This interview originally aired on Dec. 12, 2015. This week it appears again in honor of Kobe Bryant, who was killed in a helicopter accident on Jan. 26, 2020.
For more on Kobe Bryant and his complicated legacy, check out Karen Given's conversation with sports writers Lindsay Gibbs and Michael Lee.
You might remember that back in 2018, Kobe was nominated for an Academy Award.
"Dear Basketball" was an animated short. Kobe narrated the film. And the words came from the poem he wrote to announce his retirement in 2015.
It started like this:
From the moment
I started rolling my dad’s tube socks
And shooting imaginary
In the Great Western Forum
I knew one thing was real:
I fell in love with you.
In December 2015, Bill Littlefield called Lower Merion High School, outside of Philadelphia, to talk to an expert about that poem.
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?
JM: Oh, you've done some research? Speaking Arts, yes.
"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."Jeanne Mastriano
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 didn't call 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." You know?
BL: Well, I think it's fantastic that you and Kobe Bryant have maintained this relationship as his basketball career has played out. And I'm curious about whether you have a favorite Kobe story.
JM: This could be lengthy, Bill. I don't know if this is...
BL: Not a problem, really.
JM: OK, OK. 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. The Lakers lost by, like — I don't know — two points. It was back and forth and back and forth. And I turned to my husband, and I just said, "You know what's a shame? It's so beautiful. This was such a beautiful battle. And it's all about the struggle. 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 gonna go home absolutely devastated.
Then I said, "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." I said, "Well, 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 gonna bother him." So we go to bed.
"And [Kobe] 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.' "Jeanne Mastriano
So, 3 a.m., I come down the stairs, punch in this phone number, which always go to a voicemail — I never get any sort of response — but just punched this number, and I get this machine. And I just went off about the struggle and the beauty of it, and how wonderful it all was, and I just went on and on and on. And at the end of it, I went, "By the way, this is Mrs. Mastriano." 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 we were dedicating the new gymnasium, 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, and there it was in print: "Yeah, I talked a lot with her through the Finals." I was like, "What?"
We were gathering in this little anteroom. And we were 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."
In an interview published in USA Today just last week, Kobe credited Mrs. Mastriano for his interest in the written word, saying, "She firmly believed that storytelling could change the world. And she opened my eyes to this passion I didn’t know existed."
Mrs. Mastriano told The New York Times this week, "He’s left such a void behind. ... It’s going to be tough."
This segment aired on February 1, 2020.