A mentor at every stage: What Kobe Bryant learned from composer John Williams

Written by Rina Raphael, Fast Company

In 1998, a teenage Kobe Bryant was lifting weights in Gold’s Gym in Venice, Calif. when his phone rang. He answered his brick-sized Nextel phone to hear a shocking statement on the other line: “This is Michael Jackson.”

“Get the f** out of here,” Bryant recalled answering. “What the hell do you want from me?”

The pop music icon was calling to tell Kobe that he was a fan, but also to impart some advice, most notably “stay the course … don’t fall victim to peer pressure.” Jackson advised the young Bryant to study the basketball greats and remain focused amid the partying of his teammates. “There is strength in isolation,” stressed Jackson, “there’s strength in being obsessive about something.”

To which Bryant simply responded, “Great, how did you do it?”

And so began a two-year-long mentorship which included, among other things, many screenings of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly films, and listening to Beatles music. “Everything he saw–everything in the world–was a library to him,” said Bryant at Summit LA17, an ideas festival, this past Saturday. “Everything was an opportunity to get better.” Jackson was reportedly inspired by everything from the way a tree moved in the wind to how a child interacted with his mother. “That is the biggest lesson I took away.”

But the mentorship, more than anything, gave Bryant the confidence to harness the “obsessiveness” he realized he already had since childhood. And, as Jackson had advised, to stay the course.

Since then, Bryant has played in seven NBA Finals and helped the L.A. Lakers win five championships. Bryant retired from the sport in 2016, and he did so with the help of his latest mentor: John Williams, the acclaimed music composer of films such as Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park.

For his formal announcement, Bryant released a bittersweet short film titled “Dear Basketball,” in which the athlete honors his love of basketball while acknowledging his body can no longer meet its needs. The video was scored by Williams and illustrated by legendary Disney animator Glen Keane (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast).

(Bryant admits that lining up such collaborators helped ease the pain of retiring. “I was looking forward to tomorrow,” he laughed.)

Bryant had long admired the musical genius behind his favorite films, including the original Star Wars trilogy and Superman. In more recent years, an appreciation for John Williams became a family affair: the father of three relies on “Hedwig’s Theme” from the Harry Potter movies to put his daughters to sleep.

He originally reached out to Williams in 2008 after his team lost to the Celtics in the NBA Finals. He said he was looking for direction: “I felt like there was something I could learn from the way he composes his pieces and the way he directs an orchestra.”

Bryant likens an orchestra’s gathering of percussion, horns, and other such instruments much to how a sports team works: “They all behave independently of each other, but all rely on each other to create this timeless piece of music.”

So what has Kobe learned from observing and shadowing his new mentor over the last few years? “The ability to ask questions,” explains Bryant, emphasizing, “not questions in which he already knows the answers but honest questions to get the person thinking about how to make a piece better.”

Instead of strictly directing, says Bryant, Williams constantly asks questions and challenges colleagues to think deeper about their performance. It inspired Bryant to better engage and work with his teammates to be “the best versions of themselves.”

“If you want to help your teammates be better, it’s more than simply creating open shots for them–giving them the ball–you have to inspire them to be the best best version of themselves and to think logically about what those steps are,” said Bryant.

But there’s something else Bryant appreciates about the man who gave us the Jaws theme song–an obsessiveness, if you will, that puts him in the same echelon as the King of Pop. “John’s music achieved a level of perfection that I wanted to replicate,” Bryant said at American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award Gala for the composer. “If I could understand how John did it, maybe I could do it too.”

(There are other perks of a John Williams mentorship, including access to the creative artists within the composer’s sphere. At a recent party for Williams, for example, Bryant approached the actress behind one of his favorite fictional characters, Mary Poppins. He wanted to know how Julie Andrews mastered Poppins’ lovable quirks and mannerisms. She reportedly practiced in the mirror for hours, reports Bryant, who finds such info “exciting.”)

Immediately upon retirement, Bryant took his penchant for obsessiveness to a completely new field–that of children’s entertainment. He launched a show called Canvas City, which features a puppet named Little Mamba and tackles issues such as how to harness difficult emotions.

As Bryant sees it, storytelling isn’t all that different from sports. It’s all about narrative, arcs, and mythology. He specifically likens it to championships, which he views as putting together a puzzle. The public, meanwhile, was initially confused by Bryant’s sharp turn. Canvas City was called a “drug-fueled Muppet nightmare” or “if Sesame Street had an NBA film room.” Some fans couldn’t get over the NBA legend posing with a fuzzy purple character of questionable species.

In fact, Bryant said he’s often approached on the street about his new kid-friendly venture, with one of two responses: either “awesome videos, my kid loves it” or “dude, Kobe, you’re on acid.”

But as his previous mentor once exclaimed, he just needs to stay focused. “Storytelling is something I always enjoyed,” explained Bryant, whose favorite storytellers include Joseph Conrad and Martin Scorsese. He claims he’s committed to children’s storytelling, and giving kids the tools to best express their own individual stories. In many ways, Bryant has merged his two famous mentors’ best practices together for what can one day be a symphony of children’s voices.

“We’re all storytellers by nature,” said Bryant. “If you’re going to exist in this world, you have to on some level understand story … because we all walk around with our own journeys.”

This piece was originally posted on Fast Company, click here to read the article in its entirety.