Tennis Honors: Kobe Bryant—creator and influencer in our sport (WATCH)

Tennis Honors: Kobe Bryant—creator and influencer in our sport (WATCH)

Through playing, writing and admiring, the late basketball superstar forged a deep connection with another game, and with some of its best players.

"Tennis Honors: Kobe Bryant" premiered Sunday night on Tennis Channel Live. The 8:40 piece includes exclusive interviews with Nick Kyrgios, from a basketball court in Canberra; Rob Pelinka, general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers and Kobe's hitting partner on the tennis court; Annie Matthew, who worked with Kobe on his book, "Legacy and the Queen"; along with other tour players. Their words, along with the images and footage sourced for this special project, help tell another story: Kobe Bryant's tennis legacy, which continues to grow.

Please watch the entire video above, and read below for additional insight from one of the video's creators, Tennis Channel's Ed McGrogan.


Why tennis?

Why do we love a sport that asks us to hit great shots over and over, with no guarantee that we actually win the point?

Because, as Kobe Bryant said, the reverse is also true.

Wait, Kobe Bryant? The basketball savant who won five NBA titles, made 18 All-Star teams and drew comparisons to Michael Jordan? The man whose trash-talking was as legendary as his scoring touch?

He also loved a sport where politeness was paramount?

Yes. Because, as Kobe said, you have to have conversations with yourself. And those talks can be pretty rough, too.

Kobe was a superstar in his sport. But on a different court, he was like a weekend warrior at the golf course: he loved the sound of hitting a good shot, no matter many poor ones he may have hit before.

In hoops, Kobe handled a large, brown sphere, wanting it to graze nothing but net. In tennis, he hit a small, yellow sphere with the intent of hitting no net at all. In both cases, he used his hands to place a ball exactly where he wanted it.

Kobe caught the tennis bug after a hitting session with Los Angeles Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka. His one-hander wasn’t exactly Federer-esque. His topspin generation didn’t threaten Rafa. But when Kobe took to the tennis court, there was an unmistakable joy in the simplest parts of the game—bouncing the ball on his racquet; completing a drill; finishing a stroke.

There was plenty of intensity, too.

Jordan’s obsession with golf is part of his enduring appeal. Could Kobe have done the same with tennis? In many ways, he already has.

***


Nick Kyrgios, in Canberra, reads a passage from "Legacy and the Queen"

When it comes to Kobe Bryant’s tennis legacy, we need to start with Legacy—the main character in Kobe’s book about tennis.

Yes, Kobe, an Oscar winner for Dear Basketball, his animated short film about the sport he mastered for 20 years, was also a creator of young-adult fiction.

In a story that evokes The Hunger Games, Legacy Petrin lives at an orphanage ran by her father in the Republic of Nova, a world divided into neglected provinces and affluent cities. As she helps care for the many orphans, we find out that she has an inherent gift: tennis.

“As soon as she was hitting the ball against the stone wall of the garden, the last of her worries slipped away. She was alone. Not even the birds were awake. There were no chores to be done, no little faces to wash, no small socks to wrestle onto wriggling feet. For now, all Legacy has to do was play tennis.

In a bit of foreshadowing, Legacy contends with shadows and darkness as she tries to hit the ball cleaner, with greater accuracy. As “the pale light of the moon began to seem brighter”…

Then she began to aim for the same stone in the wall. Then she forced herself to aim for the same divot in the same stone. Time and time again, she hit her mark. She poured her whole weight into each shot. Certainty spread through every muscle in her body.”

If this sounds to you like a young Kobe, cultivating his muscle memory and refining the focus that would take him to iconic heights as an adult, we wouldn’t disagree. But it also sounds like a more mature Bryant, transitioning into his second career. Kobe was certain when he realized was time to leave the hardwood for hardcovers, but he brought the same, disciplined approach to his new passion. When the author of Legacy and the Queen, Annie Matthew, was asked which passage of the book resonated most with Kobe, she replied matter-of-factly.

