The question is slightly preposterous, but asked anyway: How does Kobe Bryant—Lakers legend, future Hall of Famer, GOAT candidate—compare the grind of a NBA season to “retired life,” a.k.a. running a creative studio?
Bryant doesn’t laugh at the query when he easily could since the endeavors, on the surface, appear to be so drastically different. Without missing a beat, his answer is calculated, precise, and pure. Basically, he gives a quintessential Kobe Bryant answer.
“It's shifting from being a player to now being a GM or something, right,” says Bryant. “You're just finding the best talent out there and then you let them do their thing. It becomes a matter of putting them in the best possible situations to do their best work. So it's different in that sense.”
Three years following his memorable final game with the Lakers, GM Kobe is running Granity Studios, his Los Angeles-based multimedia original content company that’s already earned at least one major accolade. Bryant memorably took home a 2018 Academy Award for his short documentary Dear Basketball and now he’s looking to body an entirely new genre—the young-adult fiction novel. Dropping March 19, The Wizenard Series: Training Camp is about the trials and tribulations of an inner-city boys basketball team. It marks the debut of Bryant as a publisher and never in a million tries would the kid who went straight to the league from high school have guessed this would be his post-playing reality.
“The thing about us athletes is you gotta find what you're passionate about besides the sport that you're playing in, what comes next, you know what I'm saying?” says Bryant. “I think it's different for every athlete, but if you would have told 20-year-old Kobe this is what I'd be doing I'd have been like, 'Dude, you're absolutely crazy, you're out of your mind.'”
We caught up with Bryant over the phone to talk about the novel’s creative process and the hilarious similarities between the coach character Rolabi Wizenard and Phil Jackson as well as a few basketball questions—like how many a night he thinks he could get if he was still in the league and what the Lakers should do this offseason.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Where did the inspiration for you to make this a series, for you to put out your first young-adult novel, come from?
Well, I wanted to create a basketball story and then it was a matter of what was the story gonna consist of. And I was at home one day watching Mary Poppins and thinking about what an amazing character she was and then kind of made the connection between Mary Poppins and some of the coaches that I had in my career. In a weird way, Phil [Jackson] was very similar in that he would provide direction without really telling you which way to go. You know, he really wouldn't explain much, but he would kind of guide you and lead you in that sort of way, and I made that connection and thought it would be a really good character as a coach. So I started there.
So I started with Rolabi and then from that I started creating the children and at first I was trying to think of one athlete, one basketball player that the coach can help guide and shape and mold and, you know, so forth. But then when I got down to the reality of it, of growth within team structure you can't grow individually without really seeing the development of the teammates around you. So then it became a story about everybody else's individual journey, kind of inner acceptance so that's where the story originated.
Alright so we'll get the Rolabi question out of the way. Was that character based on Phil, or is it kind of a combination of all of the coaches you've had in your career?
It's combination of a lot of coaches I've had. And one that wasn't a coach of mine, but was a great mentor of mine, which is Bill Russell. So I kind of took them, kind of mixed them all and applied some of the things I've learned from their personalities and demeanors and attributes and kind of morphed them into Rolabi.
The creativity comes pretty easily to me. I have a wild imagination and I love outlandish stories and creating new characters and new worlds so that part comes pretty easy to me.
But what distinct characteristics will a reader be like, "Oh, that's Phil, that's other guys"? Did you give specific kind of examples or very specific language that immediately makes you think that's what Phil would do?
Well, I can give you something specific in that Rolabi never says “goodbye” or “hello.” He just shows up. Phil did that all the time. Phil would just walk in a room and you say, "Hey, good morning," and he'd just kind of look at you and smile a little bit but not say anything back. So just kind of from a humor standpoint, I definitely put that in there based off of Phil.
But some of the things that you see, for example, when you see the players asking very specific questions, what Phil was an absolute genius at is that he was able to communicate to individuals while speaking to the whole. And that's what Rolabi does a lot of, he can speak to you, you feel like he's really speaking to you directly and every individual on the team feels that way, that is a genius of a communicator to be able to do that.
I know there were central themes in this book: overcoming setbacks, the necessity of facing fear, the value of the team over the individual, power of vulnerability, and a few others. Which of these themes were the toughest for you to conceptualize and write about and frame in a proper light for the book and the book's core audience?
You know they all came from personal experiences, things that I've experienced myself or things that I've had teammates experience, going back to my days of playing youth basketball, which is a very, very, very long time ago. But I wouldn't say one in particular was more difficult than the other. I think the hardest challenge was connecting the inner journey of these athletes to specific basketball drills and exercises. So how do I take with Rain, Twig, Cash, Lab, and Peño, what they are going through? How do I create basketball-specific activities that challenge each one of them differently but in the same way? So I create drills that individually they all can, for their own inner fears and insecurities. But it can hit every individual differently. That was really, really hard to do.
You said Rolabi is kind of based on a combination of the coaches, so when you read this, and you read about the characters, and you kind of get a feel for them, are readers gonna be able to pick out characteristics of former teammates of yours?
No, I don't think so, because those things aren't glaringly obvious. So what you're dealing with is internal stuff that's private to individual athletes, those emotions. So those are things that you won't be able to look at on the surface and say, “Okay, I think that's this player or that player or this is some from here or some from there.” That would be very hard to do.
