The latest project from the mind of Kobe Bryant will be released March 19th. The Wizenard Series: Training Camp is a nearly 600-page fantasy book for young adults authored by Wesley King and created by Bryant shortly after his Lakers retirement.
The book centers on the five young men of the West Bottom Badgers, a team part of an inner-city basketball league. Rain, Twig, Cash, Lab and Peño are led by head coach and wizard Rolabi Wizenard.
Bryant, who last year won an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film, has been busy since playing his last NBA game less than three years ago. His Granity Studios plans to publish five young adult books in 2019 and 2020. He recently spoke to Sports Illustrated about this story, his other stories over the years and what his future plans are.
Jonathan Jones: I want to start with the obvious here and that is Rolabi Wizenard is absolutely Phil Jackson, right?
Kobe Bryant: (Laughs.) Yeah. It’s bits and pieces of everyone. So if you look, Bill Russell was a great mentor for me. So when you look at Rolabi’s description you’ll see a lot of Bill Russell as well. But yeah, the majority of this guy is Phil Jackson with a little splash of Tex Winter here and there and some of my high school coach Gregg Downer. But yeah it’s Phil for sure.
JJ: Has Phil read this and what was his reaction when you told him he’d be a large inspiration in this?
KB: He was excited. He has read it. And you know Phil, Phil was more so proud of how smooth of a transition it’s been for me going from basketball to what I’m doing now. And he was really excited about and proud of how I’m using different forms of media to try to give knowledge to the next generation. Because that’s what Phil is at his heart is, Phil’s a teacher.
JJ: And I do want to get to that transition but first I want to get to the character of Rain. I read that you most closely associate with Rain. And in the first couple of pages even that really jumps out. Why did you want a character in this book to have some of your characteristics?
KB: For me it was the easiest one to write. When I sat down to write, the first thing that I had, the first fear that I had was trusting others. That’s something that I dealt with and struggled with. And for Rain, the backstory of why he has that is different than my own, but the end issues and challenges are the same. Once I had that, now it became a matter of unpacking Rain’s character and where do those fears come from. When I sat down to write this story I wrote from a place of truth. What was a big fear of mine and what were some of the things I struggled with the most and how could I help the next generation navigate through it?
JJ: So you wrote this and created it and Wesley King is the author of this book. What was the collaboration process between of the two of you: him taking your vision and really fleshing that out?
KB: So when I sat down I outlined the characters and the world and stuff, because you have to unpack it all. You’re not just creating a country called Dren. Why is it called Dren? What is the history of it? Why do we have the issues that we have? Because it helps the further books when you have the other information. So once I had all that, I flew Wesley in and we met and talked for like two days. I felt very confident that he could take this idea and make it a thousand times better, which is what he did.
The biggest back and forth we had was writing the first chapter. If you read the first chapter of Rain, it took us maybe two months of back-and-forth to knock that down. You can say ‘I have these characters. This is what they stand for. This is who they are.’ But now once you go into writing dialogue, you really have to be able to say this is what the character would say, this is something they wouldn’t say. This is the inflection they would use. We really went back and forth on that first chapter but once we nailed that, it was the foundation for everything else.
JJ: And you know one of my favorite things about the book is all the strange exercises the coach puts the players through. Making them watch a flower grow. Asking them to get a ball guarded by a tiger. What’s the most unorthodox drill a coach ever put you through?
KB: Well, Phil had us doing Tai Chi before practice. He was doing it with us and he brought in a Tai Chi master and we were doing poses like Monk Gazing at Moon. That was probably the strangest one that we’ve had. But Phil used to burn incense and do all kinds of stuff.
JJ: Rain and the rest of the players in the book are like ‘What is going on?’ Did you have that same reaction at the time?
KB: Of course. And ultimately you see a struggle with some athletes. Some are more willing to trust Rolabi and what’s going on. Others are much more reluctant, and each character has a reason for that. As you unpack the individual characters, you start seeing a lot of their inner fears manifest themselves through their relationship with Rolabi himself.
