Tucked between abandoned packing warehouses, the MAMA gallery in downtown Los Angeles is mainly home to delightfully offbeat and irreverent exhibitions. But for the release of Kobe Bryant’s 13th — and first post-retirement — signature shoe with Nike on November 1, the space took on a tone of deep and solemn respect. A candle-lit walkway led past a wall where "Bid farewell to the Black Mamba as he fades into blackness" was scrawled with gold paint in thick brush strokes. There were imitation ofrendas strewn with more candles, flowers, and sepia-toned images from Bryant’s two-decade career — the Webbie fro, the no. 8 jersey, that time he baptized Yao Ming.
In other words, they really leaned into the Día de los Muertos theme.
In the conference area, there was a clock painted in a Mesoamerican muralist style, and the number for each hour was replaced by a different version of his signature shoe. It started with the original Zoom Kobe at 1 o’clock, through the Kobe 11 at an hour to midnight, and finally, the Kobe A.D. at the top. A low, waltzing piano played while the overhead lights pulsed along to the beat.
It was all very morbid. So I had to ask the Lakers legend: Why so serious?
Watch the conversation with Bryant above. Below is a transcript of the conversation, which has been lightly edited.
We are sitting on top of a Mesoamerican muralist painting of a clock basically being orbited by specters of past versions of yourself, with past versions of your shoe. I got to ask, because I feel like the setting’s begging for it: What’s your relationship with death?
A comfortable one.
It’s a comfortable one. It’s an understanding. You can’t have life without death. Can’t have light without the dark. So it’s an acceptance of that. When it came time to decide whether or not I should retire, [it was] really an acceptance of that mortality that all athletes face. And if you combat it, you’ll always have that inner struggle within yourself. … So … I’m comfortable with it.
In The Wall Street Journal, you said that you’d been planning this phase as early as three years back. What was the moment that made you decide to start planning?
Well, the injury. When I injured my Achilles, then it became something where it’s, OK, this is immediate, right? The end of my career could be now. So since I was 21 years old and thinking, OK, I have to figure out what comes next. You kind of brainstorm, you ideate, but you never really execute anything. And when the injury happened, I said, "OK, no, I need to start building now." And that’s when the turning point was for me.
What does a turning point feel like? If you have something that’s been a part of you for two decades, it’s kind of like a part of yourself dies, obviously, with where we’re sitting.
It is exciting, because it’s the process of starting anew. When I’m sitting there and I have the Achilles injury, it’s one thing to sit there and try to block out the frustrations of being injured, because that’s … You’re constantly tugging with that, right, as opposed to simply replacing that with a new challenge. Something that gets you excited. So now you’re not focused on not being depressed. You’re focused on the excitement of building something new. And so, it was extremely exciting, having to figure something out.
It’s like trying to find a new version of yourself.
Yes. And build it from the ground up.
Of course. Well you said, in the earlier Q&A [at the Nike event] that you now no longer have to obsess over the Russell Westbrooks and Kawhi Leonards of the world. But being that you used to get up at 3 a.m. to shoot thousands of jump shots, what do you obsess over now?
Storytelling for me is the no. 1 thing. It’s writing. It’s outlining. It’s creating narratives that can inspire the next generation of athletes. What are those things? And not from merely a documentary perspective, but from a fantasy perspective, from a mythology perspective. What are those stories that we can use to teach the next generation of athletes? Not just about the sport, but teach them about life through sport. How do we make those connections? That’s what I obsess over every single day.
What is your favorite type of mythology?
Well, I grew up studying Greek mythology at a very early age, which is kind of weird. At the age of 10, in Italy, our class actually had to read Iliad in Latin and be able to recite verses from The Iliad. You don’t realize how strange that is at 10 until you come back to the states, and you’re like, wait, nobody knows this? This is strange.
How to speak about The Iliad in a dead language. Do you remember any lines from it?
No. Absolutely not. [It] was like, "What in the world? Why?"
I thought I’d chance the question, because …
Yeah, no. But the thing I gravitated to was the difference between Achilles and Hector, the different philosophies that they both embody, the contrasting beliefs. Who did I see myself more in? And even at that early age, I would say, "OK, Achilles is more interesting." I think as a kid, Achilles is always more interesting because he’s more aggressive.
You’ve seen Troy, right?
Well, of course. But you know, he’s not bound to the limitations of others’ perspective of him.
He’s bound completely by results.
Exactly, and the execution of it. So those are very complex and complicated issues for a kid at 10 to start understanding, but I think the sooner we can teach our kids those type of lessons in a way that’s easily digestible for them — maybe not teaching them in Latin.
Not teaching them in Latin [laughs]. But in a way that’s entertaining and fun for them to process can be great.
I have to ask this because I’m dying to know. What do you think happens after you die?
I don’t know.
You don’t know?
No, I don’t know. But I’ll know when I die.
Is that one of the questions you’re obsessed with?
To me, it’s that simple. I don’t know. We’ll see.