I re-watched Spike Lee’s 2009 documentary Kobe Doin’ Work: A Spike Lee Joint recently. It’s the story/study of one game during the 2007-08 season, when Phil Jackson’s Lakers went up against Gregg Popovich’s Spurs, featuring voiceover commentary by Kobe Bryant after he went off for 61 against Spike’s Knicks. It was a significant game, thanks to a Lakers/Spurs rivalry (Wikipedia tells me the “two teams combined to win seven of the last nine NBA Championships”) and Kobe gunning for League MVP. He ended up playing 32 minutes, putting up 20 points on six made shots.
It’s a weird documentary, maybe closer to an homage than a true study of the man and his work. It’s uncritical, in that no one ever questions him or his actions, but having Kobe be the dominant voice throughout the feature also reveals a lot more of Kobe than I expected to see.
It’s funny—2009 feels like forever ago, both for me and in basketball terms. That season was the first Kobe/Pau season. Trevor Ariza, Andrew Bynum, Jordan Farmar, Derek Fisher, Lamar Odom, Luke Walton, and Ronnie Turiaf spent time in the purple and gold that year. Kobe hit 20,000 career points. Now even Pau is gone.
Kobe’s a good subject for a documentary like this, because he’s so focused, driven, and talented. He’s either the greatest Laker or second behind Magic Johnson. But as a result of the focus on Kobe, the doc is almost entirely unconcerned with the other players on the court, the score, or the team’s performance. There are a lot of shots of Kobe watching someone take a shot or make a play, instead of seeing how that play turns out.
Kobe Doin’ Work is weird, there’s a lot of slo-mo and some visual flourishes that don’t quite work, but it’s still fascinating. I think my favorite part of the doc was how Kobe subtly dominates every single person around him, from his teammates to his coach. Even Spike gets it—Kobe makes it a point to talk about how he wanted to shut Spike up in New York before recording.
It varies. Kobe talks a lot about how he and Jackson will call the same plays without knowing, and marks it up to them working together for so long. He talks about wanting to teach—not show—his teammates things about the game or the other team. He’ll tell people about double team tactics on the bench or urge them to do basic things.
Once you realize what he’s doing, it’s hard to ignore. Kobe positions himself as an authority in every interaction he has with other people, and reaffirms that position through his commentary on himself. There’s a few minutes where he talks about tolerating misses from himself, because he knows a hit is coming. On-screen, he takes suspect shot after suspect shot.
It grates, but I get it, too. Kobe is an all-time player. He’s the post-Jordan star, the pre-Lebron king, and he’s stuck with one team his whole career. In 2009, he was Kobe Bryant. It’d be one thing if he was Dwight Howard or Dwyane Wade or Ray Allen—they’re good, but he’s Kobe Bryant. He’s a competitor, and while he definitely considers himself the star and focus of the team, an assumption which is true honestly, he understands that teams win games. So he’s doing everything he can to ensure that his team comes out on top, because without the Lakers propping him up, there’s no Kobe.
It’s self-centered and selfish, but smart. Kobe is incredibly good at what he does, and sharing his knowledge undoubtedly makes his team better. He praises his teammates at length, but he’s honest about their shortcomings, too. He mentions that one player needs to get into a rhythm, so he tries to hook him up with good shots. He praises the team’s basketball IQ.
As a picture of a competitor, Kobe Doin’ Work is great. You don’t get to dig too deep into Kobe-the-Person since the spotlight is squarely on Kobe-the-Superstar, but you can see the passion and drive that made him who he is. It’s not much of a highlight reel or even a straight basketball doc. But it’s the kind of project that reveals things that would only be revealed through this specific approach. It’s edited, but still has an off-the-cuff feel, with Kobe audibly smiling and laughing his way through part of it and frowning when he messes up. Spike only pops up once or twice to guide the conversation, so all you really hear is Kobe, the PA system, and the commentary, when they’re incorporated into the narrative.
It’s wild cheap on Amazon at the moment, just five bucks. Watching it now, now that Kobe’s signed what may be his final contract with the Lakers before retirement and he’s giving sunset interviews to Sports Illustrated, complete with outtakes, I feel like I get it now more than I did in 2009. Kobe’s a great basketball player, true, but he didn’t get that way by accident. Kobe Doin’ Work paints a better picture of who Kobe is than his performance on the court or random post-game interviews could possibly reveal.