Long before his days of domination on the Los Angeles Lakers, Kobe Bryant knew all too well what it was to be a nervous kid standing before the unknown.
In one case for a then 6-year-old Bryant, the “unknown” was facing off against a skilled fighter in his karate class.
“I’m freaking out because in my mind I could see myself just getting absolutely pummeled,” Bryant, who turned 40 on Thursday, tells PEOPLE. “I didn’t want to do it, and my imagination was just like, ‘You’re going to get knocked out. You’re going to lose teeth. It’s going to be horrible.’ But once I fought him — and I got my butt kicked — it wasn’t as bad as I made it out to be in my own head.”
Learning how to calm that inner doubt, even in the likelihood of defeat, would remain influential to Bryant for years to come.
“Anything that we can conjure up in our own mind is going to be way worse than the reality of the situation — and the important thing is keeping your mind quiet,” the five-time NBA champion says. “If you give your imagination the power of negative self-talk, that can be extremely detrimental.”
Now, Bryant is hoping to help children who may feel anxious or discouraged while participating in new activities through a new, scripted podcast series, “The Punies.”
Directed by Bryant himself, the up to 15-minute episodes follow character “Puny” Pete, as he navigates a variety of activities — each with their own unique obstacle and solution — with his group of diverse friends. Through Pete’s experiences, the show illustrates life lessons, including how to constructively respond to failure and work together as a team. The episodes are also filled with upbeat music, humorous commentary and even fictional commercials, mimicking sports radio.
Episodes of “The Punies” will drop every Saturday morning for 10 weeks, a time slot reminiscent of once-popular weekend cartoons. Bryant chose the “old-school” Saturday morning schedule because it’s when many parents will be driving their kids to sporting events, something he regularly does for his daughters, Natalia, 15, and Gianna, 12 — both who play volleyball and basketball, respectively.
“I wanted to give parents something they can listen to during the drive because we certainly needed something to listen to,” Bryant, who also shares Bianka Bella, 20 months, with wife Vanessa, says. “We need something that’s fun, something that gets the kids ready to play, but also keeps things light and fun, and has a message for them before they engage in competition.”
Since his retirement from the NBA in 2016 — which ended in a spectacular 60 point showing from the athlete — Bryant hasn’t been shy about showcasing his knack for storytelling. Notably, he became the first NBA player to win an Academy Award for his animated short, Dear Basketball, based off of the poem he wrote revealing his plans to retire (his Oscar sits next to the Emmy he also won, he says). But this love for storytelling has also proven invaluable to Bryant as a father.
“If you’re able to implant life lessons through humor, and through fantasy and fairytale,” he explains, “then those tend to resonate a lot more [with children].”
This revelation fueled his desire to create his kid-centric audio show, as well as his series of videos featuring “Little Mamba,” which debuted on ESPN last year.
But it’s also thanks to his daughters that Byrant hasn’t found himself too far from a basketball court in retirement — albeit, on the sideline as their coach. It’s a role he’s having a lot of fun with, he says, but one he also values for allowing him to teach his girls in a new environment.
“A valuable lesson that I can teach them is what it means to pursue excellence and the commitment level that comes with that,” Bryant, an 18-time NBA All-Star, says of being a coach. “At the same time, making things fun and challenging, and learning new things. But they’re having a blast. They’ve gotten extremely, extremely good over the course of the last year, and are continuing to work and get better, man. It’s been fun.”
But Bryant will be making trips back to the basketball court at Staples Center — the arena that now displays both his retired No. 8 and No. 24 jerseys in the rafters — soon enough, as he’ll be on hand to watch LeBron James in his first season with the team.
“I’m definitely going to watch. I’m going to try to get down to some games and support them,” he says. “It should be awesome, it should be a great season!”
There has been much excitement surrounding the newly acquired James, but his arrival hasn’t silenced critics who have cast doubt on whether the Lakers will be successful this year. Much of the skepticism stems from the collection of new players who joined the roster after the signing of James, 33, during the offseason. While questions about team chemistry remain, Bryant says not knowing what to expect isn’t such a bad thing after all.
“They need to do better than last year. That’s for sure. But I think the most important thing at this stage is to just focus on each day, because it’s hard to say what we can expect from such a new team,” he says. “We really don’t know what to expect, which I think is a good thing. They’ll just work hard every day, and get better every day, and see where they end up.”
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These are qualities that echo what Bryant hopes to pass along to children with each edition of “The Punies.”
“You have these outside forces pulling you in different directions that distract from the fact that you just simply need to put the right foot in front of the left, the left in front of the right, and just keep on moving,” he says. “The lead-up for all of these episodes is, despite the noise, the confusion, the inner monologue and outer distractions, it ultimately comes down to just placing one foot in front of the other.”