“Kobe: Doin’ Work”
Spike Lee
ESPN films
Originally aired on May 16th, on ESPN

Courtesy of ESPN Films

4 out of 5 stars

Sometimes we forget. We see a clip of Kobe Bryant on “SportsCenter,” perhaps effortlessly splitting two defenders with a perfectly-timed crossover, and we’re prone to think every facet of the NBA superstars’ game is natural and instinctual. And, to a degree, this is accurate. Yet, fixating on this visceral perspective offered by “SportsCenter” shortchanges us.

We forget that basketball is a cerebral game. Excluding those of us in the NBA cognoscenti, we don’t take time to recognize and celebrate the high-level thinking involved in each step of each play of a professional basketball game. We forget that as Bryant dribbles and defends, there are percentages, computations and sequences of possibilities running through his head as he adjusts to the game around him.

With “Kobe: Doin’ Work,” Spike Lee endeavors to reopen our eyes to the details we have neglected in the “SportsCenter” age. Lee, a perennial New York Knicks fan with a deep knowledge of basketball and its culture, grants us unprecedented access to Kobe Bryant’s thought processes during an NBA game — a rare opportunity that puts the personal insights celebrities offer on Twitter to shame. The documentary follows Bryant’s every movement — 30 cameras, in fact, were trained on him — during a game last year against the San Antonio Spurs. Once the footage was collected, it was slickly edited and paired with Bryant’s later-recorded commentary in which he explains his actions.

The resultant documentary is priceless, as Bryant is such an intriguing character. And while Bryant’s poise, charisma and wholesome laugh are legendary, it’s his braininess that shines through on this occasion.

Certain professional athletes are considered students of their respective games, constantly learning and shifting their strategies to become better players. We quickly discover Bryant falls into this category. Like a quarterback changing his offense’s alignment at the line of scrimmage, Bryant seems to be always adjusting his game plan on the fly. To him, basketball is a chess game; he reads defenses and recognizes tendencies in a constant effort to one-up his opponents. The technicalities of the game repeat in plain sight, reappear.

“We love details,” says Bryant exuberantly.

Perhaps it’s Bryant’s love of the game, then, that makes him something comparable to a second coach for his team, the Los Angeles Lakers. The man is a chatterbox; he’s continuously sharing his observations with and advising his teammates (another reason why he’s so entertaining to watch and listen to). As a result of Bryant’s “team first” orientation, the documentary becomes more about the Lakers than Bryant himself.

Lee brings everything together handsomely, too. Stylistically, the documentary aptly captures the spirit of the game, mimicking its free-flowing rhythm with handy camera work, smooth slow-motion shots and black-and-white freeze frames. There’s also sporadic use of piano music, an element that proves quite fitting. From beginning to end, “Kobe: Doin’ Work” is a finely polished piece.

Be advised, however, that because the documentary spans the entire game, as well as some time before and after, it runs at a quite long 84 minutes. But as Lee would tell you, shortening it would run contrary to the documentary’s stated purpose: Putting us inside Bryant’s head for a full game. And that’s an opportunity that shouldn’t be passed up.

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