Meet Kobe Bryant's 'Muse:' His High School English Teacher

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Not every athlete would use a poem to announce a career-changing decision. Then again, not every athlete is Kobe Bryant did. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Kobe Bryant died Sunday at the age of 41. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

“Dear Basketball, From the moment I started rolling my dad’s tube socks and shooting imaginary game-winning shots…I fell in love with you.”

Kobe Bryant’s words from the poem with which he announced that this would be his final NBA season.

BL: Jeanne Mastriano, what do you think? B? B-?

JM: I would walk away from grading this kind of a piece. I would definitely put it back in the lap of the writer and just ask about investment, ask about purpose: what were you going after? And I think he did the job.

BL: Now, Mrs. Mastriano, we should explain why your opinion counts. You were Kobe Bryant's 10th grade English teacher and then you had him again in 12th grade, right?

"He would always write about basketball. He'd always talk about being a pro ballplayer."

Lower Merion English teacher Jeanne Mastriano

JM: Oh, you've done some research? Speaking Arts, yes. We did a lot of writing in 10th grade. A lot of free-writes, a lot of writer's notebook free-writes, just getting the words out — the good words and the bad words, too.

BL: Were you surprised when Kobe Bryant referred to you as his "muse" in a pre-game press conference last week?

JM: It was the first time I had ever been indirectly called a demigoddess, right? A Muse, one of the nine sister goddesses of inspiration, right? Yeah, he wasn't even calling me a muse when he was in high school, but we had a good relationship.

He was remarkably disciplined in high school. He was getting pulled out to play with this team or that team, and he'd be gone for days, and he'd come back with the assignments in hand. That was super. I respected him a lot for that.

BL: There has been some debate, of course, about whether Kobe Bryant really wrote “Dear Basketball.” I am in the camp that says it’s pure Kobe. What do you think?

JM: I would second that. I don't know either. It took me completely by surprise. There's too strong a sense of through line, you know?

BL: Through line?

JM: Through line. Just a sense of, "I have a purpose. Get out of my way. I'm taking this down court and I'm getting it done." As a high school student, particularly as a sophomore, I'd give them assignments obviously to try this type of poetry, try this type of meter, move from free verse to meter. And he would always write about basketball. He'd always talk about being a pro ballplayer. Knowing what I know, when I knew him — in my defense — how many people can do that? So I guess I was trying to talk him in off that ledge, like, "Come on, how realistic can it be? I know you have this passion, but why don't you develop some sort of backup interest just in case?"Silly me.

BL: Well, I think it's fantastic that you and Kobe Bryant have maintained some sort of relationship as his basketball career has played out. I'm curious about whether you have a favorite Kobe story?

JM: When he made a very generous donation to the school, and we were dedicating the new gymnasium he came in — this could be lengthy, Bill. I don't know if this is...

BL: Not a problem, really.

JM: OK. So he's coming in, and the previous year was the last year that the Lakers were in the NBA Finals. My husband and I were watching, and it was, I don't know, Game 3, Game 4. I think it was the Celtics. I'm not sure, but it was an amazingly intense game. They all — all the people on that court — played full out. And the Lakers lost by like, I don't know, two points. It was back and forth and back and forth and back and forth.

I turned to my husband and said, "You know what's a shame? It's so beautiful. This was such a beautiful battle, and it's all about the struggle and it doesn't matter." And I just ranted about how beautiful it was and what a shame it was that one half of the men on that court were going to go home absolutely devastated. I was like, "I don't know how the Lakers get it together to go in for the next game. They just left everything there." And my husband just listened to me, and he just said, "Well, you should tell him that." And I said, "Oh, Kobe has plenty of people around him to tell him that." And he said, "Well, he doesn't have you." And I was like, "No, I'm not going to bother him."

So we go to bed. So, 3 a.m., I come down the stairs, punch in his phone number, which always goes to a voicemail; I never get any sort of response, but, just every once in a while, I'll call about some silly thing or other. And I punch this number in, and I get this machine, and I just went off about the struggle and the beauty of it and how beautiful it all was and how wonderful it all was, and I just went on and on and on. And then at the end I went, "By the way, this is Mrs. Mastriano," and hung up. And I didn't hear a thing.

And then they went on, the Lakers went on, and they went on to beat the team that they were playing, I think it was the Celtics. And he was coming in, and there's always a lot of press when he's arriving in town. And I got an email at school saying, "How does Downer," — Downer was Kobe's coach — 'How does Downer feel about you talking to him, giving him advice during the Finals?" And I wrote back, "What? I didn't talk to him?" He sent me a link to an ESPN article about this, and there it was in print: "Yeah, I talked a lot with her through the Finals." I was like, "What?"

So January comes, right, and he asks me to speak at the dedication for the gym. So we were gathering in this little anteroom. And we were just sitting quietly in the room, and I just brought this article up, and he said, "Yeah, well, you remember, remember when you called me during the Finals?" And I said, "Yes, but the article says we 'talked.' Conversation implies that one person speaks and the other person responds." And he laughs and he says, 'Well, I'll tell you: I saved that message and I played it over and over and over again as I was getting ready for the rest of the games.'

BL: Wow. That is stunning.

JM: It's a long story. I'm sorry.

BL: Never apologize to a radio host about having to tell a long story.

JM: Did you get a good cup of coffee?

BL: No, I was riveted. I was absolutely riveted. Have any of the rest of your students gotten back to you and said, "Hey, can you kinda push my poem? Is that something you could do for me? I'd like to get published."

JM: I hear back from a lot of students who are doing remarkably different things. It is all them. It is that person's journey. What is that, a poetry no-no to use the word "journey"? Along with "heart" and "love" or whatever they are? Personally, I thought those words are very powerful. When they come from somebody who's speaking authentically, they are very powerful. And the students who come through this room have their own journey to carve, and they don't need any steam from me. They have enough of it in themselves. It's neat to watch.

This segment aired on December 12, 2015.



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