Kobe, John, and Glen: The Maestros Behind “Dear Basketball”

“The beauty of finding what it is that you love to do, and then finding the beauty of knowing that you will not be able to do that forever.”

A curious nominee at this year’s Academy Awards is the short film Dear Basketball. Curious because it was created by an athlete… though not just any athlete. Kobe Bryant, whose distinguished 20-year career with the L.A. Lakers included five championship rings, 18 NBA All-Star games, and the third-highest regular season scoring record of all time, has also become a mogul. After retiring in 2016, he formed his own production company, Granity Studios, and has ambitions to write and create original stories in all kinds of media.

He wrote the poem “Dear Basketball” when he announced his retirement, and after hanging up his jersey he decided to animate this letter—part loving tribute, part wistful elegy—to the sport that defined him. Still driven by a hunger for excellence, he invited the Kobe of traditional animation, Glen Keane (the Disney veteran who designed Ariel in The Little Mermaid) to animate and direct… and the Kobe of film composers, John Williams himself, to write the score.

Turns out, the baller from Philly is also a film music nerd. I asked Bryant if he had any particularly nerdy childhood memories. “You mean besides tying a towel around my neck and flying around to the Superman theme?” he laughed. “You can’t take a bath, you can’t jump in any body of water whatsoever without thinking of the Jaws theme,” he added. “That’s amazing.”

I interviewed Bryant, Williams, and Keane in the spring of 2017 for the L.A. Times. With the Academy Awards approaching, I wanted to share our full conversations about this potentially Oscar-winning little gem—and about how these three generations of men, from wildly different backgrounds, ended up discovering kindred spirits.

Kobe and John

Kobe Bryant: I grew up listening to his music, obviously, just like we all done. But the [first] opportunity that I had was to just reach out to him [in 2008], because I asked myself a question, like: what makes a John Williams piece timeless? How is he using each instrument? How is he using the space between them? How is he building momentum, and then how is he taking it away to build it again? I had all these questions for him, so I called him. Because as a basketball player, what I found myself doing a lot was essentially conducting a game, right? So how do you score a game, and then how do you conduct a game? How do ensure that teammates are put in the proper place to be successful? I just wanted to talk to him about how he composed music, and try to find something similar that I can then use to help my game as a leader, and winning championships. That’s how that relationship started.

John Williams: He rang me up one day and asked to have lunch, and of course I was thrilled. First thing I told Kobe was, I’d never seen a basketball game. High school, college, professional… I’ve never seen a basketball game. And of course he laughed. And it’s true. I was never very interested in the game, although I knew his name as a household word, of course, the world over. He was talking mostly about the music of Harry Potter, which I wrote. His daughters apparently were singing it in the house and adored that, and he wanted to get a picture of me with him to show his daughters.

Bryant: “Hedwig’s Theme” puts Natalia to sleep, that’s put Gianna to sleep, and now it puts Bianka to sleep. I lay them on my chest and I hum it to them, and the vibrations of it, it just relaxes them.

Williams: You’ve met Kobe: he’s a fabulous person, in addition to being so accomplished. Then he came to several of my Hollywood Bowl concerts, bringing the children, and we always had a wonderful time when he came backstage.

Bryant: Once I had told him my reason for reaching out to him, he saw the connection immediately, and said, “I never thought about that, but yeah, it’s interesting.” Because it’s essentially the same thing. If we look at people in our same industry, and we just look at things from that funnel, then you wind up essentially recycling information. Sometimes you look outside of that discipline, to have a new point of view, a new perspective on it. So he was digging it.

What did you love about his music?

Bryant: The fact that they’re extremely complicated pieces, but to the ear they sound extremely simplistic. That’s always been amazing. Like if you watch a basketball player play, or you watch an artist, and it looks extremely simple… which is the magic of it. But understanding that there’s so many layers of complexity that take place beneath that, to get to a place where you achieve, seemingly, such simplicity. It drew me every single time, and I wanted to pick his ear about it. The thing is, if we can simplify what we do, if it can seem so simple and so sharp and so crystal clear to us, then we know we’re at a level that, you know, it’s getting closer to our fullest potential.

