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Kobe Doin' Work

Kobe Bryant, superstar, NBA basketball champion, M.V.P. and ubiquitous analyzer, in Spike Lee's documentary "Kobe Doin' Work",
which has its television premiere on the ESPN cable networks tonight.  (Photo: Anthony Causi/ESPN Networks)

The Science And Artistry Of Basketball, Via Professor Bryant
By Omar P.L. Moore/    SHARE
Friday, May 15, 2009

Spike Lee has chronicled some of America's most celebrated and demonized sports figures, either in-depth or on the periphery of his films: O.J. Simpson appeared briefly in trial footage in "Bamboozled" and was named in "Get On The Bus"; Jim Brown was featured in the documentary "Jim Brown: All-American" and had cameos in "He Got Game" and "She Hate Me"; Joe Louis got a mention in "Malcolm X"; Mike Tyson similarly in both "Do The Right Thing" and "Mo' Better Blues".  An assortment of NBA basketball players paraded the scene in "He Got Game", and most famously Michael Jordan was a constant in Mr. Lee's Nike commercials of the 1980s and early 1990s.  Now Mr. Lee trains his cameras on a legend-in-progress, Los Angeles Lakers' basketball superstar Kobe Bryant, briefly acquainted with controversy following an adulterous affair in 2003, in his new documentary "Kobe Doin' Work", which had its world premiere last month at the Tribeca Film Festival and debuts tonight on the ESPN sports cable network in the U.S. and Canada.

"Kobe Doin' Work" isn't nearly as vainglorious as you might expect, considering that the Lakers gave Mr. Lee and his camera crew unprecedented access to Mr. Bryant and the locker room of the Lakers' home at Staples Center prior to, during and after a Sunday, April 13, 2008 regular season home game against the San Antonio Spurs.  Mr. Bryant is seen missing shots, heard cursing, turning the ball over but rarely being beaten on the dribble in Mr. Lee's film, which has its subject narrating in a low-key reflective tone, as if he's watching game film in preparation for the next game (which he essentially is.)  At least 15 additional cameras, digital and otherwise, are used by Mr. Lee and his crew, which includes the director's "Miracle At St. Anna" cinematographer Matthew Libatique, to get all the possible angles one can on the best basketball player on the planet. 

Having said that, there's a legitimate question to ask: When is Lebron James' film coming?  Answer: When he wins a championship, Mr. Lee might respond -- though it's very possible that this may be the year Mr. James truly becomes King James.  The same question could be asked for Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Cristiano Ronaldo, Michael Jordan and Ronaldihno, all of whom have won titles in their sports.  Each of these sports megastars would make for compelling portraits and Mr. Lee, what with his love of sports and especially basketball well-documented as a near-life-long New York Knicks season ticket holder -- read the director's memoir Best Seat In The House -- would obviously be supremely capable of capturing them at their best on film. 

With "Kobe Doin' Work" Mr. Lee does a virtuoso job of setting the table and witnessing Mr. Bryant's lift off.  Occasionally the director is heard asking the Lakers' two-guard some salient questions and glimpsed holding one of the hand-held digital video cameras to shoot all the game action against the Spurs in conjunction with ESPN Sports' two-dozen television cameras, just prior to last season's playoffs.  Mr. Bryant's narration is an informal and highly insightful analysis of the strategy of basketball -- not just of number 24's game -- but of the game at large.  The pace of Mr. Lee's documentary shows an athlete at his apex -- geometric and otherwise -- mastering the game, which is depicted here as a showcase combination of chess and boxing, all with the speed, dexterity and grace of ballet.  There are moments of grand fascination and insight, comedy and brotherhood, family and floor generalship.  Bruce Hornsby scores the film, making this the first time since 1990 that Terence Blanchard has not scored Mr. Lee's feature films or documentaries. 

"Kobe Doin' Work" is an entertaining 88-minute kinetic adventure for anybody who loves either NBA basketball or Kobe Bryant.  This is the time of year for this particular documentary, and Mr. Bryant may have to work extra hard this weekend to try and finish off the Houston Rockets in game seven in Los Angeles.  Perhaps watching Mr. Lee's film will be a great refresher course.  Rudolph Nuryevev, Alvin Ailey and Mikhail Baryshnikov would most likely appreciate the skill and precision that Mr. Lee shows to match that of Mr. Bryant's humorous, workmanlike and philosophical outlook.

"Kobe Doin' Work" is not rated by the Motion Picture Association Of America.  The film contains mild profanity.  In color and black and white with occasional dialogue in Italian, French and Serbian.  The film's duration is one hour and 28 minutes.  The film makes its television debut on ESPN Sports Cable tonight.

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