Glen Keane had been working at the top of his game for four decades when Kobe Bryant called. Bryant was familiar with the animator's work on such movies as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, and he reached out through a mutual connection to set up a meeting. "I said, 'Are you sure?'" Keane remembers. "'He wants to talk to me? What?! Why?!"
The reason was "Dear Basketball," the letter Bryant penned for The Players Tribune in 2015 announcing his retirement from the NBA. As its title suggests, the letter was addressed to the sport itself, with Bryant writing, "We both know, no matter what I do next, I'll always be that kid with the rolled up socks, garbage can in the corner, :05 seconds on the clock, ball in my hands. 5… 4… 3… 2… 1."
After officially hanging up his jersey in 2016, Bryant set out to adapt "Dear Basketball" into a short film. Around the same time, Keane was venturing out from Disney to open his own fledgling studio. "He had visited Pixar and Disney and DreamWorks, and he was coming to us," Keane tells A.frame.
"Kobe drives up in a big, black SUV and he hops out with Vanessa and the girls, and comes up and gives me a big hug. And I just couldn't believe Kobe was there," Keane says. Inside, "Kobe was looking around, and I thought, 'Oh man. I know what he's thinking.' And I heard him say really quietly -- Kobe always talked really quiet -- he said, 'It's perfect. It's real.' He immediately connected to the craft of animation. He'd always loved it, and he could see it and feel it in that room."
Bryant's "Dear Basketball" is a poem which places him back in the shoes of the 6-year-old Kobe who dreamed of playing for the Lakers. He pours his out heart to the game that he dedicated his life to. "I did everything for you," he writes, "because that's what you do when someone makes you feel as alive as you've made me feel." Keane knew the animation had to match that sincerity.
"I've always seen myself as an artist who animates," Keane explains. "What I loved about Kobe is he really, really wanted it to be an artistic expression, hand drawn, in pencil, in a style that is more of a moving illustration."
Keane remembered a particular bit of wisdom he received from his mentor, the animator Ollie Johnston (who was one of Disney's "Nine Old Men," the name of Walt Disney's key animators in the 1950s): Don't animate what the character is doing, animate what the character is thinking and feeling. "I told Kobe, 'I can't animate you playing basketball. For one, you've got the worst basketball player on earth animating you," Keane laughs.
Instead, Keane downloaded some of the top highlights from Bryant's storied 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers and the two sat together as Bryant shared what was going through his mind during each play. "Turns out he has like a photographic memory of every nanosecond of every one of those incredible shots."
He pulled me into his experience on the court and made it feel like I was living in his skin.
He remembers Bryant breaking down one moment in particular, an awe-inspiring game-winning shot at the buzzer. The Lakers were down by two with mere seconds on the clock. Every player on the court knew the ball was going to Bryant. Still, he managed to break free to receive the pass, dribbled towards the three-point line at full speed, shot a contested three off of one foot while his body was fading to his left, and banked the incredible shot in.
"He said, 'You know how I did that?' 'No! How did you do that?!'" Keane shares. "He said, 'Well, I was remembering when I was a little kid in Italy and me and my friends would ride our bikes. We would go past this telephone pole and throw a rock and try to hit the pole, and it never would hit. So, we learned to throw it ahead and it would curve back and hit the pole just by the momentum.' He said, 'That was what was going through my mind at that moment.'"
"All the way through it, Kobe made it so real and so personal for me," he says. "He pulled me into his experience on the court and made it feel like I wasn't doing a job. I was living in his skin."
Bryant recorded the narration for Dear Basketball, which Keane experienced as "an unveiling of himself." "He was just sharing his heart," he says. 52-time Oscar nominee and five-time Oscar winner John Williams composed an original score for the short.
Dear Basketball was released in April 2017, five years ago now. The short went on to win the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film the following year, with Bryant becoming the first former professional athlete to win an Academy Award and the first African American to win in the category. Bryant had closed the book on one of the greatest careers in sports history and, upon starting his very next chapter, earned an achievement few dare to dream of.
Keane has one final story to share. As his work on Dear Basketball was drawing to a close, he realized that he was missing a shot of Bryant which did not exist in any pre-existing footage, that he needed for the very end of the movie. "I have to have a final reflective moment of your career," he said to Bryant. So, Keane filmed it himself, directing Bryant to give a meaningful look, turn around, and walk off.
"And I said, 'No, that's not right. It looks like you're sad. You can't be sad. This is an incredible career. This is cherishing the memory of it all.'" Bryant did another take. Keane recalls, "He turned, and there was this little bit of a reflective smile as he walked off. When I think of that moment, it's how I feel. I can't help but remember that as a high point in my career."