The NBA star’s Oscar-winning short film, in which he mused on his post-basketball future, now has a new layer of sadness and irony
Dear Basketball was always a bittersweet piece of work. This was the Oscar-winning short film from 2017 directed by the Disney animator Glen Keane, with stirring music by John Williams and written, produced and narrated by Kobe Bryant, on the occasion of his retirement from basketball.
It is not merely a love letter to the sport that had given him so much, but a deeply sad farewell to it: almost an expression of grief, or therapy for grief. In the previous few years, he had been agonised by injuries that were making continued top-flight competition an impossibility; the fragility of human bodies is always a particular agony for athletes of Bryant’s calibre. “I can’t love you obsessively for much longer,” Bryant says to basketball. “My body knows it’s time to say goodbye.” Now, of course, these thoughts have a new layer of sadness, as well as a jarring irony. The goodbye that Bryant envisaged in Dear Basketball was a natural progression to other things, and he mused on what his post-basketball career was going to bring him. Clearly, some work in movies was a very real possibility. But it was not to be.
Dear Basketball is also a tender meditation on Bryant’s own boyhood: the fluid pencil-stroke-style animation morphs the adult Bryant back and forth between a stylised representation of his magnificent triumphs on the court with Bryant as the little kid in his bedroom dreaming of glory. He was the basketball-obsessed kid who took his dad’s tube socks, rolled them up into a ball and kept shooting it into a little hoop on the other side of the room. The dad in question is the former professional player and coach Joe Bryant, who survives his son at the age of 65.
Dear Basketball starts with the ecstatic moment of scoring, the transcendental moment of pure success as the ball dunks down into the hoop with such conviction and force that the netting floats up; it’s a thrill that never gets old. Yet the emphatic beats of a sporting narrative are blurred and softened by the visual style. The animation itself is something that confers a kind of nostalgia on both Bryant’s older and younger self. It’s very different from watching basketball live or on TV, and maybe the film sentimentalises a sport that incorporates such blaringly commercial ingredients – but it is allowable, for a film that is explicitly about Bryant saying goodbye, and heading off into a different future that he admits he still cannot quite envisage.
There is something arguably childlike about someone expressing pure, passionate love not for people, but for a sport, incarnated in the ball itself. But there is a heart-wrenching honesty in it as well. Dear Basketball is a melancholy, thoughtful film. Now as his epitaph, it is desperately poignant.