Kobe Bryant Opens Up About Animated Short Film 'Dear Basketball', His 'Love Letter' to the Sport

Kobe Bryant and legendary Disney animator Glen Keane talk to PEOPLE about the making of Dear Basketball

For two decades, Kobe Bryant dazzled the NBA on his path to five championships with the Los Angeles Lakers. On Monday night at Staples Center, those 20 exhilarating years were honored with the retirement of not one but two jerseys — No. 8 and No. 24 — which Bryant wore throughout his career.

To mark the occasion, Bryant publicly premiered a five-minute animated movie based on his retirement announcement poem, Dear Basketball, which was originally published in 2015.

In the short film, Bryant narrates viewers through a visual tour starting with his childhood — which shows him watching NBA games on VHS tapes while living abroad in Italy — to his becoming an NBA champion and Olympic gold medalist, cementing a legacy all his own.

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Bryant (who played more than 48,000 minutes in the NBA) poignantly uses the poem to find closure with walking away from the game that had been the foundation of his life. The film, which debuted exclusively on Verizon Media’s go90 app on the day of Bryant’s jersey retirement, features Academy Award-winning composer John Williams scoring the piece, and legendary Disney animator Glen Keane providing animations to bring the poem to life.

“Animation has always been extraordinarily close to my heart because of its timeless storytelling,” Bryant, 39, tells PEOPLE. “There is something very special about a style of filmmaking which resonates generationally over and over again.”

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Dear Basketball previously debuted at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival and took home two awards at the 2017 World Animation Celebration. It is currently shortlisted as an Oscar contender for best animated short and has a shot at making the final five nominees when the Academy announces their picks on January 23.

Keane, a master artist who has animated iconic Disney characters like Ariel and Aladdin, sat down with Bryant at the start of the project and asked him to take him through everything, from first learning how to dribble the ball, to dissecting his thought process during games as they watched a “20 Greatest Kobe Plays” video on YouTube.

“He just remembered everything and every moment and every game. He’s an incredibly smart guy that remembers details,” Keane, 63, says. “From there we talked about the craft of basketball, from beginning to end, building layer upon layer, bit by bit.”

Bryant’s ability to recall such information was invaluable to Keane, he says, since he animates his characters not by evaluating their actions, but their thoughts.

“It lets me live inside the characters, so I’m not animating from the outside, I’m animating it from the inside,” he explains. “The desire. The strategy. You draw it differently if you know what’s going on in the character you’re animating in their mind.”

With hours of game footage at his disposal, Keane analyzed Bryant’s mannerisms and tendencies during games, and he’d go frame by frame studying not just Bryant, but those playing against him. For the things not captured on film, such as Bryant sitting in his room as a child watching Magic Johnson’s Lakers beat Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics, the two worked together to recreate as close to possible what the scene actually looked like.

“All the little details in there are really from him, like how the chairs were placed on the basketball court. That’s actually the only drawing he did for me — a little sketch showing me how to place the chairs,” Keane recalls. “He wanted the posters in his room to be the actual posters that were on the wall. The same with the video cassettes his grandfather sent him when he was in Italy. All those things were true.”

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Of course, one of the most charming characteristics of the film is that it is hand-drawn, an increasing rarity in an age dominated by flashy computer animation since the dawn of Toy Story.

“I especially love hand-drawn animation because it brings a rawness that enhances the story,” Bryant says. “The messages, the artistry, the emotions all live on indefinitely in animated films.”

For Keane, it was important that Bryant’s childhood and adulthood not be entirely separated. Instead, he wanted to show that the child who dreamed of reaching NBA stardom had never left Bryant’s side, and had remained there through it all —from the missed shots, the game winners, the championship parades, to the torn achilles — because Bryant never lost his childhood wonderment to the game.

“In the film, you have a little boy who is living and is right there next to Kobe even as he grows up. That little six-year-old is still right there with him,” Keane says. “Kobe wanted any kid in the world to see the film and be able to follow the steps, and see that he was able to do it. It’s about having a dream and filling it.”

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