Kobe Bryant pulls back curtain on post-NBA storytelling venture

Inside Kobe Bryant's Musecage (5:22)

In Part 1 of Kobe Bryant's Musecage, Kobe and "Little Mamba" explore the difference between light musings and dark musings. (5:22)

Countless times over the past three months, Kobe Bryant struggled against the question that trailed him like a shadow:

"What are you working on?"

To outsiders, he had no easy answer, nothing that the Los Angeles Lakers icon felt that satisfied what he and 15 others had dedicated so many hours toward in his Newport Beach office. But the queries never ceased, as many wondered how an NBA star-turned-civilian was spending his first non-Lakers season in two decades. More specifically, people wondered what inroads he'd made in the storytelling realm, the one that he said throughout his final season would occupy an obsession that once belonged solely to basketball.

But from late December through Saturday, what could Bryant say, exactly? That he was spearheading a project that kept ballooning in size and scope -- and that it involved a puppet and an elaborate cardboard city that spanned a conference room, as well as a stop-motion train animation inspired, in part, by a 1920s German director, featuring a song inspired by a 1972 Bruce Lee movie, followed by an NBA montage narrated by Paige O'Hara, the voice of Belle from "Beauty and the Beast"?

He could've made passing references to "Fantasia" and "Sesame Street," both inspirations, or mentioned going over dialogue with his two young daughters. He could've explained that the Los Angeles Children's Chorus sang in the opening sequence, or how and why he picked the colors in each scene, for they all represented different emotions to convey -- green meant learning and growth; red was passion and aggression; purple was curiosity.

The project would amount to the public's first true glimpse of the ambitious storytelling to which Bryant aspires in his NBA afterlife, and as it kept venturing further beyond what he considered the sports genre's rigid editorial confines, boiling its essence into layman's terms became a chore.

Here he was bringing to life an idea that he had carried for three years, the concept of a personal cage filled with everything that drives anyone, good and bad -- light and dark muses, as he calls them. Yes, it was better for someone to see a glimpse of everything being developed in person, which is what Bryant relayed to Kevin Wildes, ESPN's vice president of original content, a few weeks before Sunday, when Bryant unveiled the finished product, a 10-minute video presentation titled "Canvas City: Musecage," which aired during ABC's "NBA Countdown" pregame show.

The piece was the second of six that Bryant agreed to direct, write and create for ESPN as part of his "Canvas" series, with each focused on an on-court topic. The first, titled "Guarding the Greats," aired on Christmas Day and ran for 5 minutes and 45 seconds. But in the days and weeks that followed, Bryant quickly became certain that his next piece would require nearly twice that length, a bold request for a 30-minute show.

"The key is to see the potential," Bryant said by phone Saturday, just after applying the video's final touches. "When I go into ESPN and say, 'Well, it's a puppet and so forth,' they kind of look at you like, 'What?' So when I went in and said, 'I want 10 minutes,' They were like, 'Hold on now. That's kind of crazy.' I said, 'Listen, I have to have these 10 minutes. Trust me.'"

Ultimately, Bryant convinced the New York City-based Wildes to visit his office in Newport Beach. "If you could come down here and see it, then you can be in the room and see us building it, and you can feel the spirit of it," Bryant said. There, Wildes saw the world a single member of Bryant's team built -- dozens of colorful cardboard structures, each expertly detailed and intersected by streets and working trains, a setup that stretched across a room.

"The first thing I thought of was 'Sesame Street,' 'Canvas Street,'" Bryant says. "So I wrote a jingle for 'Canvas Street.' And I was like, 'Whoa, no -- street?' It can be bigger: 'Canvas City.' We can have different parts of the world -- the downtown portion represents something, this represents something. Then once that came to me, then it became very easy for me to start populating the world and the rules of it. The world-building part came pretty quickly once the idea set in."

"It wasn't even a thought that this was risk-taking or anything like that. We just let the art lead us and where it goes, it goes."
Kobe Bryant

By that point, Bryant's video was still in draft form, but he showed Wildes segments of the animation they had created and passionately explained his vision for the finished product. Just as Bryant devoted himself to the details within the game and never feared taking big shots, so too did those same sentiments echo across this project. But what others might see as bold or fearless, he says he just considers necessary.

"It just makes sense to us," Bryant says, referencing the group that he also worked with on his 2015 documentary, "Muse." "If you talk to us, everybody that worked on it, it's like, 'Well, why wouldn't we?' You have an idea and then you go with it and then, [it's like], 'Oh, we think we can make it better.' And you just create. So it wasn't even a thought that this was risk-taking or anything like that. We just let the art lead us, and where it goes, it goes."

Says Wildes, "The guy looks at the game totally differently than everybody else, and this is representative of that, and we want to be supportive of that process. It feels like the tip of the iceberg of something big. This is a world that he's creating. It's an inspiring project that has a strong point of view. It's unlike anything that we've seen in the basketball space."

