame the coach, can’t blame the teammates.
KB: That’s right.
JW: Some guys retire and get fat and go fishing, you retired in 2016 and took up tennis. You also won an Oscar, won an Emmy. I encourage everyone to go see Dear Basketball. When did you make this pivot to storytelling? When did this become such a priority for you?
KB: In the beginning of my last season. That’s when I started writing, that’s when I started to execute what would come next. Having four daughters at home, it was like I need to create content for my children. Because I didn’t see that, I didn’t see content for kids that enjoy playing sports. So I wanted to take something that had a fantasy appeal to it and connect that to sports. Magic and pathology and some of the inherent magic that is within the sport itself. How do you take that in put it into a story that kids would enjoy?
JW: Legacy and the Queen, a new book you co-wrote—this is a tennis player, it takes place in the tennis world—
KB: It’s a young woman named Legacy. She’s faced with a particular challenge of winning the kingdom championships in order to save an orphanage she grew up in. It’s a beautiful story of emotion. In this story here we have inner-weather. So depending on what you’re feeling in the moment of time, it actually effects the dimensions of your court, the air around you—things could become darker, you could create gusts of winds. Every player has their own special power, if you will, depending on the emotion within them.
JW: A little Hunger Games-like.
KB: It’s competition. Hunger Games, and films like that, you base it around competition. I figured, lets do something that’s competition based, but you don’t have to change much because the sport inherently has that.
JW: I understand Naomi Osaka, the defending champ here, was involved in this project.
KB: She’s one of the players I sent the book to, first and foremost. She enjoyed the read and we got together out in Newport Beach and did some promos with it. And I’m here to check her out and hope she does well.
JW: Why tennis?
KB: Tennis has those qualities, those challenges. If you look at my daughters at home. I’m trying to teach them how to navigate through society as they get older. What are some of those sports that can really teach them? You said earlier, you’re out there on your own, you have to figure out, I just hit three bad shots, what those have to do with the next shot. I need to put those behind me and move on. Same thing with great shots—I just played a great set, won the first set. You can’t dwell on that, you have to move on to the next. So how do you navigate those inner emotions? Tennis is a great metaphor for that.
JW: A lot of your work is kids-oriented. I want to ask you an adult question. In 2016 you went through this drill: Do I keep playing? When do I retire? It’s a tough choice for every athlete, and a number of tennis players are going through that right now. What would you tell them?
KB: For me, it was when my mind started drifting towards storytelling more than it started drifting towards basketball. That’s when I knew it was time to go. Because I loved the game since the age of three and my mind was always consumed by basketball. And then I found it not being consumed by it anymore. There were other things. And when that happened, I said you know what, it’s time to step away.
JB: You’re here to watch the tennis. And now that you’re a player, you have a different appreciation. What do you look for? When you come to watch these matches, what do you see as an elite athlete?
KB: I try to see what is the strategy for each player. Each player comes in with a game plan and you want to see the game within the game. Yeah, you see cool shots and things of that nature, but I’m looking at what is the strategy that they’re having because its a chess game between two players, and that’s what I like to see. And I like to see the progression of that. You start the game with this tactic then you start to phase it to the next one and the next one.