Bryant: I grew up on animation quite a bit, and I found animation to be a really great teacher for how I learned a lot of things. And I figured the best way to get back to the game is to do it through story. If we can get multiple senses, I think stories tend to resonate more. Through the written word we communicate one thing, and then you add visuals to that, then you add music to that—I think those things tend to stick in more. It was important for me to pass on the message and things that I’ve learned in this journey to the next generation of athletes, and I couldn’t think of a better name than John Williams to bring it to life.

Williams: The subject of this little film came up. You know, Kobe’s a lot of things, but I think one of the things he’s not is somebody you can say no to. I’m kidding, of course. I said yes with the greatest pleasure, and I was really pleased to do it. For my part, it was a gift to Kobe, and his company arranged for the orchestra and the studio to be available. And it was just fun. I interrupted my work on Star Wars [The Last Jedi] for a week or two to do his film, which I think is really very touching, in a human way.

Bryant: The first thing he said to me was, “I do classical pieces, and it’s all by hand.” I said, “Oh John, I know. We’ve been over it. I get it. But it’s important to have that texture for this piece.” I told him, “It will be hand-animated by Glen Keane, who is you in the animation space. I want it to have the human touch. I don’t want it to be poppy, I don’t want it to be hip-hoppy, I don’t want it to be current in that sense. I want timeless, classical music.” And because he does big scores, he said, “I was a little concerned that the music that I would write for it would be too much for five minutes or for this piece. But after seeing it, and then hearing your voiceover to it, I see it completely, and there is no better way to do this piece than with classical composition.”

Glen Keane: I didn’t know Kobe. He had contacted me through a producer up at Google. Kobe had seen Duet, and wanted to talk to me about possibly animating Dear Basketball. He really loved the idea of it being hand-drawn, and very much a hand-crafted kind of a thing. Duet was a piece that was more like a visual poem with music, and so it really connected to him. So Kobe came over with Vanessa and their girls, and my wife was here and my son. It was very much a family gathering. We sat in my office and talked for hours. I think we just really found a common approach to both of our fields, which were so seemingly unrelated—yet we found that they were amazingly connected, in the way that we both approached our basketball or animation. We decided, Yeah, let’s do this together.

Bryant: We sat at a table at Glen’s office—it was myself, John, and Glen—and we just talked. John talked about how it made him feel, Glen how it makes him feel, and we all centered on the same thing, which is why I wrote it in the first place: the beauty of finding what it is that you love to do, and then finding the beauty of knowing that you will not be able to do that forever. Once they saw the nature of the piece, there was really nothing else to discuss.

Keane: It was our same little team from Duet. Jenny Rim was our producer, and Max Keane, my son, was our production designer. I animated 90 percent of it, but then got two other animators: Bolhem Bouchiba, who worked with me in Paris doing Tarzan, and Minkyu Lee, who I’d known at Disney. It was very important to find somebody who naturally had this bold, graphite-on-paper style of drawing, and I felt like we could all work together and it would feel seamless. The look of this film was not something you were going to be able to just find anybody with a background in animation could do it, or maybe not even want to do it, because it required so much rendering. It was more of like a moving illustration than traditional animation.

Williams: The drawings have great fluidity and, in the best sense of the word, great simplicity. They really are gorgeous, not only to look at, but rhythmically they’re fabulous.

Keane: We searched the world over for the right pencils. It’s got to be a very soft, water-led process for making the pencils. Most companies stopped making the kind I like. Anytime I would find a pencil, I knew they’d stop it, because it must be too expensive [laughs]. But we found this company in Japan, Mitsubishi, and I found out: hey, these are the same pencils Hayao Miyazaki uses. We got a whole supply. It was about a nine-month process.

