by Lang Whitaker

When I first heard that Spike Lee was making a documentary about the reigning NBA MVP, entitled Kobe Doin’ Work, I have to confess that I wasn’t sure I’d be altogether interested in devoting another 90 minutes of my life to Mr. Bryant’s work. (I was also wondering who left the “g” off of “Doing,” but that’s another story.) After all, like any NBA nut, I’ve spent most of the last 13 seasons watching Kobe do work night after night after night.

But Spike was promising us unprecedented access and insight to Kobe. With 30 cameras trained on every move Kobe made during a game against San Antonio last April, and then with Kobe contributing a voice over once the film was edited, Spike definitely had the ingredients for a revealing look at one player on one night in the NBA.

Last night I sat down to watch Kobe Doin’ Work, and to be honest, I went into it not expecting much. Sure, Spike Lee is a great filmmaker and storyteller, but I’d heard the deluge of comments on Twitter from people who said it wasn’t worth watching.

But to me, Kobe Doin’ Work was better than I expected. (And as someone who once wrote a screenplay on Kobe, I had a vested interest in this flick.)

Lee smartly limits this documentary on Kobe to one game. There is very little backstory, and except for a few establishing shots and a shot of Kobe and his family driving out of the Staples Center at the end of the movie, the entire thing takes place inside the Staples Center. While a documentary about Kobe’s life might be much more interesting, delving into that can of worms would need to be a month-long mini-series.

spike-lee-and-kobeBut at the same time, at 90 minutes long, Kobe Doin’ Work is about 30 minutes too long. By the 75th minute, the Lakers are winning in a blowout. Kobe doesn’t even play the entire fourth quarter of the game, so Spike attempts to move things along by popping up and asking Kobe questions in the voiceover. By the time the credits roll we’re watching a Spurs/Lakers game while Kobe is talking about scoring 61 points at Madison Square Garden against the Knicks a year after the game that’s taking place.

The first 15 minutes were terrific. Spike’s cameras follow the Lakers into the locker room for their pregame meeting. For all the hours I’ve spent in NBA locker rooms over the last eight years, the media is always kicked out before anything interesting related to the game that evening happens. On this night, Phil Jackson rolls a tape of a Spurs game in Portland, probably from a few nights before. Phil calls Tony Parker a “one-man fastbreak” and says, “He falls down a lot, you guys know that.” Phil also tells the captains, “Make sure you tell the refs my coach said don’t let Oberto or Duncan pick and use their hands.”

The Lakers then adjourn to a hallway nearby, where they huddle up and start yelling and screaming and hyping each other up, and then the team all sprints out onto the court, where they’re met by thousands of adoring fans. Kobe mentions that he always gets goosebumps at this point on game night, and I understand the sentiment.

The game tips off, and movie becomes a series of shots of Kobe within the context of the game. I’ve seen the Zidane movie that Spike Lee was supposedly inspired by when making this Kobe movie, and the Kobe footage looks similar to the Zidane stuff. But right away I remembered what I didn’t like about the Zidane movie: Watching Zizou in tightly-zoomed detail is fascinating for about 3 minutes, interesting for about 7, and then boring after about 10. I cared about Zidane, and the little bursts of action when the ball would come into his space were really cool and intense, but I evetually found myself starting to wonder about the game itself, and I wanted to see more of the action.

Spike treats the actual game being played with a little more importance than the Zidane documentarians, using many more long shots and overhead angles that show what is happening away from Kobe. Spike also smartly uses Mike Breen’s commentary from the game’s telecast to fill in the gaps of things we’re not able to see. For instance, as Kobe tries to keep an eye on Bruce Bowen, then abruptly turns and runs up court, Breen tells us Finley has hit a three from across the floor.

And then there’s the matter of Kobe’s voiceover. While Zidane doesn’t even speak in his film, Kobe narrates much of the action, explaining what plays are happening and at one point giving a long,  interesting explanation of what the Triangle Offense actually is. But Kobe also spends a lot of the voiceover telling us things we already know (i.e.: he hates turnovers) and, worse, he almost seems to be trying to convince us of how much he loves basketball and that he has a high basketball IQ. At one point he even claims that he calls a lot of the inbounds plays before Phil does because they’ve been together for so long that they now see the court in the same way. (Although I’m pretty sure Phil’s been around the game a little longer than Kobe has.)

