Kobe Bryant: Project Play should “change the world” of youth sports

 MALIBU, CA-AUGUST 16: Kobe Bryant and Jeff Stibel pose for a portrait at Dun & Bradstreet on August 16, 2016 in Malibu, California. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/Bernstein Associates, Inc.

Kobe Bryant had an atypical childhood, at least for most Americans. He spent most of his first 13 years in Italy, son of a professional basketball player growing up in a country that was far more in love with soccer. Bryant picked up the bug himself, and learned some foot skills, while also benefiting from the fundamentals-first coaching culture of European hoops.

He ended up writing one of the most atypical stories in the game’s history. Drafted out of high school, he spent his entire career with one team, the Los Angeles Lakers, winning five NBA titles and playing in 18 All-Star Games. He then wrote up his impending retirement in a poem, “Dear Basketball,” that was later turned into an animated short film. In March, that film was honored with an Academy Award.

Now, Bryant wants to help write a better story for sports in America. In a partnership with the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program, he plans to use his voice to elevate the activities of Project Play and the need to provide all children with access to a quality youth sport activity. His first contribution will be Oct. 16 at the 2018 Project Play Summit, where he will be a featured speaker.

Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, caught up with Bryant recently to learn about his passion for the topic, and how Project Play intersects with his post-NBA professional interests. Excerpts of their conversation are below.

Tom Farrey: Congratulations on the Oscar. What’s next for you?

Kobe Bryant: More stories. My fundamental belief is that sports can really change the world. For my daughters, there haven’t been any stories in the market that speak to the emotion of sport and the journey of sport, outside of things that are autobiographical in nature. So it’s our job to bring fantasy, bring magic, bring that wonder that’s naturally there in sports and share that with kids worldwide.

Farrey: In what form?

Bryant: Books. We have five novels scheduled, with the first one being released in March (2019). We have a podcast that we’re launching in August; it’s a kids’ podcast and that’s centered on fun in sports. Then we’ll go from novels to film – feature films, animated feature films, live-action films, (and) sports musicals, which are going to be really, really fun. And we’ll just have fun telling stories.

Farrey: So, Project Play, talk to me about your interest there. Why Project Play?

Bryant: Well, our beliefs are exactly the same. What we’re doing is creating stories, putting them into culture, to help inspire change. You have the vision of actually executing the change, and that is just a beautiful relationship. I am really excited about what you guys are doing. One of the things that I really talk about a lot, too, is the coaching. I think we tend to overlook the significance of that and the impact it can have on children – their emotional development, their ability to imagine, dream and hope. The idea of training coaches and understanding their significance is really important. You guys get that. It’s why our relationship is really a seamless one.

Farrey: What will your contribution to Project Play look like?

Bryant: I am in a unique position to use my platform to share the great work that's being done in philanthropy. I am honored to be able to leverage that opportunity for Project Play. I'm really excited to help out on the coaching resources and to amplify the messages through social media platforms and speaking engagements. We'll be working with the Project Play team and advisors to develop that curriculum and create some really engaging content around it.

Farrey: You had good coaches as a kid, right?

Bryant: I did. I was very, very fortunate. Man, I had great coaches all throughout (my life). When I was growing up in Italy, I was fortunate in that we were sending some of our best coaches (in America) to Europe to teach and expand the game – coaches like Tex Winter, Phil Jackson, and back in the day Red Auerbach, Red Holzman. So when I was growing up, I was inheriting this beautiful, fundamental teaching of how to play the game.

Farrey: You’re familiar with Project Play’s eight strategies. Do any reflect your youth experience?

Bryant: Playing multiple sports is really important. One of the things Phil (Jackson) used to say is you always look for players who grew up playing multiple sports – because of their footwork, and their understanding of concepts is broader.

And then also playing within the limitations of the age that you are. It kills me to see 8-year-old kids today trying to heave the ball through a 10-foot hoop. Just chuck the ball in the air as if they’re heaving a medicine ball. It’s the craziest thing. If we lower the hoop to a height that’s comfortable for them, we can teach them how to shoot the ball in a fundamental way. They can also improve because the basket is at a height that’s comfortable for you – you can go and make your reverse layup, you can make a drop step, you can do all of these things.

But teaching the game the right way is also really important. I coach my daughter’s 6th-grade team and what we do before every practice is play a game called “Imagination.” Each player is just in their own head and they’re doing nothing more than imagining the defender in front of them. They can do whatever move they want, they just have to imagine that they’re being played against whoever. Five seconds on the clock, the whole thing. They just go for 30 minutes. They just use their imagination.

Farrey: That’s really cool. Now, you’re not just coaching your kids. Last year you created the Mamba League in partnership with Nike and Boys & Girls Club. It’s in underserved communities in Los Angeles County and there’s an emphasis on basketball fundamentals. With Mamba League, are you adopting some of the ideas reflected in Project Play?

Bryant: Oh, absolutely. The dimensions of the court are smaller, and the hoop is lower. We also encourage equal playing time for all as well as a three-pass rule prior to taking a shot to ensure a positive experience for every participant. It’s hard when you watch and one kid is dribbling the ball all over the place and everybody’s chasing it. When we do that, we are not teaching them how to play within the community. That’s what sports does. It should teach you how to play together. We have to teach kids how to pass, share, communicate, and work well with each other.

Farrey: You are one of the most competitive athletes of all time in any sport, and yet you also care about making this a great experience for every kid, not just the kids who are the early bloomers and look like they might have an NBA future. How should we think about kids and competition, and creating models that embrace competition but don’t push kids aside?

Bryant: Be competitive. I mean, the issues that we run into as a society – I believe as it relates to competition, whether it’s in sports or in the financial sector – it’s not the competition itself but it’s how we process competition. How do we emotionally respond to competition? That is the question. We’re not going to rid the world of competition. It’s there. So can we teach our kids at an early age how to deal with competition? Whether you win or lose, how do you approach the next game? It’s about learning.

You are trying to win. But in order to win, you have to learn. And learning takes precedent over winning. I think we need to teach our kids how to handle that. When you shelter them and all of a sudden they get into a situation where they lose or they fail, they do not know how to deal with that because we haven’t taught them how to deal with that. Sports is a safe place where we can do that.

Farrey: My last question for you, Kobe, is this – and it’s loaded because I know who you are – how ambitious do you think Project Play and the organizations engaged with it, including Project Play 2020, ought to be? What is a realistic ambition in your mind?

Bryant: Well, to change the world. And I don’t say that lightly. Sport is the vehicle through which we change the world. The next generation is going to carry this world forward. We have to teach our children how to be disciplined, use their imagination, understand empathy and compassion, and how to work well with others. Teach these things to them now and that will make the world a better place tomorrow. It’s really that simple. Change the world. That’s all. Not too much to ask.

Learn more about Project Play and Project Play 2020. Go here for more information about the 2018 Project Play Summit on Oct. 16 in Washington D.C.