Ever since Kobe Bryant departed Staples Center in January with a season-ending tear in his rotator cuff, Lakers fans have braced for the worst.
The unforgiving advance of Father Time, debilitating injuries that have prematurely halted back-to-back seasons, and a laser-like devotion to excellence have left many — including Bryant — pondering whether he’s played his last pro game.
Come Saturday, the five-time NBA champion is in a brand-new game. As the 36-year-old faces life after basketball, he has traded home-court advantage for the less predictable court of public confession in a new Showtime documentary, “Kobe Bryant’s Muse.”
It’s a project he initiated, executive produced and controlled with the precision he brings to his management of the Lakers offense. His aim with the project, he explains, is to enlighten and inspire by showcasing his influences and “muses.”
Directed by Gotham Chopra, the 83-minute film contains a wealth of rarely seen footage that reaches back to Bryant’s early childhood in Italy. By turns charming, cocky, remorseful and emotional, the celebrated and divisive superstar probes his past in the film with an openness and candor rarely seen during his 18-year pro basketball career.
“I didn’t want to write a book — I don’t have the patience to do that,” Bryant said in a phone interview. “We wanted to create something really different, very truthful. Cinematically, we wanted to do something that would be different from the ways documentaries are shot. This was about doing something that was fun, but also honest.”
He and Chopra spent more than a year working on the project, which is bookended by his devastating 2013 Achilles tendon tear and his latest shoulder injury. Scenes of his painstaking rehab are sprinkled throughout footage of his more glorious NBA days.
Bryant also hopes the film will help him be better understood. Widely viewed as one of the game’s all-time greats alongside Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, Bryant also has earned a reputation for being withdrawn, brooding, moody and less than generous to teammates and coaches.
“We’re going back and revisiting key moments of my life, figuring out how did that make me grow as a person,” Bryant said. “I can’t lie — at the start of this process, I’m thinking this is going to be great. But when I actually started confronting the journey, there were moments that were scary.... At the end, it was therapeutic. It actually helped me deal with things that were affecting me that I had pushed to the side.”
The documentary, which was originally scheduled to air in November and delayed another time in February because of Bryant’s injury, arrives as a cloud hangs over the Lakers. The Kobe-less squad is in shambles, stumbling through what may wind up being the worst season in franchise history.
Lakers management is under attack by fans and even Johnson, the former Lakers star. A major criticism is that the team overreached in November 2013 in signing Bryant to a hefty $48.5-million contract extension without knowing then if he’d be able to stay free of injury.
Showtime Networks President David Nevins maintains the project transcends the woes of the Lakers season and other traditional sports documentaries.
“In addition to being a great athlete, Kobe is one of the most complicated and interesting figures around,” said Nevins. “He occupies a unique place in American sports and American culture, and this is truly a rare moment in his life. The controversy only brings more fascination to the film.”
At the core of the project is Bryant’s all-consuming passion for basketball, a double-edged sword that drove him to greatness but also often alienated him from teammates, friends and family. Since skipping college and entering the NBA at 18, he had a solitary goal — to become one of the greatest basketball players of all time.
“This was my life,” he declares in the documentary, looking straight at the camera. “You can’t possibly become better than me because you’re not spending the time on it that I am. Even if you wanted to spend the time, you can’t, because you have other things, other responsibilities taking you away from it. So I already won.”
Although Bryant revisits many parts of his past, plenty is passed over. His rift with his father over his marriage, his feud with former teammate Shaquille O’Neal, his stormy relationship with former Lakers coach Phil Jackson, clashes with players such as Dwight Howard and his salary are among the omissions. (Interviews with Jordan and Jackson were shot but ultimately left out of the film.)
Chopra said he and Bryant wanted to concentrate on elements on the athlete’s life “that couldn’t be Googled. You can look up so much of that stuff.”
Other than Bryant, who narrates the film, the only other person discussed in depth is his wife, Vanessa. The couple married in 2001 when she was 18. The film shows the moment when the two first met — on the set of a video Bryant was filming during a short-lived career as a rapper.
Intended as an emotional centerpiece of the film, Bryant addresses his failures as a husband, particularly in 2003 and 2004 while facing charges of sexual assault in Colorado. Choked up with tears, Bryant said the stress of the case, and his admitted infidelity, led to his wife suffering a miscarriage.
The sequence was edited into the film only a few days ago and was not included in an earlier version that was reviewed by some critics. The new material replaced previous footage of Bryant talking more extensively about the Colorado charges and his fear that he might go to prison. (The charges were eventually dropped).
But in the new version, Bryant never specifically mentions the charges or elaborates on why his wife chose to stay with him. (The suggestion is that it was to keep their family together.)
Bryant also leaves out any reference to the $4-million ring he bought for his wife just days after he was charged, or the fact that Vanessa filed for divorce in 2011 (the couple reconciled). The final credits shows the Bryants and their two daughters happily frolicking at home.
Chopra said the miscarriage sequence was added because Bryant wanted to make the film “more personal.”
“There are entire areas of his life that were left on the cutting-room floor,” said Chopra. “But he was very adamant about this. What we lost, we gained in emotion. Kobe is a perfectionist."
‘Kobe Bryant’s Muse’
When: 9 p.m. Saturday
Rating: TV-MA-L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with an advisory for coarse language)