Even if you’re not a basketball fan, you know who Kobe Bryant is. He’s perhaps the most polarizing sports star of his generation, one of the last of a breed whose drive to win borders on the sociopathic. For the best part of two decades, he’s been defined by his refusal to compromise. Love him or hate him, his talent has remained undeniable… until the last couple of years, when age and injuries have finally started to overtake him. Quite how Bryant would go out of the game has long been a fascinating hypothetical — how would a man who refused to countenance any threat of mortality deal with the subtle ravages of time? The documentary film Kobe Bryant’s Muse, which airs on Showtime this Saturday at 9pm, is a document of Bryant’s last act, and it’s fascinating because, if nothing else, it illustrates the ever-widening gap between the man and his own mythology.
Muse starts with the first great harbinger of Bryant’s morality: the ruptured Achilles tendon he suffered in a game against Golden State in 2013 (after which he took two free throws before walking unassisted off the court with an injury that usually puts you on crutches immediately). The film charts his rehabilitation from that injury through to his return to the court in 2014. There’s a lot of myth-making going on, which is not surprising given that Bryant has an executive producer credit on the film — it’s essentially a propaganda film, not an in-depth biopic.
The interesting thing, though, isn’t the film’s lack of depth — it’s seeing what someone like Kobe Bryant thinks is propaganda. Being Kobe Bryant, he’s of course very much into his own mythology. “You have to make a choice,” he tells us early on. “There are sacrifices that come along with that.” His life is presented as a sort of inevitable march to greatness: “If you make a choice that, come hell or high water, I am going to be this, then you shouldn’t be surprised when you are that.”
The opening sequence is amusingly dramatic, and sets the film’s tone: Bryant sits before a stark black background, speaking of how he reassured his daughters that Daddy was OK, and then hobbled out the stadium’s back door on crutches. The sequences where he visits his surgeon after the injury are shot in stark black-and-white, contrasting with the full-color footage of Bryant and various other NBA luminaries on the court.
We get a brief overview of his childhood in Italy, where his father played professional basketball. He describes watching the NBA as a kid, how he saw it as a “place to go where I wouldn’t be alone.” There’s a great deal about overcoming adversity — the alienation he felt on returning to the US as a 13-year-old who “didn’t understand the fashion… didn’t understand the slang.” There’s the difficulty of jumping straight to the NBA from high school, finishing with the famous sequence where he shoots four airballs in a row against Utah in his first NBA Conference Finals, losing the Lakers the series, after which he apparently went to the local high school gym at 4 AM and shot jumpshots all day. (“All day,” he repeats several times for emphasis.)
The early adversity is followed by a montage of highlights — Kobe starring at the All-Star Game, Kobe facing off against Michael Jordan, Kobe winning the Championship — set to a soundtrack of uplifting piano music. Everything’s going great! Except, of course, there’s more adversity around the corner. The elephant in the room here is the 2003 rape allegations that derailed both Bryant’s career and his family life. And they’re addressed obliquely… well, OK, let’s be honest: they’re not addressed at all.
There’s certainly a whole lot about the “tough year” of 2003 and the impact it had on Kobe — that his wife nearly left him, that everything went wrong. But what actually happened is never mentioned. If you’d never heard of Bryant, you’d be left guessing at exactly what went down. An illness? An extramarital affair? Getting caught in a public restroom with a couple of beefy policemen? All the film tells us is that whatever it was, it was bad, because his wife miscarried as a result. “I have a real hard time dealing with that,” reflects Kobe, “because I felt it was my fault. We should be building our family, and because of my mistake, because of a tough year, we lost a baby. That’s something I gotta carry forever.” It is, as ever, all about Kobe.
Anyway, it’s ultimately just another part of the narrative. “I went from being a person who was at the top of his game, having everything coming, to a year later being someone who had no idea where life is going, or even knowing if he could be a part of life as we all know it,” Bryant says. It’s perhaps not surprising that he channeled all his anger and frustration into basketball, dedicating himself to steamrolling anyone who happened to be in his way on the court. The narrative doesn’t quite work, though, because for all that his exploits over the next couple of years were remarkable — culminating in his 81-point game against the hapless Toronto Raptors — he didn’t win anything. It wasn’t until 2008 that the Lakers returned to the Finals, where they got clobbered by the Boston Celtics.
It’s at about this point that the film becomes really interesting, because from 2003 onward, Kobe’s narrative starts to separate itself from reality. All the archival stuff is intercut with footage of present-day Kobe convalescing from his injury, with the implication that this is a perfect three-part narrative, a hero’s journey for the ages: Kobe the young man who succeeds against the odds because of his insane dedication to the game, Kobe the established star who finds redemption after years in the wilderness — and now, here we have another chapter to the narrative: Kobe the veteran who blows out his Achilles and, against the odds, comes back to lead his team again.
Except it hasn’t quite worked out that way. The Lakers did indeed win two more Championships, but perhaps not for the reasons the film would have you believe. They were lucky enough to play the hapless Orlando Magic in the 2009 Finals because the Celtics’ Kevin Garnett blew out his knee earlier that year and was never quite the same again, and even then they may well have lost to Boston the year after had Celtics center Kendrick Perkins not also suffered a knee injury in Game 5.
Kobe doesn’t care about any of this, of course, nor should he. His version of the story is that he couldn’t bear the thought of losing to the Celtics twice, and so he didn’t. His reasoning behind the 2008 defeat is, amusingly, that he was too nice to his teammates: “I overcompensated for how hard [I’d been] on my teammates [in past years]. Over the course of the year, I didn’t drive them enough. Being gregarious, putting my arm around you even when you fuck up… that’s not me.” His response is to go into full Sith Lord mode, encouraging his teammates to “[use] the darker emotions… anger, resentment, frustration, sadness… [use] that as a weapon.”
As the film comes to an end, we see Bryant return to the court after his Achilles injury. Again, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was a triumphant return, which in fairness it was in a personal sense — the list of people who’ve come back from such injuries at Bryant’s age pretty much begins and ends with him. Still, the fact that the Lakers’ 2013 season had been a hilarious shitshow before Bryant went down is, unsurprisingly, entirely glossed over (which is a shame, because it would have been lovely to hear him explain the idea behind this). Similarly, his return from injury was sadly ill-starred: he hurt his knee not long after his return, and sat out the remainder of the season. He returned again this season, only to tear a rotator cuff in his shoulder, which forms the postscript to the film. “When do you know [to walk away]? Who determines when it’s up for you?” he asks rhetorically.
For now, what happens next is unclear — while the Lakers labor through a historically awful season, Bryant is reduced to giving his knuckleheaded teammates death stares on Jimmy Kimmel. But shit, who are we kidding? Of course he’ll be back next year, for one final attempt at building his narrative. As we fade to black, we see Kobe taking three-pointers in an empty Staples Center. “When we say this cannot be accomplished, this cannot be done,” he explains, “we are short-changing ourselves. My brain cannot, will not, process failure.”