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A Stanza-By-Stanza Poetic Critique Of Kobe Bryant’s ‘Dear Basketball’

Five celebrated, award-winning poets analyze Kobe Bryant's retirement poem 'Dear Basketball'

Nov 30, 2015 at 7:04 PM ET

An all-time baller has now proven himself a bard. To announce his retirement after two illustrious decades of professional basketball, Kobe Bryant published a poem entitled ‘Dear Basketball’ on The Players’ Tribune. And while it’s his retirement announcement that is a monumental moment in sports history, we would be remiss not to give Bryant’s first foray into poetry a proper analysis from celebrated poets.

“I love it. It’s from the heart. I love that he’s turning to his muse to say goodbye to the love of his life,” poet Eileen Myles told Vocativ.

Myles is just one of many poets who are cheering Bryant’s entry into the literary world. “What thrills me is that Kobe Bryant’s poem reenforces the power of poetry—that at the most…introspective, deeply important times in our life, poetry steps in to articulate it,” said Bianca Stone, poet and editor at Monk Books.

Like Homer or Ovid before him, Bryant describes an earthly pursuit as a divine entity. “I love that Kobe chose to address Basketball as if it were the eternal beloved, with the kind of devotion one would give only to a god,” said poet Dorothea Lasky. “I love thinking of basketball and Kobe in a kind of lifelong dance. The way he performed for us in the poem how [he and basketball] first met when he was a little boy, and the way that the poem cycles back to that moment… It reminds me a lot of an Ars Poetica form, which is a kind of poem that poets often write to poetry itself. This is definitely Kobe’s Ars Basketball.”

Some poets also compared “Dear Basketball” to contemporary works. “Like Elizabeth Alexander’s ‘Praise Song For The Day’, it is at once a private and a public poem,” said Cornelius Eady, poet and founder of Cave Canem, a workshop for black poets. “There’s a saying that the longest journey begins with the first step, but Bryant’s ‘Dear Basketball’ suggests that before that step, you have to imagine the road. It’s a wonderful praise song to the sport and an invitation to the fans to join him as that journey reaches a new crossroad.”

Major Jackson, poet and professor at University of Vermont, said that Bryant’s work taps into a relationship between sports and poetry that goes back to the Ancient Olympic Games when poems were written to honor athletic heroes and their sacrifices. “Poetry is one of those art forms that stirs. It’s an appropriate literary vehicle for all kinds of rituals,” Jackson said. “There are poems for weddings. There are poems for funerals. I think Kobe has invented a genre: the retirement poem.”

Jackson was so impressed by this genre-birthing poem that he provided Vocativ with a stanza-by-stanza analysis of the first published poetic work of Kobe Bryant. Jackson’s commentary is published below in italics.

Dear Basketball

By Kobe Bean Bryant

 Dear Basketball,

From the moment
I started rolling my dad’s tube socks
And shooting imaginary
Game-winning shots
In the Great Western Forum
I knew one thing was real:

I fell in love with you.

Major Jackson: He writes this in the form of what we call an epistolary poem—a poem written to an individual or thing. Quite possibly he has written love letters before to some of his beloveds. Clearly, basketball ranks up there. It begins a little awkwardly, “I started rolling my dad’s tube socks.” Is he doing his dad’s laundry? What does that mean? I know his dad was a great basketball player. “Great Western Forum” is both an allusion to where he plays ball and an allusion to the western tradition, or the humanities. One of the things I’ve always admired about Kobe is that he is a very intelligent basketball player both on the court and off the court, and I love how he displays his learning in this poem. 

A love so deep I gave you my all —
From my mind & body
To my spirit & soul.

MJ: Love in a poem is a bit cliche. “Mind and body” that, too, feels a little Hallmark.

As a six-year-old boy
Deeply in love with you
I never saw the end of the tunnel.
I only saw myself
Running out of one.

MJ: Look at the metaphor of the tunnel. I really like that image of him running through. I thought that was a nice wordplay. Tunnels can be a bit of a cliche but this idea of Kobe running from game to game and each game is a kind of tunnel. For me, this is where the poem starts to take off. He then extends that metaphor, which is quite brilliant. 

And so I ran.
I ran up and down every court
After every loose ball for you.
You asked for my hustle
I gave you my heart
Because it came with so much more.

MJ: I used to love the way the poet Common personified hip-hop. That’s an impulse in hip-hop music. And that’s what I see Kobe doing here—personifying basketball. 

I played through the sweat and hurt
Not because challenge called me
But because YOU called me.
I did everything for YOU
Because that’s what you do
When someone makes you feel as
Alive as you’ve made me feel.

You gave a six-year-old boy his Laker dream
And I’ll always love you for it.
But I can’t love you obsessively for much longer.
This season is all I have left to give.
My heart can take the pounding
My mind can handle the grind
But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye.

MJ: I think casting basketball as a beloved is interesting. It’s almost sweet, but it’s a bit excessive with “My heart can take the pounding”. In that sense, it’s almost like a break-up poem. 

And that’s OK.
I’m ready to let you go.
I want you to know now
So we both can savor every moment we have left together.
The good and the bad.
We have given each other
All that we have. 

And we both know, no matter what I do next
I’ll always be that kid
With the rolled up socks
Garbage can in the corner
:05 seconds on the clock
Ball in my hands.
5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1

Love you always,
Kobe

MJ: The ending is really good because it gives us an image. As a result, I feel it a little bit more. His poem game is not as exact as his basketball game, but we can forgive him for that. He might have a career as a poet. I’d clearly love to see some more basketball poems from him in the future. This could be the start of a new career.