I had the opportunity to learn from Lee Jenkins (right) at a conference in New York City last spring.
Sometimes it’s tough for me to settle on The Best Sportswriting I Read This Week. Not this week.
I always enjoy Lee Jenkins’ work for Sports Illustrated – I have taken particular pleasure in his pieces on LeBron James – but I don’t think I’ve ever been more impressed with something he has written than this piece: Kobe Bryant: Reflections on a cold-blooded career.
It’s a tremendous story. How do you write about someone who has been written about so many times before and still piece together a compelling story? By being really good at your job, that’s how.
Jenkins goes to breakfast with Bryant (whose breakfast sounds really delicious, by the way) and takes us through the mealtime conversation but tells Kobe’s life story in the process (it reminds me of this stellar piece on Ron Washington, in which the writer visits Washington at his house but rehashes his managing highs and lows in the process of the day).
In addition to revealing some anecdotes we don’t know, Jenkins touches on parts of Kobe’s career we all know but provides details we have never heard; he tells the story – the Legacy of Kobe Bean Bryant – better than I have ever seen it told.
It doesn’t hurt that the writing is exquisite. Where to begin? Let’s take it from the top.
Oh, no, here comes another office-park all-star with a retreating hairline and a softening middle who wants to take his pants off in front of Kobe Bryant.
As I’ve mentioned before, you want your lede to grab the readers’ attention. Simply introducing the breakfast would be boring and far too easy; telling one of those hilarious anecdotes I mentioned – and I’ll get to those – would hook the reader, but you also want your lede to apply to the whole story and introduce it.
The perfect medium? Finding a way to introduce the breakfast while telling a hilarious story. This moment also captures the scene and makes us feel like we’re there.
OK, so why does this lede matter, and why does it tie in to the story? We find that answer immediately. Kobe is returning from a serious Achilles tear and his future as a ballplayer is in question.
Part of rehab from a ruptured Achilles tendon is a hundred run-ins with Baby Boomers who underwent similar procedures after fateful pickup games and racquetball matches. They are eager to reveal the flesh evidence, regardless of what layers they must lift, unbutton or discard. “Been 10 years,” the man crows, pointing down at his own heel, “and it’s never felt stronger.”
So, we got why this anecdote matters, but just in case we needed a little more evidence:
Even the toughest s.o.b. on hardwood can use the occasional reminder that everything is going to be O.K.
Jenkins developed this scene – just a casual conversation – fully and tied it into the big picture of the story. I’m not sure the average reader will grasp just how tough that is, but it is quite impressive that he pulled it off.
As I mentioned, this story is covered with beautiful short sequences. Here are a few of my favorites:
They blush in response, turning redder than a Clippers road jersey.
Clippers road jerseys are really red.
More than the 31,000 points, 15 All-Star selections and five championships, more than the silky turnaround jumpers, effortless baseline drives and feverish scoring binges, Bryant will forever be remembered for a belief in himself that you couldn’t strip with a dozen Bruce Bowens.
Bruce Bowen is known as the strongest modern-day defensive player – sorry, Glove – and he squared off with Bryant many times. These days, you can find Bowen wearing a bow tie on ESPN.
There it is, one more brushstroke applied to the intricately drawn image of Kobe Bean Bryant.
This is just a great line. A two-part developed metaphor – simple in theory, flawless in execution.
He doesn’t flinch when an inbounds passer pretends to throw a ball at his nose. He doesn’t glance down after he turns an ankle. He doesn’t sleep much, content to lie with a towel over his eyes, his brain leading a fast break.
Here we have two examples of just how tough he is – remember, showing is much more powerful than telling – and then a look into his life. “His brain leading a fast break” – I was a point guard throughout my basketball career, and I’ve done this many times in my life (when you’re a floor general, you do it subconsciously), but I never thought of that way of phrasing it – and it’s also an important line because Bryant is no PG; he’s a 2 or 3. This paragraph gives us a look into Bryant’s psyche and crazy dedication to the game of basketball.
He sips his latte. Housewives flit around the courtyard in yoga pants.
I found this line hilarious. It’s essential because it takes us back to the scene and reminds us that we’re having breakfast with Kobe Bryant. It’s also descriptive – not only are there people walking about at the scene, but those people are housewives and they’re wearing yoga pants. Now you see what Jenkins sees. Now you feel even more like you’re there at the time of the interview. I loved this moment.
And he sticks that gold Lakers jersey back in his teeth
Jenkins could have said, “and he gets back on the court.” Too easy. Bryant often bites his jersey. This is a simple but effective way to enhance jargon and give a fuller picture of Kobe’s persona.
The small in-story stories
Jenkins provides a few on-point anecdotes.
I thought this was the best part of the whole story: Bryant telling his trainer he could get a key from, well, behind his eye. It’s a tough movie moment to describe, but Jenkins nails it. Here’s the whole scene:
Years ago, upon returning from the horror flick Saw II, Bryant described for Lakers trainer Gary Vitti a scene in which a victim awakens to find a contraption locked around his neck lined with nails pointed at his head. A videotape explains that the victim can unlock the device with a key, but it has been surgically implanted behind his right eye, and he can only extract it with a scalpel. He has a minute before it closes over his face and kills him. “I think I could get that key,” Bryant said.
“I believe you,” Vitti replied.
But, oh, that outstanding story is just one of many. How about the time Kobe chucked his mask and went to war?
We spent a couple days frantically trying to find a mask that would fit him. The day of the game, at the Palestra, he warmed up with the mask on. But in the locker room, right before we went out on the court, he ripped it off in front of everybody. He threw it against the wall and yelled, ‘I’m not wearing this thing! Let’s go to war!’ He scored 39 points. We won.”
And that time he turned down a role in one of the best basketball movies of all-time?
That summer Spike Lee begins filming He Got Game, a movie with Denzel Washington about a basketball prodigy named Jesus Shuttlesworth. “I want you to be part of it,” Lee tells Bryant. “Thank you but no thank you,” Bryant says. “This summer is too big for me.” Ray Allen lands the role as Shuttlesworth.
I don’t curse verse often, and I never do it in writing. But Kobe loves swearing. I’m not sure why. It’s just who he is, and it’s part of the reason we love him. Jenkins doesn’t try to hide that. This story is supposed to give a full picture of who Kobe is, after all. Why not embrace all of who he is? Here are a few examples:
“I was lucky to grow up in Italy at a time when basketball in America was getting f—– up with AAU shuffling players through on strength and athleticism,” Bryant says.
Bryant tries not to roll his eyes. You’re grown-ass men, he thinks. And you’re right: I don’t f—— need you.
“Then everything sinks in, and it’s like, Oh, no, now you better win or your whole career is basically bulls—,” Bryant says. “Those last three championships you won will be meaningless.”
And, of course, the Kobe-being-Kobe quote
There were so many parts of this story I loved. But as for my favorite quote? That’s easy:
“I can’t relate to lazy people,” Bryant says, speaking generally, not about Mayo. “We don’t speak the same language. I don’t understand you. I don’t want to understand you. Go over there.”
Recent entries of The Best Sportswriting I Read This Week:
Oct. 11, 2013: The Times profiles Mills, and Cacciola’s writing thrills
Oct. 8, 2013: Simmons’ comedy, research make column a winner
Sept. 29, 2013: Grantland Flexed: Giraldi’s piece on Heath is astounding
Sept. 23, 2013: Jets best Bills, and Times’ reporting, as always, impresses
Sept. 15, 2013: Emotions flow freely, and so does Sullivan’s quality writing
Sept. 8, 2013: The Buffalo News’ Canisius football preview: Why it worked