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Kobe Bryant Q&A: ‘The Lakers are going to surprise a lot of people’

Kobe talks about his new book, the Lakers making the playoffs, and LeBron

Kobe Bryant smiled. He was moderating a panel discussion with five kids when one of them expressed love for the Los Angeles Lakers. That led to the five-time NBA champion’s reasonable follow-up:

“Who’s your favorite player?”

Owen Norwood, 11, one of the kids on the panel at the Aspen Institute’s Project Play Summit in Washington, D.C., looked at Bryant and responded without hesitation.

“LeBron James.”

Bryant threw his head back in feigned disgust, and the crowd roared in laughter.

Causes connected with youth sports occupy a lot of Bryant’s life these days, more than two years after he ended his career with a 60-point game against the Utah Jazz on April 13, 2016. Bryant was 37 at the time, the oldest player in NBA history to score 60 points.

Now 40, Bryant is creating content largely aimed at kids through Granity Studios, which he created after the release of his 2015 documentary Kobe Bryant’s Muse for Showtime. He recently created a podcast called The Punies, and next week he’ll release his first book, The Mamba Mentality: How I Play, which is aimed at providing young athletes a look at one of the most brilliant minds to ever play basketball.

After Bryant’s appearance at the Project Play Summit on Tuesday, he spoke to The Undefeated about his book, becoming the first African-American creator to win an Oscar for an animated short, his drive to open up opportunities for minorities in Hollywood and, of course, his Lakers.

How involved were you in getting James on board with the Lakers?

I’ll tell you, when [Lakers owner] Jeanie Buss came to me and said, ‘I really want to go after [LeBron],’ I said, ‘Jeanie, he’s not coming here until you clean up this s— here.’ The last thing LeBron wants to do is come to an organization that has a lot of infighting, a lot of the stuff going on.

I said, ‘Jeanie, it’s time for you to take ownership of this franchise. He’s not going to come if you don’t.’

How good can this team be this year?

The Lakers are going to surprise a lot of people. Rob [Pelinka, the Lakers’ general manager], has smartly built a team of physical players. Big, versatile, fast, physical players. He understands that if you want to challenge Golden State, you can’t challenge them with shooting. That’s what they do.

You’ve got to beat them somewhere else. You have to beat them with size. Chippiness. Feistiness. Strength and speed. And he has a team that has that. He has a mixture of vets that are still in their primes and young kids that are hungry and open-minded and willing to learn. A team that can compete and challenge. That is a dangerous mix.

You say surprise people? A definite playoff team?

Oh, God, yes. C’mon.

A lot of people don’t see this, even with LeBron, as a playoff team in the West.

C’mon. (Laughing.)

You’ve won NBA championships, just won an Oscar. What motivated you to write your first book?

I struggled with doing a book. If we’re going to do anything, whether it’s the Muse film or The Mamba Mentality book, it has to have a reason for existing. So the layers I put on it, if it’s me at 12 years old and I’m reading a book, what would I want to read?

Some of the greatest insights I got from [Michael Jordan’s books] were with things that had nothing to do with what he felt like after this game or a particular shot. It was more like the process, the basics. I said I’m going to do a book that’s built on process, built on craft, and I’m going to teach the young kids. We’ve pulled images, and I’ve been able to pick apart tactically what is happening in that photograph or what should happen. It’s that level of insight.

Similar to what you do with Detail (Bryant’s in-depth game analysis created for ESPN)?

Exactly right.

How’s the transition been from player to storyteller?

I’ve written my whole life, ad campaigns and all that. But … the Muse film changed everything.

I wasn’t happy with the first version of the Muse film I saw. It was a standard documentary. I had to do something different, had to focus on the kids out there, and all I wanted was to speak to the young athletes.

And so I took a couple of days, went home and rewrote it. I found a lot of enjoyment in doing that.

I had people come up to me, basketball players and entertainers that had nothing to do with basketball, and say that film moved them. That inspired me to be where I am today. I really enjoyed that process.

What was the moment like when you were announced as the winner of an Academy Award?

I couldn’t believe it. Like, I would love to say it was a dream, but I couldn’t fathom that until we got the nomination. Then it was like, ‘We actually have a chance to win this thing.’

The moment we won, to actually go onstage and accept that award with all those amazing actors and actresses sitting out there? It’s crazy. I couldn’t believe in this day and age I was the first black director/producer to win an Oscar for an animated short.

I remember thinking back to our Oscar tour. We sat in the room with all these different animators — none black. Zero. Part of what I want to do is: ‘How can I show the culture in very different forms of expression?’

There’s not just basketball, music and football — there’s other stuff. There’s animation. Storytelling. Production. Screenplay writing. We want to open up the industry to show our children, hey, you can do this too.

Could you have envisioned being an award-winning media executive and content producer while you were playing?

You kidding me? No. No. No.

But I love it. It’s crazy. I feel very blessed to be able to say I played basketball for 20 years in the league. I love the game of basketball. But what I’m doing now, I love every bit as much as I loved the game of basketball.

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.