It’s going to be very hard for the Academy to resist nominating the animated short, “Dear Basketball,” given the star power of Kobe Bryant, John Williams, and Glen Keane. And why not? It’s an exquisite little piece (adapted from Bryan’t’s retirement poem and co-produced by him), which traces his fascination with basketball as a child and how that passion and drive led to an extraordinary 20-year career capped by five NBA championships.
Besides, the project inspired Keane, the former Disney animator (“Aladdin,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid”), to reach new heights of hand-drawn fancy. Early on, in fact, Keane made the crucial connection between basketball and ballet, creating a dance between the young and adult versions of Bryant.
“The most captivating thing in the world for me is the human body in motion, doing what seems to be physically impossible things,” said Keane (the Oscar-nominated “Duet”). “I’m really drawn to that as an animator. But this chance to actually be a basketball player was really unique. I knew what it was like being a mermaid, swimming free through the water and the weightless feeling. But this was different.”
Studying Bryant’s Moves
The first step was sitting down with Bryant and studying his athleticism. They watched a Top 10 of his best plays on YouTube, and one, in particular, stood out: a final buzzer-beating, 3-point bank shot against Miami. “It’s literally down to one second left and Kobe’s being blocked by defenders, and so he has to break laterally across the court,” Keane said. “And as he’s running to the side, he lets go at one second. And the ball has two trajectories: one moving straight towards the basket and the other the momentum of moving to the side. And you watch the ball arc in an amazing way across the court and it’s a perfect swish.”
But, employing a valuable lesson from Disney legend Ollie Johnston, Keane knew it was more important to convey what Bryant was thinking than what he was doing. And so he asked the NBA superstar how he made the shot, and he told him a childhood anecdote about trying to hit a telephone pole with a rock while racing on his bike. After overshooting the pole, he learned to throw it back to compensate to hit his target.
“So he told me that when he was doing that shot, he was reliving that moment as a little kid and it went through the basket,” added Keane. “These details of him as a child were so important. They were vivid memories that he put specifically into his visual poem. They were anchors of his career, and I learned that Kobe’s greatest asset is not his athletic ability but his ability to learn.”
Getting Inside Bryant’s Head
Personal details from Bryant’s childhood were important: the posters of Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson on his bedroom wall and the VHS tapes of Bulls’ and Lakers’ championships. But one memory nearly alluded Keane until he spotted it in one of the storyboards done by his son, Max: Bryant rolling his dad’s tube socks. “It was from the opening line of his poem and, for Kobe, it was everything,” Keane said. “And he showed us exactly how he did it and we filmed it so it was true.
“The way Kobe set up the chairs when he would practice was the one place where he actually did some drawing for me to show the [correct] pattern. He wanted some kid to look at it and see the steps he took.”
Accepting Bryant’s Narration
They recorded Bryant’s narration at Westlake Recording Studios, a block away from Keane’s studio in West Hollywood (where Michael Jackson recorded “Thriller”). The first recording was quiet and reserved. Keane figured Bryant was nervous and would improve with further readings. After 10 sessions, though, he realized that Bryant’s quiet reserve was intentional.
“For Kobe, this was a very vulnerable, personal expression and he was not trying to sell anything,” said Keane. “He was just trying to reveal something that was there. In fact, after we did the animation and John Williams had done the music, Kobe asked if we could take his narration off of it. I said there was no way I would’ve done this if I thought we weren’t going to use his narration. I told him not to discount it. This was part of the personal experience. So, of course, we used it. But I think that understatement in his delivery is true in John Williams’ music as well.”
For Keane, there’s usually a moment when he realizes that a project takes on greater significance than he imagined. In “Dear Basketball,” it came when he drew little and older Kobe together. “They had to be on that court together,” said Keane. “That six-year-old is always there. And, in the end, the two Kobes move together in a dance.
“We may think we’ve grown up, but those dreams and desires [from our youth] are still present. When I started sketching that, I realized this is one of those gifts, like a divine diamond, and you’re so thankful for it.”
“Dear Basketball” can be viewed on Verizon Media’s go90 (along with a behind-the-scenes documentary).