And Bryant says he's certainly appreciative of Wildes' support. "To his credit, he took a leap of faith," Bryant says. "If you're sitting there and you're saying, 'OK, Kobe Bryant is writing and directing something.' It's kind of like 'wink wink.' But everybody -- the folks at ESPN, ABC -- took a leap of faith, and we just tried to make sure we didn't let them or anybody else down."

The video culminates with a beneath-the-surface breakdown of MVP candidates James Harden and Russell Westbrook, who face off Sunday, but Bryant sought to do much more than explain how those two point guards attack, say, a pick-and-roll. Expanding the conversation beyond basketball became a focal point, especially with teaching lessons through sport to a younger audience.

"Sometimes it gets a little redundant to be the one always telling your kids, 'This is what you do; this is how you shoot; this is how should think about this or that,'" Bryant says. "So I said it would be awesome just to create a show. If I had a show that my kids could watch and learn how to better their best, what would that show entail? It would entail songs. It would entail animation, puppetry, comedy and a lot of visual representations of things they should be learning."

Bryant bounced certain ideas off his own daughters, especially dialogue, and while there were certain lines that he wanted to cut, they convinced him otherwise. "This is really my first introduction to the world of actually writing dialogue," he says, "and so the best way to do that is to kind of go through that with your kids and see what catches and what doesn't."

For as foreign as the dialogue and other aspects may have been to Bryant, he says they weren't as taxing as the Harden-Russell segment.

"It was the hardest thing to write because I have to communicate these very high-level schemes in a way that's very easily digestible," Bryant says, "but also visually stimulating and then have to write it in a way where I can connect James and Russell, because I wanted to touch on both of them and not just an MVP conversation, but actually how are they going about doing these things.

"And then look sequentially at why they give teams headaches. So looking at it beat by beat, this leads to this, [then] leads to that, [then] to that. That's why they give teams so many headaches, because they can hit those four actions."

The video's puppet -- named "Little Mamba" -- pays tribute to the "Sesame Street" formula that Bryant believes is timeless, and composer Paul Dukas' "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" is featured in part because Bryant loved its role in Disney's 1940 animated concert film "Fantasia." The train sequence is an homage to German-born Lotte Reiniger, a pioneer of silhouette animation, and the Western song playing in the background is a nod to "Fists of Fury," starring Bruce Lee.

"These are things that I grew up listening to and watching and digesting," Bryant says, "so it's only right that I regurgitate them through my art."

But, of course, many of the elements also draw from Bryant's career. The train, for instance, trudges up a mountain toward a trophy, despite facing fear, failure and injury -- all obstacles that stood before Bryant at various points during his time with the Lakers.

Famously, Bryant channeled his rage and unleashed it against opponents. The signature characteristic of his "Black Mamba" persona, and lyrics in the video reflect that same ideal:

This is the face of a man with a dark musecage
Darkness is the light in his eyes he runs with rage
There's nothing you can do
There's nothing you can say
Hatred is the love in his heart he plays with hate

Run watch him run
Watch him run watch him run

This is the face of a man with a dark musecage
Darkness is the light in his eyes he runs with rage
Everything you do
Everything you say
He will simply use as fuel to power his game
He will simply use as fuel to power his game

"I landed on the fact that a lot of times these dark musings, these things that happen in people's lives, you either bury them deep within you, try to ignore them, or you let them overwhelm you and deter you from living the life that you dream of, that you hope to have," Bryant said. "I saw that as being the most important thing. Instead of having those two options, there's a third -- that's using those as fuel, using those as things to motivate you. And if you look around, with all the people that have created great things, those great things all came from dark places, generally, whether it be Michael Jordan, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Oprah -- all these experiences come from dark places that they then used those dark experiences to create light."

Given the varying elements, atypical length and avant-garde flair, Bryant acknowledges that the reception could likewise vary, but he has a specific overarching goal in terms of reaction. He wants parents to see it, then call on their children to watch it, too, and for everyone to bond over universal lessons.

"If we can inspire every child, every child athlete in the world, and then inspire grownup athletes to find every kid within themselves all over again, then we're good," Bryant says.

If Bryant raised the stakes from his first video to the second, it only follows that he'll continue to do so from here. "We want to build a series out of it," he says. "We want to build things that continue to teach kids how to better their best."

And this fictional world that he built is, he says, is a foundation.

"In that world there, we have a movie theater called the Imaginarium," he begins. "Inside the Imaginarium is where you have all these magical basketball breakdowns that take place for kids to come in and watch and observe and learn from. It's been thought out to enable us to pivot and do short-form content, really long content, novels, films, whatever. The runway is there."

After a long week filled with late nights to polish the video, and less than 24 hours before it finally aired, Bryant described his emotions not as nervous or anxious but simply excited.

"I've already started writing the next one," he said. Bryant isn't ready to reveal any details just yet. "I've got a really good feeling," he says. "I think it's going to be really, really good."