Spike catches a lot of interesting interplay between Kobe and the other people on the floor. At one point, lining up for a free throw, Kobe asks Kurt Thomas, “Are you going to play until you’re about 50?” Thomas responds, “Hell yeah!” He should’ve made a money sign with his fingers, too.

During a timeout about 5 minutes in, with San Antonio up 14-9, Kobe tells Vlad Radmanovic to pressure Tony Parker on pick and rolls, and Vlad Rad looks at Kobe with such blank eyes that it made me laugh out loud. It was like Vlad’s wasn’t even sure if he was at a basketball game.

At halftime, with the score tied and Tony Parker torching the Lakers for 18 points, Kobe tells his teammates they have to do a better job defending TP. Which is when Lamar Odom pipes up from across the room and says they should “lay him out” the next time he drives. To which Kobe doesn’t really respond.

If there was anything I came away with from watching the full ninety minutes of Kobe Doin’ Work, it was this: Kobe does not shut up. Not in the locker room, not in the huddles, not on the court. Heck, not even on the voiceover. If we are to take this film of one game as a sample representation of what it is like to play basketball with Kobe Bryant, then being a teammate of Kobe Bryant must border on unbearable. Because Kobe is constantly telling his teammates what they are doing wrong.

Kobe tells Farmar to drive, and tells him exactly what to do in order to get a shot off. Kobe tells Lamar how to defend in the post. Kobe tells Luke Walton where to cut on offense. Kobe tells Derek Fisher not to pump fake but to take an earlier look. Kobe tells guys to block out, tells Sasha Vujacic something in Italian, tells Vlad Rad where to go on the court to receive a pass, tells Pau Gasol what play they need to run. The only thing more jarring than the amount of time Kobe spends talking at his teammates is the comparative lack of time he seems to spend listening to them. You know that one guy when you’re playing pick-up ball who tells everyone else exactly what they’re doing wrong? That’s who Kobe seems to be. At one point Kobe even grabs a board in a timeout and diagrams defensive rotations for everyone else to see. In the voiceover, Kobe says he didn’t realize he talks so much. I bet his teammates do.

And maybe that’s OK. When you’re playing with someone as gifted as Kobe is, he can certainly be a helpful presence to guys who aren’t as talented as he is. Does he come off as a guy who I would hate playing with? Yes. But then, I’m not on the Lakers.

His teammates seem to like playing with him. At one point between quarters, Sasha Vujacic asks Kobe to please complain to the refs that the Spurs are getting away with shoving players making backdoor cuts. Kobe tells him that even if he says anything it won’t matter, because they’re not going to call anything, so he should just play through it. Vujacic looks crushed by this piece of information. (And I love that he thought to ask Kobe to talk to the refs about it, as though he knew it would be better coming from Kobe than from him.)

One thing I really appreciated about Kobe Doin’ Work was how Spike Lee presented the basketball. I must have watched millions of hours of televised NBA games by now, but Spike mixes and matches angles and speeds to create a compelling visual. At one point, Kobe drives and gets fouled, and Spike breaks the drive into a series of snapshots and herky-jerky freeze frames to convey the physicality of the drive. When Kobe is sprinting up the floor and then gets stopped cold by a Duncan pick, it’s such a jarring hit that the break in the flow hits the viewer as well.

Watching just Kobe for so long, I was struck by how technical his game is. He’s unbelievably light on his feet for a guy his size, yet he moves with such an economy of motion, and then has little bursts of speed that are going to be faster than your fastest bursts of speed.

Finally, there’s the issue of truth. Knowing his every step was being filmed and that he was wearing a live microphone, did Kobe act differently than he would have otherwise? Well of course he did. Who wouldn’t? Someone texted me while the movie was airing on ESPN on Saturday night and said, “Do you think Kobe is really like this, or is he acting like this for the cameras.” My response? Both. His entire life has been on camera, particularly since the summer of 2003 in Colorado, and at this point I don’t think he ever lets down his guard. And so this is what he has become. Kobe’s reality is a sort of invented and adopted one, which means if Spike Lee wants to show us what Kobe Bryant is really like as a person, he’s got a lot more work to do.

But as far as showing us what it’s like to be Kobe for about three hours on one night over a year ago, Kobe Doin’ Work nails that. Warts and all.