Ramona Shelburne's remarkable Kobe Bryant profile was published in the days after the Hall of Famer closed out his career with an unbelievable 60-point night. In this story behind the story, Shelburne explains how the piece was re-imagined in the wake of Bryant's dramatic last effort.
He's been planning his basketball death for years now. Scripting it down to his final words.
Of course T-shirts with that phrase were available to buy on his website within minutes of his final speech to the crowd at Staples Center. He saw all of this coming.
Kobe Bryant has been living as a legend for 20 years now. He sure as hell was going to die as one.
Not that he isn't deep into what comes next. For the past few years, he's been saying he wanted to be a storyteller after he finished with basketball but keeping the details sparse and cryptic. He'd allude to conversations he was having with creative types such as J.K. Rowling or J.J. Abrams but never say how deep they went.
"There's an entire mythological universe I've created," he finally reveals. "There are certain rules that make up this world. Within this world, I've built in a lot of room for really talented writers to come in.
"The bulk of it's coming from me. But the writers being phenomenal at what they do are able to really bring my imagination to life."
There's the obvious swipe at the narcissism that's made him at least as famous as his scoring. Of course Kobe has moved into a world of his own making. The only surprise is that he'd pass the vision to a group of writers and trust that they'd execute it better than he could.
"I think Walt did this with animation, as well," he says. Yes, he's referring to Walt Disney. "He quickly realized that, although he could draw pretty well, there are other animators out there that are just much, much better. He went and found those animators and gave them the vision and allowed them to do what they do best. If you collaborate with great people and each one is enhancing the other, that's when we create things that are timeless."
THE CROWD OUTSIDE Staples Center started gathering around 10 a.m. on the day of his final game. It was as big of a Lakers crowd as I'd seen since their last championship parade. The man had played 20 years in this city. He'd become a frame of reference. I had this line from J.R. Moehringer's story on Derek Jeter as I wrote. It was about how Jeter had become "good company" for New Yorkers, the longer he played for the Yankees.
I don't know that anyone would ever describe Kobe as "good company," but he certainly was a hell of a presence for this city to have in its life for two decades.
Anyway, toward the middle of the third quarter, you could feel the crowd growing nostalgic. After a long farewell, this really was goodbye. But then something crazy happened. Kobe started making everything. He hit 40 points, then 50 ... The crowd didn't have time to choke back tears. Everyone was cheering and screaming too loud. This couldn't be happening.
It was audacious. Kobe freaking Bryant went for 60 points in his final game. Even more audacious, he shot the ball 50 times. For a guy who spent his entire career being criticized for shooting too much, this was like flipping the bird to everyone on the way out.
I called my editor Raina Kelley after the game in a fit. What in the hell were we going to do with the story now? I remember her saying something like, "He just unbalanced the story." Actually, I remember both of us dropping many four-letter words, knowing we'd have to reframe and rewrite what was essentially a polished draft.
I sent Kobe an email after the game asking what the hell had just happened. He was still shocked by it, too, and we went back and forth with emails until about 3:30 a.m.
I asked if we could talk the next day so we could try to find some perspective on it. We ended up speaking for about 45 minutes. I think he was still trying to make sense of it.
My plan was pretty simple: Ask him about what comes next. Life after this basketball death. I was shocked to find out just how deep into his new life he already was.
The thing that fascinated me the most was how much about the day after Kobe had already planned out. He was determined to stay on track. On schedule. On script. I don't know if this was a protective thing. As if he knew this moment would be emotional, so he scheduled how to deal with it in advance. Or if he just wasn't emotional about it at all.
What was clear to me was that he'd been thinking about this day and what he wanted it to be for a long time.