Part of the first conversation that Kobe and I had was our connection to music—it was this wonderful surprise—and particularly Beethoven. I love Beethoven’s Ninth, and have found different times… like Beast’s transformation in Beauty and the Beast, I animated the whole thing to Beethoven’s Ninth. Often I have music in my head as I’m animating. I have to find a piece of music that feels like it. The ideas in the music are so much about texture and patterns and timing that suggest ideas in acting, in movement, that it just seemed to seep in. There’s a pattern that you’re working towards, a development of a theme that happens in the movement of the animation, and that you naturally hear—you know where it’s going in the music, now you know where it’s going in the animation, then you build and animate to that. It really is an important element. And as Kobe and I were talking, he said he used Beethoven in one of his championships—I forget which year it was. Beethoven’s Fifth was running through his head, and that orchestrated all the way through winning that championship.

For Dear Basketball, I was listening to John Williams. Max had cut together a soundtrack from Empire of the Sun, so I was animating to that. When John heard the score, he found it really helpful. He said the choices that Max made became the template for the final piece. Though he wrote it one time and felt it was too big, and he went back and he rewrote it for something that was more understated—in a similar way that Kobe’s delivery, his narration, is very personal, uninflected, not trying to sell anything. More like revealing. Kobe’s got a very quiet voice, and that also had a big impact in how we animated. It wasn’t about Kobe’s glory in any way. It was much more revealing a six-year-old boy’s desire, and the fulfillment of it. We must have recorded Kobe ten times, but every time he delivered it, it was very much the same, very personal, intimate, quiet, one-on-one way of talking that he had. We recorded it in Westlake Recording Studio, where Michael Jackson recorded Thriller—which is pretty cool.

Amazingly, this was the first time John Williams had ever scored traditional, hand-drawn animation.

Williams: And I particularly enjoyed it. Reminds me of some two-dimensional studies of paintings that I’ve seen. It’s a lovely thing. It is different than computer animation. The beautiful old Disney things that they did when I was growing up were always things I admired greatly, and always connected in my mind with their musical counterpart. Music was half of what you imbibed with those things, it seemed to me. This is a unique thing for me in almost all respects, and it makes it memorable to me.

Keane: When John came over to my little studio here, it was so magical—I felt like a little kid. There’s like 20 years of separation between Kobe and me, and between me and John. Three generations of people. But each of us, I think, just felt a little bit like a kid that absolutely loves what they do. When I was a kid in the ’60s, I could not wait to get home to watch this TV show that started with this wonderful John Williams score: Lost in Space. I told him that, and he’s like, “Oh no, no. Oh…” He was so embarrassed. “But it’s wonderful, John! I mean, it held the promise of wonder and excitement and fun and quirky and scary and dangerous, and it was all in this one score. And John, the roots of your entire career are in that score.” He said, “Oh no, no…” I said, “Yeah! Can I play it?” “No, please don’t!” I said, “No, I really gotta play it for you.” [Laughs] So I did, I played Lost in Space. When you listen to it, there are the roots of so many movies in that one wacky TV score.

For whatever reason, the world of animation missed out until now. I felt like we were so fortunate that we knew him, and that he would give us that slice of time, in the middle of scoring Star Wars, to do Dear Basketball. Really, he’s made for animation. I would love to do more with him. When I got to Disney in 1974, they had not changed at all from the time they were doing Snow White. It was still very much an old, classic animation studio. I remember walking in the first time and you could just feel the history to the place, and it had this smell of cigarettes, pencil shavings, and scotch—like an artistic incense. When you got notes from the director, the notes were from the “music room.” The directors’ offices were always called the music room because, way back, everything was scored first, and then the director would take the score and start to plan out the animation. Every animator had a metronome at his desk, so you knew what the rhythm was. I was taught to animate with a rhythm. So even if I don’t have music, I animate with a sense of musical timing—a pause lasts just enough, and then it keeps going, and there might be a faster pace. Wouldn’t it be a dream to have John Williams score the beginnings of something and animate to that?

Williams: It is challenging, very much so. Many little episodes and a series of climaxes here and there, and all carefully timed, obviously. You want to make it seem easy, but it’s anything but when you’re doing split-second timings, and having to change and make a 180 turn in one half a bar of music and so on.

