May 26, 2009
It's hard to defend it. Really hard. It's not something that's easy to watch.
The impetus behind this defense is a The Basketball Jones 'cast from about a week ago. Skeets and Tas hadn't/haven't seen Spike Lee's new documentary about Kobe Bryant(notes), the previews left them ill-at-ease (to say the least), and a solid chorus of viewers chimed in to assure them that their fears were well-founded.
They are, really. The whole watch is a squeamish one. It took me a week to get through it, and that's with only one NBA game a night taking place these days.
The whole documentary was a failure from the start, despite having all the tools necessary for greatness. Spike Lee, and let's be honest here, has really built a late-period career out of idolatry, so he should know how to film someone like Bryant. Lee had unfettered access, a willing subject, dozens of cameras, and a whole lot of time to make this thing work.
And there's your first problem. This thing debuted in mid-May, 2009. It was filmed in April of 2008, and Bryant's voiceover work took place in February of this year. Because Bryant and Lee -- two guys who are leaving themselves prone to criticism that they apparently value their stardom over their art — couldn't get their schedules straight in order to record Bryant's reactions to the film, the whole thing seems hopelessly outdated, even if we're just 13 months removed from the date of the docu.
Now, word filtered out that Kobe had a hand in wresting a bit of control from Lee prior to filming, but that can't excuse a 13-month gap in a documentary that, I'm sorry, NFL Films and NBA Entertainment seem to churn in a few weeks' time.
This isn't a league-propaganda piece, I understand. We hear cuss words. Secrets are revealed, I guess, to the uninformed. Rights have to be secured. Hours of footage has to be edited. Kobe has to sit down. Doesn't matter. It should have gotten out sooner, so there was some relevance, and both Lee and Bryant (with whatever percentage you want to affix to each character) have to take the blame for this.
The film itself, as mentioned, is just really tough to watch for anyone who has a passing idea of how pro basketball works. Even though it is replete with insider stuff and Xs and Os talk made perfect for a junkie like me, it's completely mitigated by Bryant's performance. His on-camera banter and his voiceover work. Tough, tough stuff.
I watched it because I have to. I'm useless without information, the game changes and evolves constantly, and if I don't try to stay on the up and up, I'm useless. Anyone who either writes about or reports on this game is useless without keeping abreast of what's new, so you can see why I consider a huge chunk of the media that follows the NBA to be absolutely useless.
That's not a slam on them; I just have no use for them. They're not teaching me, us, anything new. So you phase out reading or watching them after a while.
And as distasteful as I found the documentary, and Kobe's performance to be at times, you still have to muddle through it. On a couch. With some delicious iced tea and a fan blowing a light breeze your way. Sacrifice.
For those who haven't seen it, Kobe is completely and utterly playing to the 30 cameras that he knows are documenting his every move, recording his every word, in a way that leaves him looking so transparent that it's a wonder he even let this thing get out.
Actually, it isn't a wonder. Kobe has isolated himself so much from anyone who will tell him that things aren't heading in a direction that isn't particularly appropriate, that it's pretty obvious that he doesn't know how poorly he came off.
I'm years removed from being angry about that. At this point, in May of 2009, I'm just sort of sad about that. The guy is so maladjusted, he just has no clue.
And in the sickest way possible, I relate to that.
The man loves the game. That is no act. For as long as he can remember, it's the only thing that he's felt safe with. It's the only thing that hasn't let him down. Coaches and teammates and family and friends and filmmakers may have run afoul of Kobe, but the game is his solace.
And he appreciates and loves and works at the game harder than anyone else in this league. It's not even close. And in his own, maladjusted, way; he wants people to know how much fun he's having, reveling in the game that has given him so much.
Now you know I can relate to that. Especially the "maladjusted" part.
This leaves Kobe as an easy target, a target so obvious that even ESPN (which aired the documentary commercial-free on May 16th) allowed two of its more prominent basketball scribes to get in pot-shots about the documentary. John Hollinger, in a chat, mentioned something about Kobe being "the first person in history to win a Best Actor Oscar for a documentary."
Bill Simmons absolutely destroyed him in ESPN's own magazine, calling Bryant "Kobe Day-Lewis," telling his readers that the film sickened him to the point where he felt like taking a shower. Just to forget.
They're not wrong. And, in his own way, neither is Kobe.
He just doesn't know any better. And while tossing out the "genius" card is too often the clichéd response to abhorrent behavior, I'm sorry, but I have to toss it out here.
