Remembering Kobe Bryant off the court—in marketing and film
The world lost much more than a basketball legend with the passing of Kobe Bryant in a tragic helicopter yesterday in Southern California. While he inspired sports fans around the world with his athletic feats during his 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, he was also a master marketer and writer, appearing in—and helping create—numerous campaigns. Here, we look back on the mark Bryant made on the ad world, both in front of the camera and behind it.
Not only was #24 a five-time NBA champion. He was an Oscar winning storyteller too. Bryant was executive producer and narrator of the Academy Award-winning short film “Dear Basketball,” an animated version of the poetic love letter and farewell to basketball he penned in The Player's Tribune when he announced his retirement in 2015. He created the film out of his own content company, Granity Studios, alongside animator and film director Glen Keane, with music from Hollywood legend John Williams. It aired during his jersey retirement ceremony at the Staples Center in Los Angeles in December 2017 and also ran exclusively on limited outlets, including Verizon’s now-defunct streaming service Go90.
Post-NBA, Bryant became an entrepreneur with his own company, Kobe, Inc., and was an investor in startup sports drinks brand, BodyArmor. But his influence in the brand wasn’t just monetary. He also served as creative director and narrator of the brand’s first ad campaign, which debuted in April 2017.
Bryant was fantastic in front of the camera and threw himself into several fun roles over the years. One of his most impressive pitchman jobs was for Turkish airlines in spots that showed him going head-to-head with another sports legend, soccer star Leo Messi. The first ad from 2012 created out of Alametifarika Istanbul captured the pair trying to out-awesome each other in ball handling, card house building and balloon twisting in order to win the devotion of a young fan.
The following year, the pair engaged in a game of selfie one-upsmanship around the world in an ad from Crispin Porter Bogusky that went viral.
To cope with the 2003 sexual assault scandal that led to his being dropped by a number of major sponsors, with the exception of Nike (charges were later dismissed), Bryant adopted the nickname “Black Mamba.” The move was inspired by Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill,” in which the snake name was used as code for “deadly assassin.” That’s what Bryant wanted his game to represent, as he told Ben McGrath in The New Yorker. The name stuck and went on to anchor a number of campaigns for Bryant’s longtime sponsor Nike.
In 2011, for example, Nike tapped director and Tarantino collaborator Robert Rodriguez to direct the short film “Black Mamba” to promote the brand's Zoom Kobe VI. The nearly six-minute ad from Wieden & Kennedy Portland depicts the director and NBA star discussing development of a thriller in which Bryant’s “Black Mamba” alter ego battles a trio of villains played by Danny Trejo, Bruce Willis and Kanye West. Not surprisingly, Mamba ultimately triumphs. The film ends on a note that hits painfully now: “Heroes come and go,” says Rodriguez. “But legends are forever,” Bryant concludes.
Bryant was beloved globally, but in China his star shone particularly intensely—so much so that he moved grown men to tears. There, he appeared in spots for brands including Nike, SmartCar, Lenovo and Sprite.
But perhaps he made his most notable advertising mark with Nike’s “House of Mamba” in Shanghai in 2014. Created out AKQA, the full-size interactive basketball court paid homage to Bryant while serving as a training tool for young players. The effort went on to win four Gold Lions at the Cannes International Festival of Creativity.
In 2018 Bryant was athlete-turned-world savior in a dystopian Nike spot out of agency Must Be Something. The Earth had mysteriously stopped turning on its axis, so the NBA star, joined by a cast of celebrities and amateur and professional athletes, set out to save the planet by all running together in the same direction. Bryant really got into his appearance, which took five days to complete and depicted him tearing off a suit made with hundreds of tiny snaps. The spot now might leave viewers uneasy as Bryant’s first scene depicts him emerging out of a helicopter.
Bryant seemed to relish the high-octane scripts and in 2010 also made a cameo in Activision’s “There’s a Soldier in All of Us,” a blockbuster spot promoting “Call of Duty Black Ops,” created out of TBWA/Chiat/Day Los Angeles. Like the Nike ad, this one might not sit right with viewers today, given that characters in the spot are involved in the sort of warfare that appears in the game, which includes gunning down helicopters.
The year that Bryant announced his retirement, the brand tributes started rolling in. In one Nike ad from Wieden, he appeared in an unusual “creative” role, playing a conductor who turns his haters’ vitriol into a gorgeous symphony.
Apple also delivered a lighthearted tribute. It showed Bryant conferring with actor Michael B. Jordan, who was doing research on playing No. 24 in a biopic. Throughout, however, the star pokes fun at Bryant's “fogey-ness,” comparing him to the likes of Benjamin Button with the help of Siri and Apple TV.
Bryant also demonstrated sharp comedic chops in a spot from CPB for the “NBA2K19” videogame, in which he pranks his former teammate/nemesis Shaquille O’Neal.
Action hero, comedian, athletic legend. Bryant wore many hats but ultimately will be remembered for the relentless drive and determination he devoted to his sport. But as his career came to a close he made sure to thank those who surrounded him over the years—whether they loved him or not. In another poetic turn, he worked with former DDB New York CCO Icaro Doria and his team on a farewell campaign that included a letter distributed to fans at the Staples Center the day he announced his retirement.
“All of you helped me become the player and man in front of you today,” it read. “Whether you view me as a hero or a villain, please know I poured every emotion, every bit of passion and my entire life into being a Laker. What you’ve done for me is far great than anything I’ve done for you … Thank you for this incredible journey."