“Every passage of this was important to him,” she said, adding that he read the full draft four times before the book’s publication in September 2019.

Legacy eventually leaves her province for the tennis academy in the city, against her father’s wishes, in hopes of winning Nova’s national championship. There, she faces opponents who use “inner weather” to conjure adverse playing conditions, such as snow on one side of the court, or cracks in the surface below. The process is referred to as “grana.”

But what sets Legacy apart from her competitors isn’t her lack of experience with grana, it’s her upbringing. In one scene, Legacy walks onto the court before a packed crowd of city dwellers, having cheered for her opponent, before the applause suddenly stops. It’s “our little scholarship student,” says a patronizing, partisan announcer.


Kobe Bryant, on a different kind of court, tracks down a short ball.

It’s another nod to Bryant, who began his basketball journey far away from home, in Italy. As the locals do, he played soccer to improve his footwork. The foreigner was determined, and when he returned to the U.S., he continued to explore other sports—baseball, football, perhaps even tennis.

As Legacy’s training improves, and with the championship match in sight, she stops to think of how far she’s come, and how she’s got there.

“When I want something, I want it. I don’t think about how it affects other people.”

Legacy’s friend and stringer, Pippa, then comforts her.

“You can’t feel only one emotion. They’re all bound up together. Love’s part of anger. Anger’s part of love. It’s all hopelessly confused.”

Tennis players feed off internal emotion more than any other athletes. There are no teammates; only yourself to talk to. In writing this book, Matthews helped Kobe express the importance of knowing yourself, and of honoring all your emotions—even the ones that frighten you—in order to become the champion you can be.

If Kobe could do this with a fictional character, it stands to reason that he experienced this in his own life.

Which helps answer the next question: Why Kobe?

***

Why, long before the tragedy a year ago, did some of the world’s most prominent tennis players hold Kobe in such regard?

He was a champion, of course, but he was so much more than that.

Naomi Osaka regularly took advice from Kobe, developing a relationship that went beyond athletics. She also consulted with him on the book.

“I love Legacy’s drive, her passion, and her fierce mentality,” Osaka told Bryant of the novel’s protagonist. “I would hope to say we are similar in that sense.”

Novak Djokovic saw Kobe as a mentor, and a friend that helped him stay positive during the various dips in his career.

Nick Kyrgios, a dedicated basketball fan, perhaps took the most inspiration from Kobe.

Kobe wasn’t just a tennis fan and player. He was a tennis influencer.

But even in death, Kobe’s tennis legacy continues to grow.

Osaka, Djokovic and Kyrgios have had Kobe on their minds at the Australian Open, the tournament that was shaken from what happened halfway around the world. Last year blended into one morass of sadness—except for one thing: everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news.

The children who played tennis with Bryant in August 2019 will remember him, too.

“There's something about having a situation like that, where you can play the sport at a smaller level, it kind of ignites your imagination,” said Bryant after a hitting session with some youngsters at Flushing Meadows. “It kind of takes you back to being a kid all over again.”

Kobe’s imagination on the basketball court made him a player we’ll never forget. His imagination and experimentation on the tennis court led to the story of Legacy, “who knew how to shine in the darkness.”

We may never understand why everything that happened last year took place. But in the midst of such darkness, we saw how illuminating and important Kobe Bryant was, especially within the tennis world.

A year after Kobe sat in her player’s box at the 2019 US Open, Osaka hoped that what she did in the future would make him proud. She would go on to win the tournament.

Kobe Bryant and tennis. Why not?


Nestled between January's summer swing of tournaments in Australia, and March's Sunshine Double in the U.S., February can be overlooked in tennis. But not in 2021, with the Australian Open's temporary move to the second and shortest month of the calendar. Beyond that, February is Black History Month, and also a pivotal time for the sport in its rebound from the pandemic.

To commemorate this convergence of events, we're spotlighting one important story per day, all month long, in The 2/21. Set your clock to it: it will drop each afternoon, at 2:21 Eastern Standard Time (U.S.).