JJ: Did I read correctly that you and your studio hope to publish five books by the end of 2020?
KB: Yeah, so we have five stories already created. The next two have already been written. Stories four and five are in second draft stage now. We’ve been working. This Rolabi series goes out five novels as well.
JJ: On the topic of storyteller, I’m from North Carolina and I’ll tell you that some Tar Heel residents have known you as a storyteller for a while.
I went to UNC and we always heard you would have gone to Carolina and then later you said you wouldn't have gone. And then whatever happened on draft day (with the Hornets trade to the Lakers.) Any chance you could clear the air on some of those stories with your storytelling career today?
KB: For me, North Carolina was the most competitive place to go to. I wanted to go to Carolina because I wanted to follow Vince Carter and the team they had. I wanted to compete because that’s what Carolina’s history and tradition was, and with Dean Smith being the teacher that he was. I was never a Duke fan growing up. I was a Michigan dude so that was like the opposite. So when it came to the recruiting process, Coach K stayed with me. He kept calling me and calling me and calling me. He was like, ‘Listen, I hear you may be going pro but in the event that you don’t, I want to make sure that this is the place you go. So I’m going to keep on recruiting.’ Which is what he did. And that’s how he and I wound up having the great relationship that we did.
That’s why you get two different approaches because I’m looking at Carolina going, ‘OK, that’s the place I want to go to compete against the best’ but Coach K kept on recruiting me. Dean Smith did the opposite. He wrote me a letter and said, ‘Listen I’ve seen you play and from what I hear you’re going to go to the pros so I’m just going to wish you the best of luck. If you ever change your mind, just consider this as a home for you.’ And then he said, ‘P.S., stop wearing out Jerry Stackhouse’ at the end of the letter. That’s why you get the two different approaches and why there’s some confusion with that.
JJ: So going back in time, if you have to make a decision, which one would it have been?
KB: Ahh, that’s tough to say, man. I don’t know. That’s a tough call for me to make.
JJ: We’ve mentioned your hands in all these pies. You have the Mamba Sports Academy and Body Armor. First of all, what’s the work-life balance and shouldn’t you have your feet kicked up?
KB: Well, they kind of are, though. For example, for Body Armor that’s an investment. …I don’t get into the nitty gritty of it. I invest in the people, I invest in the entrepreneurs and you let them be great entrepreneurs and you’re there to provide assistance whenever it’s needed.
With the studio, the majority of my time came a year and a half ago when I started writing all these stories. That was crazy. I was just writing nonstop, five different novels, five different worlds, each series growing out at least five books and some of them go out eight. So that was a lot of writing and thinking and long nights and long days.
After that, after you have the writers on board, you turn them loose. You let them have the creative freedom to take your idea and try to make it a thousand times better. Then I moved to more of a GM role of finding the best possible talent and putting them in the best possible situations for them to be successful. It’s not a lot of work that I’m doing now.
JJ: That kind of rolls into my next question. You’re no longer the reigning Oscar winner. What’s the ultimate goal here? What end goal is there?
KB: I get a great sense of enjoyment, selfishly, out inspiring the next generation. I like watching a light bulb go off in their eyes and figuring things out. I really, thoroughly enjoy that. To the tune that we can teach and inspire, either with (an ESPN) Detail series that’s more basketball-informationally based to a Wizenard series that’s more fictional and magically based, we’re going to do.
JJ: You have rapping and acting in your background. I mention the Oscar earlier. Are you trying to be the first NBAer to win the EGOT? Are you Kobe Bryant Renaissance Man in your post-playing career?
KB: No, I wouldn’t say Renaissance Man. I enjoy stories. I enjoy creating content that’s going to move people one way or the other. I enjoy creating things that you can look at and say that forced me to look inwardly and challenge myself a little bit, or challenge others. The Wizenard series, that’s something we’re going to look to take to live theater. It’s hard to look at this story and say this story is a movie or it belongs as a TV series. It’s really hard to do because of the way we’ve created it. We really believe live theater is the best place for this story to live.