I was watching TV with my dad in São Paulo in June 2014 when I got a text message: “Hey Icaro, this is Kobe Bryant. I’d love to get on the phone with you.”
Five minutes later my phone rang. “Hey Icaro, this is Kobe Bryant, is this a good time? I loved the Ayrton Senna Nike ad you did," Bryant said. "I’ll be in Brazil for some of the games (the 2014 Men’s World Cup was about to begin) and I’d love to meet you in person.”
I was convinced this was an incredibly rehearsed prank but decided to play along. An email followed the phone call: “Let’s meet at my hotel in a week. 9 pm. Txt me when you’re there. KB”
Bryant's hotel was in Salvador, a two-and-a-half-hour flight from where I was. I bought a ticket. Flew to Salvador. A friend gave me a ride to the hotel, and I texted my arrival. Five minutes later, the elevator doors opened and there he was. No entourage. Just Kobe.
He gave me a hug but did not spend any time on small talk. He asked me questions and listened to my answers with the same laser-focus expression we saw on his face on so many occasions.
“How do you come up with ideas? Have you read Joseph Campbell’s books? Where do you look for inspiration? How long did it take you to come up with the Senna ad?”
We had about 50 people taking pictures of us—of him, I mean—but his focus was absolute in both his questions and on my answers. Fifteen minutes earlier, I was still convinced this would be a prank. I definitely wasn’t ready for it. My answers could not have been more underwhelming.
We had dinner. We talked for hours. I flew back to São Paulo to find an email from him inviting me to come to Newport Beach to see what he was working on.
I made the trip to Newport Beach. He picked me up, took me for a drive and showed me a building he had just bought. “I want to show to my daughters that I can achieve as much with my intellect as I did with my body,” he said.
Who thinks like that? Kobe.
We talked about our mutual love for "Saint Seiya: Knights of the Zodiac," the Japanese-American animated web series, and he talked about his passion for animation. Not the 3D kind—the 2D-handmade-how-Disney-used-to-make-them kind.
He said the building would house Kobe Inc., his animation studio, his creative company, his way of achieving what he set himself to: Showing his daughters what his ideas were capable of. Telling stories to inspire people everywhere to become their best selves.
A year goes by. He reaches out to me with an idea for his 20th season with the NBA.
He wanted to talk about his own duality. A hero to many. A villain to many more. He had an idea for a logo made out of a V and an H. At the time I was working at DDB NY and Thiago [Carvalho], Bruno [Oppido], Diego [Limberti], and Mina [Mikhael] worked with me and Kobe on bringing his HeroVillain idea to life.
He did not want to be celebrated. He wanted to share with fans and foes how they made him the player he had become. A player that learned how to transform anger into motivation. And he hoped to tell that story to help kids in adverse situations to transform their own anger into strength to thrive. He threw out the line, “Channel the villain. Unleash the hero.”
That was his vision. As a creative mind he wanted to inspire in new ways that he hadn’t before. He was all about inspiration. He was in absolute love with those who inspired him to become who he was, and he wanted to share that with the world. Especially with kids. All that while still a player who would drop 60 points here and there.
Halfway through the season, Bryant got more and more excited about an idea he had about a world that mixed fantasy and the power of sports.
I met him in San Antonio, where we threw some ideas on the board. He left to face the Spurs and came back a few hours later and asked, "OK, what do you have?" We spent the rest of the night working on possible character and plot lines. I was exhausted. He did not seem to care.
Bryant's enthusiasm for ideas was almost childlike. After 20 years in advertising, much of my thinking was jaded, stiff and formulaic. He charged ahead. “Don’t pull any punches, man," he said, and started a series of “what ifs” that honest-to-god made me wonder if I could add anything to his thinking. His ideas were big and ambitious with complete disregard for rules or limitations. I left San Antonio energized, excited—and scared.
We met again, this time in Minnesota. Thiago came along and we met Kobe in his room. This time we met Kobe the creative director. He read through our ideas and didn’t like them. They weren’t powerful enough. We left scratching our heads. But wanting to make Kobe the creative director proud.
We didn’t talk for a while. It turns out he was working on his “Dear Basketball” poem—the one he turned into an animated short (the 2D kind). The one that won him an Oscar. The one that proved to his daughters and to the world that his intellect could and would achieve as much as his body.
Ultimately, we landed on what would become the HeroVillain campaign, which included the farewell letter he gave to fans when he announced his retirement.