The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Spike Lee gets up close and personal with Kobe Bryant

May 13, 2009 |  5:49 pm

While everyone else was watching the Lakers demolish the undermanned Rockets last night, I saw Kobe Bryant play an entirely different basketball game--a 2008 playoff late-season game against the San Antonio Spurs that is the centerpiece of "Kobe Doin' Work," the new Spike Lee film about Bryant that premieres Saturday night on ESPN. It's for basketball junkies only, but the film gave me--a die-hard Celtics fan--a fresh insight into Bryant, who had until now struck me as something of an arrogant, it's all-about-me kind of superstar.

A longtime basketball fan who has season tickets for the Knicks, which allows him to watch a lot of great basketball players--all, of course, wearing visitors' uniforms--Lee had a great idea for a basketball film. What if you could watch a great player like Bryant at work, as if you were seeing the game unfold the way Jack Nicholson does, right at courtside? After selling Bryant and Lakers Coach Phil Jackson on the idea, Lee brought 30 cameras to the April 13, 2008 Lakers-Spurs  game. He miked Bryant, so we can hear everything he says on the court, as well as in the locker room. The extra special touch (which evokes memories of "Gimme Shelter," Albert and David Maysles' landmark film about the Rolling Stones'  disastrous appearance at Altamont): Lee got Bryant to come into the studio after Lee had finished editing the film and offer a voice-over commentary, allowing him to explain what was happening on the court during the game.

For hoops fans, the results are fascinating. The game itself has little drama, ending in a blowout. But Kobe, as it turns out, is the team's on-the-floor coach, cajoling teammates, calling out plays (as well as alerting teammates to the plays the Spurs are running), suggesting strategy and, of course, engaging in some colorful trash-talking with the various Spurs who have the unhappy task of trying to guard him. You get to hear Bryant lay out the Lakers' fabled triangle offense in terms any layman could understand, especially since you can watch the team running the offense as Bryant is describing its impact on the game.

But perhaps the best part of the movie is how it allows us to see Kobe in a different, less harsh light. He has a devilish sense of humor and an unselfish desire to get his teammates into the flow of the game, knowing it will help both his game as well as smooth the team's path to another victory. It's almost as if the Spurs are Kobe's straight men. At one juncture of the game, Tim Duncan, the Spurs' All-Star big man, takes forever to get set and shoot a free throw. Coming back down the court, Kobe ribs him, saying, "Ten seconds, Tim." (He adds, on his voice-over:"[Waiting for Duncan to take a free throw] is like being at the longest stoplight in the world.") 

When Damon Stoudamire, the Spurs' smallest player, enters the game, Kobe cackles: "There's a mouse in the house!" After a referee calls a foul on one of the Lakers, Kobe sidles up to him, hissing "You sure about that one?" When Kobe gets a little out of control, driving to the basket, one of the Spurs' forwards does a marvelous job of taking a charge, saddling Bryant with a personal foul. As they run down court afterward, Kobe says, "I should've known your ass wasn't gonna move." Sitting on the bench, getting a blow, he teases teammate Sasha Vujacic in Italian, saying "Why don't you want to shoot the ball? I thought you had bigger cojones that that!"

Hearing him discuss his own play in the game, you feel as if you're experiencing a thoroughly disarming performance. Kobe admits mistakes: When he misses a shot near the basket, he groans: "Awgh, I bobbled the damn ball!" Watching himself give an interview as the team heads for the locker at halftime, he explains: "You're just trying to catch your breath and not sound like a complete idiot." He is especially respectful toward Jackson, who spends even more time than Bryant watching game films, figuring out the opposing teams' weaknesses. "It's made me a better player to have a coach that's so detail oriented," he says at one point. "I basically grew up under his system and what he taught me.... Sometimes Phil and I [are so in sync] that we call out the same play without knowing each other has done it."

If you're a Lakers fan or, like me, just love basketball, this is a must-see movie, because you not only get to see the game from the inside out, but you get to pick up a few tips from a great basketball mind--Professor Kobe Bryant.

Here's a few choice scenes from the film: