The puppet is really freaking out now, and Kobe Bryant is not trying very hard to calm it down. It is wriggling and shrieking in a strange child's voice, something about what it wants and what it will do to get it. Bryant stands in front of a soft forum-blue backdrop, handsome and poised and deeply in character as himself; he introduces some basic concepts behind his bespoke binary worldview, and tells the long-necked child-puppet that if it is "looking to find its inner beast, it's most likely living inside of a dark muse." This sets up a song about learning to harness the power of rage and hate, so as to better destroy the competition. The music sounds a little bit like the iconic film scores Ennio Morricone composed for Sergio Leone's westerns; the distended shadows and silhouettes in the accompanying animation evoke F.W. Murnau's expressionist compositions.
In the animation, a train climbs a mountain while being tormented by a hairy, bestial monster-god; the train is damaged, injured, but nevertheless achieves the summit while lightning bolts flash with the word "hate." Here are some of the lyrics to the song playing over all this:
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
The word "hate" is repeated a few more times, and that's the end of it. The next time Bryant and his puppet partner, whose name is Lil' Mamba, are back on-screen, the puppet is giddily chanting "destroy, dominate, destroy, dominate." Kobe chills his little buddy out by explaining the (lesser) power of "light musings." This gives way to a sequence in which Paige O'Hara, the voice of Belle in the 1991 Disney classic Beauty and the Beast, explains in coachly detail the difficulty of defending Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City's screen-and-roll action.
You are now in Kobe Bryant's Musecage, a neologism of Bryant's own coinage and a key concept behind his first major project since retiring from the NBA last year: creating, writing, and directing a six-part series called Canvas for ESPN. A Musecage, as ESPN's Baxter Holmes put it in a story introducing the series, is "a personal cage filled with everything that drives anyone, good and bad—light and dark muses, as [Bryant] calls them." Lil' Mamba is not always in these videos, of which there are presently five, but every one of them is distinctly and decidedly a product of Bryant's Musecage. A disclaimer on Bryant's recent video tributes to Kawhi Leonard and Isaiah Thomas reads "WARNING: This video contains explicit DARK MUSING CONTENT. May not be suitable for casual musing." Bryant's autograph curls below, a big K and a looping B and some assertive supporting squiggles.
You probably have some questions.
In a statement released before the second installment of the series debuted on ABC's NBA Countdown in late March, Bryant explained it like this: " Canvas City: Musecage helps others better their best by delivering complex basketball insights in a light-hearted, easy-to-digest way.… The show helps others understand the game at a higher level and offers a new voice to sports storytelling that will hopefully captivate the whole family." A staff of 15 full-time employees work for Bryant on this project, out of an office in Newport Beach, and their job is to translate Bryant's sprawling and fairly grandiose and strange and singular vision of storytelling into, well, whatever what Canvas is.
It's worth taking a moment to look at what the word "storytelling" is doing here. Storytelling is one of those words in the Success Studies community—the tranche of elites and aspiring elites who create and consume the burgeoning literary genre dedicated to reverse-engineering how and why successful people are so successful. What most people understand this word to mean—spinning out a narrative from beginning to end, or emotively reading a large thin book to an audience of rapt toddlers at a public library—is not quite the definition Kobe is going for here, or what Storytelling means in the stories that Success Studies tells and sells.
The definition that obtains among our current economy's ruling superclass—the chill California billionaires who lend each other money and spend their days in endless informational interviews and periodically bequeath disruptions to those of us below—has little to do with actually telling a story, and much more to do with the metastatic grandiosity of how that community explains its success to itself. Successful entrepreneurs are now not just rich people; they are that, of course, but that is no longer enough. And so they are shamans and visionaries and outlaws and, yes, storytellers. The economy that spins around them is predicated upon selling their attributes as things that can be acquired by less successful people through sufficiently attentive consumption.
It's all aspirational, which is to say that it's all blue sky. The works limning and strip-mining Seven Essential Habits from the lives of our secular saints just sprawl farther and farther out from the original source, and then at some point we are reading about how Steve Jobs, who was a monomaniacal genius and an otherwise impossible obsessive, was actually a brilliant storyteller. You start with the belief that the successful person deserves their success, and then use their caricatured attributes to reverse-engineer an explanation for that success. Storytelling's stories are more accurately didactic fables, arguments leading to or from a specific solution for the purpose of demonstrating the correctness of that solution. The story that Bryant wants to tell is broadly about Kobe Bryant, and his vision of the obsessions that made him.
"If you look around, with all the people that have created great things, those great things all came from dark places, generally," Bryant told Holmes in the ESPN story. "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." As with any proposition grounded in faith, a sufficient hunger to believe is enough. Bryant begins with the inarguable brilliance and objective accomplishment of his career, and then just works backwards to explain how the madness behind it actually makes sense.
This is not to say that Bryant doesn't really want to tell stories; he unmistakably comes alive when the topic of motivation is raised, and when he held forth on it at the Tribeca Film Festival in April his responses were stilted and a little manic but also clearly deeply felt. He really does want to be a storyteller, but he only really wants to tell one story, and he is the protagonist of it, and the story exists primarily as a way to show others how to be more like him. Of course the words he uses are a strange proprietary amalgam of sharky business-speak and pure free-jazz neologism. If Kobe's storytelling exists primarily to make Kobe-ism easier to understand, it makes a perverse sort of sense that the story can only be told through words that only Kobe fully understands, using jargon that he made up himself, in a strange and seething universe that he is pulling from his imagination.
The Canvas project has its own cast of characters and impacted internal logic—the color purple represents curiosity, green represents personal growth—but it is fundamentally grounded in Bryant's Musecage concept, an idea he apparently has been playing with for years. It is, as things generally are with Bryant, grounded in a punitive and monomaniacal vision of obsession, and an idea of competitiveness that shades into a sort of blithe psychosis. In the episode dedicated to Kawhi Leonard, a bit of Bryant-scripted narration lays it out plainly: "Truly competitive people care obsessively about the process…obsessive competitors want it all…they want to humiliate you in front of your loved ones." That narration is read by a child.
That Bryant's lessons are expressed through what outwardly appears to be a deeply dark-sided children's programming—imagine a roiling and haunted basketball-obsessed version of Sesame Street, focused exclusively on a bloody binary vision of competition—with much puppet-human interaction and some didactic songs, is something Kobe has described as a question of necessity. His vision was capacious and wide-ranging enough that it required this sort of sprawling weirdness. Sesame Street is just a street; Kobe needed a city, nothing less.
"If I had a show that my kids could watch and learn how to better their best, what would that show entail?" Bryant told Holmes, circling back to one of the phrases that he has repeatedly used to explain the series' goals. "It would entail songs. It would entail animation, puppetry, comedy, and a lot of visual representations of things they should be learning."
Approaching Canvas in this way does not quite make it make sense, but it does explain some of its more obvious elisions. There's nothing in the Musecage tribute to Kawhi Leonard about how Leonard does what he does, nothing of much substance on either the preparation or the work. There is only the assertion that Leonard does all this because he is obsessed with doing it. That is, the video simply retcons some Kobe onto him, or over him; it shows you that Kawhi Leonard is brilliant, and then tells you that he is brilliant because he has embraced and embodies Bryant's way of being.
"What's interesting about Lil' Mamba is that, unlike most Muppets, he would seemingly appear to be a stand-in for a younger Kobe, not a young child in general," says Graydon Gordian, who went from writing about the San Antonio Spurs at the late ESPN blog 48 Minutes of Hell to working as a staff writer for Sesame Workshop, the production company behind Sesame Street, until 2014. Today he's the director of content at FortyFour, an Atlanta-based digital agency. "His name and drive to be good at basketball suggest this pretty strongly. This is interesting on two levels, [because] it reconfirms our current impression that Kobe is in the most extreme sense all about Kobe, and (b) it undermines the idea that Lil' Mamba is really a vessel for education, or a character a child could readily empathize with. Because, again, it is not a kid. [It's] a juvenile Kobe."
In the more explicitly educational episodes and the ones that are paeans to specific players, Bryant's every lesson resolves, in the end, to an assertion and celebration of Kobe Bryant. Not Kobe the storytelling auteur or Kobe the smiling straight-man to a hyperactive mauve puppet, but Kobe as he was and imagined himself to be during his basketball career, both as a champion and then, toward the end, as the vengeful ghost that haunted his team. This is Kobe the competitor, Kobe the merciless and unrepentant and unrelenting, cold-blooded Kobe the vengeful and devouring and obsessed.
Again, this all seems deeply felt and authentic enough, but it is also a locked groove. Bryant told the Tribeca Film Festival audience that Michael Jackson was "what I call the 'seed of muse' for me," which translates from Kobespeak into something like "my biggest inspiration." What seemed like it could be an interesting story—Bryant says that Jackson cold-called him at a time when the basketball star was "getting criticized for being too obsessed"—wound up right where all these stories do. The King of Pop told Kobe to study harder, work harder, keep doing just what he was doing.
