Kobe Bryant Discusses His New Obsession After Basketball: The Art of Storytelling

Image via Lito Boras/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Kobe Bryant doesn’t miss basketball.

Just because he says it doesn’t make it true, to be sure. But the way he says it, with such conviction and downright wonder—like in a “I know it sounds crazy but seriously” kind of way—makes it seem believable. It’s entirely possible that the game that consumed him for much of his 38 years no longer holds the same power over him. But he has to be at least watching the playoffs, right?

“No, I didn’t get a chance to, man,” he says with a laugh from his California office. “I’ve been busy. It’s one of those times of the year where everything kind of comes in at once, so there’s a lot of things I need to get through; projects that need to be finished, the next Canvas piece, other things that I’m editing, the BodyArmor sports drink campaign and launch, and then the TriBeCa film festival. So there’s a lot hitting right now.”

Bryant’s all-consuming passion hasn’t changed, it’s just shifted focus—from basketball to storytelling. What was a secondary pursuit during his playing career as he plotted out sneaker designs and advertising concepts for Adidas and Nike has become his profession. And while he’ll dip back into hoops from time to time, taking calls from current players seeking advice and writing a Hall of Fame induction speech he’ll need in a few years, he doesn’t see himself re-joining the NBA officially in any capacity.

“No. No,” he says. “I love what I’m doing. I love story. We love what we love, man. I can’t get enough of this stuff.”

With the launch of “Obsession Is Natural,” the first video of his BodyArmor sports drink campaign—a spot he wrote, creative-directed and narrated—we talked to Bryant about his new job and passion, one that’s already made him not miss the old one.

[This interview has been edited and condensed]

I. BodyArmor, Obsession and Kobe’s new role

How does the way you prepare now differ from when you were a player? I know you were a meticulous guy right from the start.
Yeah, well it’s different because in sports, you have deadlines that you can’t push back, right? So if the game’s at 7:30, then the game’s at 7:30. Either you did your work or you didn’t, and if you go out there and you have an off night, you have an off night. There’s no receipts on our performances. You can just make people forget what they just saw. But with storytelling and writing, I can really sit and go over every word, every break, every look, every edit, every cut, every sound until it is absolutely perfect. Until I feel like it’s the best that we could possibly do. And that’s what’s beautiful about it—that this process is open. And also you don’t have to shut it off. With training, you have to shut it off at some point, physically. But with story and writing and creating, I don’t. My mind is always going, so it’s great for a personality like mine. For an obsessive person like me, it’s fantastic.

I feel like your definition of “perfect” is different than most people’s. Some people probably think, “Oh, this is good now.” And you’re like, “Nah, nah, nah. We gotta keep refining this.” Is that what it’s like?
Yeah, but you know truthfully, every person has a general idea of what perfection is. You know what I mean? Like you could look at something and say… not that perfection even exists, but the idea of, Is this the best that I can do? I think all people have that inner clock that understands if this is their best work or not. I just feel like sometimes we take the shorter route and say, “Yeah, this is all I got,” or when it comes to story, we kind of capitulate to what corporate governance wants to see as opposed to being true to the art and creating something that we feel is timeless. I have that stubbornness and I have the energy to stick with something and see it all the way through, and not compromise the art because the boss is still like, “We need something that’s very loud and that speaks to everyone now.”


Right. I mean, obsession is obviously a big part of this. Was that something you brought to the table? Was that your word at the start?
Yeah, it’s crazy. It’s a funny story how I wrote that line. One of the towels that I used in my last game, a BodyArmor towel, I signed it for [BodyArmor chairman] Mike [Repole]. So I signed it, “To Mike, my man.” You know normally you just put “best wishes” or something like that. I tried to come up with something to say to Mike that’s different. The first word I thought of was obsession because he and I, I mean, we both laugh about it. We say it’s both our gift and our curse because we’re both obsessive. And then I thought of the product, and then I thought of how obsession is natural to us. So I wrote, “Obsession is natural,” and I signed my name. Right after I wrote it, I looked at the towel and thought, “Oh, that’s it.” [Laughs.] “That’s our line.” And that’s how it came to be, just like that.

Image via BodyArmor

So the line came first. I mean, the line came as a totally different thing? It wasn’t even thought of in this context?
Well, nah. I mean, we knew what the personality of the brand was going to be. I was already in the back of my mind, thinking “What should our ethos be?” So that was kind of sitting there subconsciously for me already. And I had already kind of been looking and thinking, but then when this moment came it just came organically, which is the best way I think because it’s the truth of he and I who founded this thing. This is our finale, this is who our brand is because this is who we are. So it came out in that form, but truthfully it’s been in the back of my mind for quite some time. I just had to put the words to it.

Yeah. It’s funny—I watched that first spot today. You’re speaking those lines, and to me, as someone who’s watched your entire career, it sounds like an inner-monologue you would have.
Oh, for sure. [Laughs.] For sure. But the challenge for us in writing the spot was how you not simply hear what it is that I’m saying, but then how does the viewer internalize what I’m saying. Like they look at themselves and say, “Okay, am I that obsessive about what it is that I’m doing? Do I want to be?” Because that’s the challenge. That’s the challenge. The spot is a challenging spot. It’s saying to be an elite isn’t for everyone. It’s not for everyone. If you want to be that, then you’ve got to ask yourself two questions: “Am I doing that already?” and “Do I want to do that if I’m not?” Right? So that’s the challenge. Throwing down the gauntlet and challenging people, saying, “Listen man, if you want to get to that level, this is what needs to be done. And if you don’t want to do that, you might want to reconsider what your passion is.”

Video via BodyArmor

Is that how you considered this group or these guys who are the faces of the brand now as well?
Yeah. The athletes that we have all share that same philosophy. From Andrew Luck and his recovery process coming back from shoulder surgery, James [Harden] and what he did last year during the off-season. I mean he worked obsessively every single day to play the way that he’s been playing. And then you have Skylar [Diggins], and then you have young athletes like Kristaps [Porzingis] who’s at the inception, at the beginning of it. And so if I could write a line that not only challenged young athletes everywhere but also the stable of athletes we have internally, then we’re doing the right thing because we want to challenge and push them, as well. So if the message resonates with them, then I think we’re good where we are.

II. Nike, Patience, and Agency

Did your career allow you to have that sort of perception? Because you are Kobe Bryant the person, but obviously you understand how people view Kobe Bryant the athlete.
The most important thing that I’ve learned there is the patience that it takes to get there, right? The reason why we can do a Nike campaign and have our Nike teams wear UConn Mentality, Oregon Mentality, Duke Mentality, the reason we can do that is because over time, I’ve built, through messaging, what my mentality is. And what Mamba mentality is. It’s that patience. So with BodyArmor, what gives us the ability to be able to do this thing is from my understanding that patience is what wins at the end of the day. Obsession is natural. This is what we do, year after year after year. This is how we build this thing up, and having a message that resonates with our athletes and is something that they naturally do is extremely important because like James, he doesn’t have to do anything different. He doesn’t have to parade around and talk about BodyArmor all day long. There’s nothing worse than when an athlete is feeling forced to talk about a product that he’s not wearing on his body, you know what I’m saying? It becomes, okay well, how do you talk about it? How do you talk about BodyArmor? How do you talk about the health benefits it provides you? Well, let’s focus on your process. If you’re obsessive about your process, you’re also obsessive about what goes into your body. Alright, so let’s unpack that, and let’s go all the way through it. How are you training? How many reps are you doing, etc.? So something that’s natural for them.

Did working with Nike and doing stuff with them help prepare you for this? Just hearing the way you would talk about your shoe, that was all very consistent with your first career.
Well, yeah. Nike gave me the ability to do crazy s–t. So we both grew up on that Nike stuff, like the Jim Riswold spots, you know what I mean? So when I got to Nike, it was like, alright, I’m looking forward to carrying on that legacy and tradition. And what I found was everybody was playing the safe side, and I didn’t want to play the safe side. So then it became alright, Kobe’s not gonna settle for anything besides campaigns that he saw growing up so we better get to this thing. At points, I enjoyed working with all the talented people at Wieden, all the talented people at Nike, and vice versa because they knew that on our project, we were going to do something that hadn’t been done before. Or something that would strike a nerve or make you a little uncomfortable. And yeah, I certainly learned a ton from that process.

How is this different? ‘Cause this was more coming from you, right? This was less of any sort of corporate directive, because you are the corporate directive.
Ah, nah. It’s the same thing. So with Nike it’s the same thing. You know, Phil Knight’s lesson, his mantra is the most important one to know, which is, “Listen to the voice of the athlete.” And I had something to say. So on all my spots with Nike, I was essentially creative director, just not in official title because I was the athlete. It’s the same thing. I’d sit down and say, “This is where I’m at this year, this is what I think the messaging should be.” The Black Mamba theme, the Mamba Mentality line, I wrote that on a plane trip from China. I wrote Mamba Mentality. So you know, it’s the same process, man.


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