Keane: I’ve always said that drawing, to me, is a seismograph of my soul. There’s something in the line that you draw that’s almost like one of those seismographs. It kind of registers emotions that you are drawing. And certainly John is doing that as he’s writing out the score. I asked him, “So John, there’s 80 instruments in this. Did you have an assistant writing out the different parts of the first violin or second, third violin, flutes…?” He said, “Oh no, I do it all myself. I hear it, and I play golf, and think through these melodies, and I write it out.” I just was so impressed that somebody would care about the handcrafted quality. I had done that in the animation, but I didn’t expect others were like that. And then to find somebody who’s 85-years-old and still approaching it that way, with amazing confidence.

Williams: Kobe seemed to be particularly interested in what I did, and how and why I did it. I talked about the really mundane aspects of what I have to do, which means that I get to the piano very early in the day, and stay there pretty much all day long, working alone—which a composer has to do. It does take a lot of discipline, and a lot of development, and a lot of habitual determination to stick with it. Composing the way I do is a very labor-intensive thing, because I don’t have synthesizers and computers and so on. I’m doing it all by hand, which is, you know, a medieval practice to say the least. We talked about work ethics and work methods, and the role of recreation in all of this.

What would you say you have in common with Kobe?

Williams: There are a lot of things that I don’t have in common with Kobe that I wish I had. I wish I had his physique, you know, and his marvelous looks. I think what we have in common, probably, is one essential thing, and that is a dedication and focus on one goal. There are geniuses in the world who can focus and dedicate themselves on four or five goals. Most of us humans are not able to do that. You really need to focus and dedicate time and energy and life to whatever, singularly, the goal is. That is something I think we certainly share. Beyond that, we’re really at the far ends of the rainbow, I guess you could put it. The other thing we might come together on is the process of performing. The process of saving energy for an hour or two. I don’t want to say that conducting an orchestra amounts as the same kind of energy commitment—although it’s pretty heavy if you’re a conductor—to a professional athlete. But I think there are similarities there, too. You have to stay in shape, you can’t eat before a performance, you know what I mean? You lose five pounds every night you play or every night you conduct.

The recording stage

Keane: He finished it on, I think, Sunday, and on Tuesday morning as we went to Streisand Studio at Sony, John Williams was like a little kid. He was kind of a different person that morning, because he immediately came up to Kobe and gave him a big hug, and he was talking really excitedly. He was charged.

Bryant: We showed up, and the first thing he says to me is, “I hope that you like what I’ve written, and I hope that it is going to enhance the piece. I hope that it’s not going to bring it down, because it’s such a beautiful piece.” I just looked at him and said, “I feel pretty confident that it’s going to be just fine” [laughs]. I mean, come on—seriously? Like, my job was over. I wrote the piece. Somehow I was able to get John and Glen on board to do the piece, and then… that was it. My job was over. You let the greats do what they do best.

Keane: I did a little sketch of Kobe and John Williams and the orchestra there, as John started to conduct and for the first time he heard it, and it was so beautiful. I was amazed.

Keane: At a certain point, Kobe looked over to me and just shook his head, and just put his head on my shoulder, like “I can’t believe it.” It was so beautiful. Then when it was done, John turned to us and said, “I promise it’s going to get better.” [Laughs]

Bryant: Oh my God. I almost lost my mind. I mean, as soon as his hands went up and then the music started, I almost yelled out loud—but I had to remember that the red light was on and we’re recording [laughs]. It was a surreal experience. Imagine… his melodies I hum to my kids to put them to sleep, you know what I mean? He’s been a part of our family for so many years without even knowing. So to actually have a piece that he composes on something that I have written, and to see him do it there with the orchestra… it was the most unreal experience I could ever have.

Keane: I found myself seeing things in the animation that I didn’t even really realize were there to that degree. Obviously we put them there, because we storyboarded it and animated it, but it was the transitions that were so clearly stated by musical instruments. You felt that you were on a new level. The drawings don’t change—generally they’re graphite on paper, and the style, the look of it, it’s all kind of consistent, so it’s a seamless passage between one moment into a transition into the next important development in the story. But John’s music tells you that you are transitioning in a big way. The first one that gave me goosebumps when I heard it was when he brings in the French horns, and suddenly you feel aspiration and hope and something bigger than yourself, and just the nature of those French horns. It was so beautiful. Suddenly the animation was so much more powerful there, because you’re seeing hope and a future, aspiration in little Kobe turning into a young man. It happened at a point where little Kobe does become an adult. It’s really, really beautifully timed.

Williams: You’re touching on what I think is extraordinary about the piece: it’s not an egomaniacal trip in any way. I don’t feel that at all. I think you feel Kobe’s service to his muse, and the positivity of what he’s doing. He’s about the farthest thing from a megalomaniac as you can get, and that’s exactly what that film doesn’t do. It is elegiac, but it isn’t weepy. It strikes its own manner of saluting the man and the game and the accomplishments with a lot of modesty, I think. It’s very touching, and in the end that may be its highest achievement, that it’s able to praise this man the way it does, without a lot of false vanity or hubris that could easily have spilled into it. That’s my take on it, in any case. I don’t know how he will expose this to the public, or what Kobe’s plans are for it, but it’s a lovely contribution. I think playing it to young people, particularly youngsters or any interested in basketball, will add to its force. I can’t speak very well for young people and how it will strike them, but as a youngster it would have struck me as a very inspiring piece. The man’s story is an inspiring one, and not a vain one. He seems completely in touch with the challenge of life—past, present, and future. You get a sense that Kobe’s qualities are going to be just as shining in his post-basketball years as they would be during his years on the court.

Keane: All the way from the very beginning, the plan was that this was giving other children a path of pursuing your dreams, and to encourage them that there is a way to do it. And it’s through the discipline and the hard work, and there’s promise in following that path. Kobe really wanted to show the pathway for him to achieve his dream, and that it’s possible for anybody—it doesn’t have to be sports or basketball. It could be writing, it could be becoming a doctor, whatever your goal and dream is. I think that’s something none of us ever want to leave behind, is the sense that we are continuing to grow, and we all have goals no matter how old we are. You still hang onto that childlike dream. I left Disney after nearly 40 years of animating, specifically because I felt like there was something out there, but I just didn’t know what it was, and I wasn’t going to find it unless I left—and while I had the energy, I should do that. I had no idea it was going to be stepping into this world of basketball, and animating… being Kobe Bryant. I always animated characters that believe the impossible is possible. I love that. Fortunately in animation, you can animate the impossible. And I could become Kobe Bryant—but only by studying incredibly, minutely every frame, again and again and again, of him playing. I told Kobe that he had the worst basketball player on earth animating him, and he said, “Well, that’s great, because what you’re going to learn about basketball is through studying my movements.” I will be him.

Bryant: The process of getting to a certain level is the same. Doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, right? If it’s animation, if it’s writing, if it’s playing basketball, if it’s composing—the process is the same. It’s patience, and it’s staying to it every single day, working at it every single day. So if, through this project, we can inspire hand animators to say, “Hey, the art is here,” you know, or future composers, kids out there who want to be John Williams, inspire them to continue to dream… then we’ve done our job.

Williams: I’m a fan of his, and as I said before, not of basketball particularly—but this man, and what he’s shown of himself to me, and the way he’s done it. I’ve known him now for a couple of years, before the subject of this film ever came up, so I think I can have the privilege, or maybe not the exaggeration, of calling him a friend.

Bryant: He said something to me that absolutely just made my day. When we finished, he looked at me and said, “You know, that was too short. You have to write more. Give me a feature film, give me something. You write so beautifully, I would love to compose more things for you.” I was just like [deep intake] “Did that just happen?” I was like, “Absolutely. Absolutely. Yep, I’m on it.” [Laughs]