Paradoxically, by focusing exclusively on an individual player in a single sporting event — Kobe Bryant during a key regular-season game between his Los Angeles Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs — Spike Lee has captured the essence of team sport. Normally, an athlete’s analysis of his own game hardly constitutes high drama. But watching Bryant at work in a kinetic, think-on-your feet, moment-to-moment way, accompanied by his running commentary, fascinatingly fuses thought and action in a manner that found fictional expression in Hollywood genre films like “Objective, Burma!” or “Die Hard.” ESPN pic airs May 16 prior to DVD rollout.
Inspired by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s 2006 “Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait,” which followed a soccer match by focusing exclusively on French superstar Zinedine Zidane, Lee eschews the Gallic doc’s solely video flourishes, training 30 cameras and affixing several mics on Bryant, and covering the game — an end-of-the-season contest with playoff implications, between the Lakers and the defending NBA champs, the Spurs — in real time.
Bryant’s voiceover narration not only makes the proceedings comprehensible to basketball greenhorns, it lets the star define for fans the fast-changing nature of team strategy: Now that he is blessed with highly talented cohorts, he no longer feels the need to score all the Lakers’ points. Rather, his job is to help others maximize their potential and form a flexible, intelligent force on the court.
To watch Bryant is to see someone constantly observing everyone else, coordinating their movements on the bench and on the fly (“I never realized I talked so much”), using his knowledge of teammates and opponents to plot out plays before they happen.
Bryant’s passion for basketball is infectious, his appreciation of teammates’ moves equaled only by his admiration for an opponent’s perfectly executed play. The sometimes controversial Bryant, who has never been exalted a la Michael Jordan, here portrays himself in a convincingly selfless light as an ambassador of the sport, advising, encouraging or simply joking around with his United Nations of a team in fluent Serbian, Spanish or Italian.
Lee and longtime editor Barry Alexander Brown (aided by Bruce Hornsby’s score) have pieced together a flawlessly paced work that, unlike a TV broadcast of a normal game, contains no dead time, thanks to fly-on-the-wall exchanges on the bench — as passionately fast-flying as passes on the court — and even a half-time devoted to the complex locker-room interplay between Bryant and coach Phil Jackson.
Lee’s relatively wide scope of action is largely due to what Bryant calls his “roaming” game; the athlete’s penchant for going wherever he’s needed let’s Lee’s camera intersect many plays that Bryant isn’t primarily involved in.
But Lee also employs special effects to distinguish between Bryant the choreographer and Bryant the dancer: Via snapshot black-and-white freeze-frames and multi-angled replays of isolated action, Lee breaks down those moments when Bryant himself takes centerstage, halting the forward momentum to ratchet up suspense as to whether the ball will drop through the hoop or miss by a mile.