Kobe's not after endorsements. He's not making nice to Pau Gasol(notes) in this docu so as to win back the shoe companies, or Sprite, or grab Tiger Woods' old Buick sponsorship. He's not angling for more money, a new contract, better teammates, or to pump up his Q-rating back to pre-Colorado levels. This isn't like Jordan, or Tiger, or Derek Jeter.
There's more substance there, even if it stinks. There's a person in there, desperately trying to secure his own legacy, looking to make things right. Looking to tell you that, all along, it was Kobe who knew what he was talking about.
Not Shaq, who didn't love the game the same way Bryant did. Not the media, who couldn't diagram a play to save their lives, much less execute it. Not Phil Jackson, who understood the game on a fundamental level, but could never understand the lure and the temptation of the superstar's ability, and how it can lead you to want to get your own, great, shot on just about every possession.
And he's not doing this out of malice or ego. There's definite insecurity there, among actual people and teammates. But there's absolutely no hesitation or fear or insecurity when it comes to dealing in basketball terms, about the game itself. He knows better than you, than us, and he's probably right.
The "genius" card doesn't make the ickiness go away. I've seen Bob Dylan tear into a reporter from Time Magazine. It's not pretty. I've seen Brian Wilson freaking out because he couldn't replicate the sound of summer and the bad vibes from a dog's cross eyes even with a giant, well-heeled band and all the record equipment money can buy.
And if those sounds like scenes from the "Dewey Cox" movie, I understand. Because it's ripe for parody. And Kobe is ripe for parody. And he leaves himself prone to be mocked, openly, without regret, as he tries to shape his image.
But that doesn't mean I don't listen to Pet Sounds, all the time. That doesn't mean I don't feel empathy for Dylan's frustrations, dealing with those who just don't understand. Who have no interest in understanding. That doesn't mean that Kobe, for all his faults, and without even being the best player playing today, still can't be the most admirable player in the NBA.
I also get why the movie might turn you off. It turned me off. But we also have to understand that this is all Bryant has, at this point, and it's almost pitiable. Even with the money, the fame, the skills, the great team, the wife, the kids, the (supposedly) everything.
Kobe, to those who don't like thinking, has always been an either/or proposition. The greatest since MJ, or a complete and total bum. And if you veer off of either of those classifications, you get it from both sides. Ceaselessly.
And for someone like me, who knows that Kobe probably never had a season where he was the best player in the NBA save for 2005-06 (and even in that year, Dwyane Wade(notes) and LeBron James'(notes) stats and play were just as good), I'll get even worse.
It was safe to say Kobe was the best player in the NBA, even if he wasn't. It's the easiest thing to do. Toss in the ambition with the legacy with the stardom with all those Sunday afternoon TV appearances with a high points per game average and a very good team, and it all seems to make sense. Even if it doesn't, after doing a bit more research, and watching more tape.
But for Kobe, getting all that adulation last year because he was playing the same brand of brilliant basketball with (finally) a team that actually suited his talents ... it's not as if it wasn't enough. He's not really interested in that, I don't think. I'm not going to tell you that he doesn't enjoy it, as we all would, on some level. But that's not what he's after. He people to get it right, when they tell him how great he is.
I'm not going to rip him for that. He's put in the work to deserve that privilege.
He sees and hears what ABC/ESPN has to say about him, and though they're calling him the best, he probably still thinks their pablum is missing the point. Same with the fans.
So when Spike Lee comes calling, and he gets a chance to tell his story, without any filters, he jumps at that chance. And he talks, and talks, and talks, and talks. And I don't believe that his uneasy "conversations" with his teammates in the documentary were his way of showing the world that he's a nice guy. I don't think he's interested in that.
Rather, I think it was his way of saying his piece about the game he obsesses over, under the guise of guidance. Through the on-court "interactions," knowing that the cameras are on him and the microphones are picking up everything, to the attempts at acting surprised during the voiceover recording nearly a year later. No flies on Kobe. He's not surprised by a damn thing.
In the end, the usual batch of myriad emotions regarding this guy can't help but come out. You pity the guy. You appreciate the guy. You marvel at the guy, in ways both good and bad. You get angry at Kobe. You feel sorry for him. You just run the absolute gamut.
And in a way, indirectly and without even meaning to, Spike Lee's attempt at creating this idol among men actually turned out to be something all documentaries should attempt at aping — a thought-provoking, emotion-evoking piece that brings up more questions than it answers. Not unlike what most consider to be Spike's best film, "Do The Right Thing."
I don't know if I should encourage you to watch it, but I'm glad I did.