"My mind started to wander," Bryant said at the Tribeca Film Festival event when someone asked him when he knew it was time to go. The screening room at the Borough of Manhattan Community College was full; the man sitting behind me wore one of those five-name T-shirts that just read "Kobe & Kobe & Kobe & Kobe & Kobe." Bryant was there for a screening of Dear Basketball, a short animated film that sets in motion the poem he wrote for The Players Tribune on the occasion of his retirement. Kobe was joined on stage by Glen Keane—son of Bil, creator of the world-historically corny Family Circus comic, and himself the artist behind Disney's Aladdin and The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast—and moderator Michael Strahan.
Bryant went on to explain that, once he stopped focusing quite so maniacally on the game, his mind naturally drifted "in the direction of narrative." On the night of his last NBA game, when he scored 60 points—"should have had 90," he said, "considering all the easy ones I missed"—Bryant says that he forgot that he even had a game that night. "I was at the office," he said, "polishing off some stories."
Do you believe this? Belief matters where storytelling is concerned, and belief is complicated when it comes to Kobe Bryant the Storyteller. The earnestness of Dear Basketball is unmistakable, but so, too, is the fact that it's the story Bryant wants to tell—that he gave himself utterly to a game he loved, gave and gave until he wrecked himself in the pursuit, then left grateful and still very much in love. As with Canvas, it looks expensive and is technically utterly state of the art; in addition to Keane, who is a legend in his field, the short features the work of John Williams, who wrote the musical score. Also as with Canvas, there is something about Dear Basketball that beggars belief. It's not that it isn't artful or deeply felt; it's just that it's not anything like an attempt to tell a complete story.
If there's anything that rises above bizarre to become actually objectionable where Bryant's storytelling is concerned, it's that—the way that his stories all loop recursively and blindly to the author and the one story he wants to tell, an advertisement for himself and his personal suite of ghosts.
"Sesame is willing to wrestle with difficult things about childhood," Gordian told me. "Loneliness, alienation, even the death of significant figures in a child's life. While at Sesame Street, I worked on a project that dealt with the emotional life of children with an incarcerated parent. Sesame is not afraid to tackle tough shit. So the Musecage video's willingness to address injury, doubt, or other obstacles is not necessarily Kobe touching a third rail."
The strange part is how Bryant puts that dark material to use. "Sesame's socio-emotional content orients kids towards a much more balanced, self-confident, accepting and, I'd argue, healthier internal life," Gordian says. The story that Bryant tells and sells—about obsession and pursuit, a competitiveness that shades into some vengeful and predatory places—is the opposite of that. It advocates a real and willful and even proud unhealthiness, and the weaponization and deployment of that unhealthiness to reach various discrete goals. But this is presuming that Canvas or the branded obsessiveness of the Musecage is intended for kids, or that its intended audience will use it as intended.
Toward the end of the audience Q&A at the Tribeca screening, after a man told Bryant that he was "a big fan of purpose" and a second distressingly voluble man told him that he'd dreamed of Bryant's wife and children the night before—"Welcome to New York City," Strahan half-apologized—a man in his 20s stood up. "The idea of the Mamba Mentality got me through medical school," he said.
"I've always looked up to him simply for how hard he worked and how committed he was to perfecting his craft," the questioner, whose name is J.J., told me later. He's about to graduate from medical school. "Up at 4 AM while others are sleeping. That's exactly how I approached school." He is not looking to destroy or dominate his peers, he told me; the challenge is the work, the tests, making the right diagnosis. Bryant's mentality, as J.J. understands it, "is about that dedication and commitment to your task, no matter what obstacle or doubt comes your way." It is something he hopes to bring with him to a career in internal medicine, or maybe pediatrics.
There are more generous and inclusive and open forms of storytelling than Bryant's, and certainly fuller and more humane stories to tell than his one tale of obsession. But stories fully belong to their authors only during their telling. After that, they belong to the people who receive and believe them; they are theirs to keep, to use however they need.
Bryant seems happy to tell the same story that he has always told about himself; it is easy to imagine him spending the rest of his life telling it, taking ever more scenic routes out into the wild before returning to the strange and familiar comforts of home. It's his story, and telling it is his right. But in doing so, he gives it away, as all storytellers do, and that is always where things get more interesting. Bryant knows this, whether he understands it or not. You are in control when the ball is in your hands, and he has lived his life that way, but the game is played by letting it go.