Of all the titles you've accumulated—I'm not talking about NBA titles—you're adding publisher with this project. So where does that rank in terms of your career achievements?
This is right at the top for us. This is something that's completely new for us, it's a completely new venture. It's like starting something completely from scratch. It's the start of a complete new beginning so this ranks right up there for us and we're all just really, really excited to launch it.
Compare the grind of running what you're doing with Granity Studios to NBA life. Is there any kind of comparison in terms of the work ethic it takes and how tough it can be to break into this and to leave your mark? Do you draw parallels on NBA life and basketball life to this life that you've currently carved out for yourself?
The things that are consistent is the dedication, the hard work, the day-in and day-out process. Those things are consistent no matter what profession you go into. But I think for me it's a little different, so in writing and outlining stories, that was tough, because it was like writing all the time, waking up in the middle of the night and writing more, restructuring, coming up with a plot, and then it hits a dead end and now you gotta rewrite. Doing that over and over, that was really, really tough. But now once I've cracked those stories, now it’s become about finding great talent. So now it's shifting from being a player to now being a GM or something right. You're just finding the best talent out there, and then you let them do their thing. It becomes a matter of putting them in the best possible situations to do their best work. So it's different in that sense.
as athletes you can't be as sensitive when you speak your piece and then people critique you for that and vice versa.
How much do you struggle with creativity? Does it come naturally to you?
It does and that's a gift and a curse because I write too many things sometimes. I had to tell myself a couple weeks ago just to stop—to stop writing, stop writing new stuff. We have to focus on the things that we have, you know what I mean? I kind of tailored myself a little bit to stop. The creativity comes pretty easily to me. I have a wild imagination and I love outlandish stories and creating new characters and new worlds so that part comes pretty easy to me.
For the cover of this book you went with "Created by Kobe Bryant.” Why did you choose that specific wording?
Well, because I created it.
I mean, you didn't go with "Published by." “Created by” obviously has a specific connotation. I know that you were involved in the writing process—you gave Wesley King a lot of credit for that or all the credit—but I’m just curious why you thought “Created by” was the best way of identifying yourself with this?
The way I look at it is I gave birth to these characters and then the writers raise them. That's where we're at right now from the start. But it's also really important to celebrate the writers, man, cause when I outline these characters and I create these worlds and I go to the writers, I don't say, "Here it is, just write it." That's not the process at all. It's like here's what I'm thinking, now let's see if we can make this 1,000 times greater. And that's what Wesley did, that's what all of our writers have done with our stories and with our worlds; they come in and inject their own creativity, their own ideas and structure and character growth, and we go back and forth and we wind up having something that's 1,000 times better than anything that I could've ever imagined on my own so that's why I kind of created them, gave birth to them. But the writers are just absolutely phenomenal and sensational with what they've done with it afterwards.
Let me pepper you with a few basketball questions. When you go back to Staples Center and you see your No. 8 and No. 24 jerseys hanging up there, where does your mind immediately go to? Is there one specific memory?
Just very proud, you know? Just very proud of being a part of that wall. Playing there all those years and looking up and seeing all those great jerseys hanging up in the rafters and now to be a part of that, I just feel very, very proud.
How do the Lakers go about being a serious title contender next season?
Well, they just take their time and how they build, it takes time to rebuild and build a championship team and you gotta be patient, do it piece by piece. I think it'll work out.
Do you expect a major overhaul though, come this summer?
I wouldn't know, my man.
Well I’m asking not necessarily someone who has inside information, but as a fan observing from the outside: Would you expect a major overhaul of that roster?
I don't know if I can tell you I expect that, I certainly think they'll look at opportunities to get better whether it's gonna be an overhaul or not, I don't know. But they're in a good position; they've got a selection of really, really great young talent, there's also a selection of great free agents. I think they find themselves in a very [enviable] position with the ability to develop the young players that they have or [attract] free agents. It's a great position to be in.
In the interview you gave to Rachel Nichols, you said that you were in favor of players openly asking for trades and players having more power. Is there some mythical cut off, though, of what caliber player is allowed to ask for a trade, or should players be allowed to dictate as much of their careers as possible?
Man listen, everybody is entitled to say what the hell they wanna say. You can be a top tier player and demand a trade, you can be a mid-level player and demand, everybody can say what they wanna say, you know? But at the same time, people have a right to criticize you because they can say what the hell they wanna say, too.
Very true. It can come right back at you.
Yeah, it's the nature of the beast, my man. So as athletes you can't be as sensitive when you speak your piece and then people critique you for that and vice versa. You know what I'm saying? It is what it is.
One more about Rachel and what you told her. You said very interestingly and very provocatively that you feel that you can still play in the NBA today, but you don't want to for various reasons. So if you were in the proper shape, if you had the proper training, everything, how many a night you think you could still put in as a 40-year-old in the NBA?
Dude, I don't know.
There's got to be a number you think that you can get to. Ten a night?
No, I don't know, my man. I have no idea.
Listen, if Michael Jordan could score the way he did at age 39, and you were properly trained, I think that you could come close to matching Jordan. But that's just my observation and I'm sure a lot of people share that, too.