Poetry x Pop Culture #1: Dear Basketball; Kobe Bryant says goodbye to the game.

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Kobe Bryant announced his retirement from basketball today–which you probably already know. This announcement doesn’t come as a surprise but the way he announced it does.

Through poetry. Yes, poetry. Some have called it a farewell letter, comparing it to Michael Jordan’s farewell letter. And while Kobe likely wrote this with that fact in mind, his “letter” takes the form of a poem. Which is clear because it is written in stanzas and uses rhyme and rhythm.

I’ve discussed the importance of poetry before, but one thing I haven’t gotten to yet–but will be exploring in this new blog series–is the automatic relevance poetry has in our world. By relevance, I don’t mean that poetry is still being written or that old poems have themes that transcend time (though both are true). No, what I mean to say is poetry creeps into our lives often and always. Whether you openly embrace poetry or keep it at arms length, it is here and it is here to stay.

The following is the first poem I will be analyzing in this Poetry x Pop Culture series, written by Kobe 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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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

KB_Black_Signature

I never saw the end of the tunnel.
I only saw myself
Running out of one.

These are my favorite lines in the poem so I feel obligated to discuss them. Beautiful and straightforward in its beauty. These lines give us a great literal image of Kobe running through the tunnel onto the court, an exciting moment for any basketball player, and a great figurative understanding because it plays off the old expression “a light at the end of the tunnel.” A brilliant literary choice to make in a poem about basketball. Kobe never saw an end to the game, just himself going to play it.

Now that I’ve indulged my favorite lines, let’s go to the formal elements of this poem. There is no consistent rhyme scheme though rhyme is definitely employed: “shots” and “socks” create end rhymes, but internal rhyme are more common in the poem (such as “mind…grind”). Why does this matter? Because rhyming takes time and intention. This is not to suggest that non-rhyming poems are easy to write but they’re free from that addition confinement.

The fact that Kobe chose to rhyme tells us he spent time writing this, because he cared about the poem, because it’s a poem TO basketball. Kobe’s love and dedication for the game are reflected in the time and dedication it took to make this poem.

Additionally, rhyming is a bit contrived/old school. People outside of the poetry community expect a poem to rhyme and expect it to have stanzas. It makes sense then that Kobe chose to use rhyme: a technique that pays homage to poetry’s roots used to pay homage to Kobe’s history with basketball.

And lastly, rhyme and romantic poetry have walked hand in hand for centuries from shakespeare’s sonnets for his mistress to hallmark’s cards for your date. Once again, showing how Kobe’s choice to rhyme matches the content of them poem: a love letter to basketball.

This brings us to the literary device Kobe employs throughout the poem: apostrophe (when a poet addresses an abstract idea, an inanimate object, or an absent person). His personification of basketball is a consequence of this apostrophe. What I find interesting is how genuine and wholesome this love letter is. Biographical information tells us Kobe is heterosexual, meaning basketball is probably a woman in this poem–yet there’s nothing sexual about it. Rather, Kobe focusses on himself and his feelings for the sport throughout his life–not the sport itself. This is worth noting simply because it strays from the convention of sexualizing things when they’re personified as women (A poetic tradition of sexualizing women unnecessarily? One could say art imitates life, but I digress…).

It’s unsurprising that Kobe shines the spotlight on himself. This is his retirement announcement and Kobe is known as an egocentric workaholic. People often think of Kobe as selfish and obsessive but in this poem he mentions all of it wasn’t for him at all but rather, the sport and the kid he once was and still remains.

For someone who loved the game this much, it’s surreal that he is saying goodbye to it. Kobe acknowledges the surreal nature of his retirement through the motif of dreams that is threaded through this poem. He opens the poem by talking about his childhood and “shooting imaginary / Game-winning shots” with his father’s tube socks. He ends that first stanza with “I knew one thing was real” and makes the next stanza a single line “I fell in love with you.”

We are immediately set up with “the imaginary” and “the reality.” And while the two are opposites they are connected by one thing: dreams. In this case not the nocturnal ones, but the our hopes and our goals. For Kobe that dream came to fruition: “You gave a six-year-old boy his Laker dream.”

However, thinking back to the alternate definition of dreams–the ones we have when we sleep–provides great insight into human mortality and one of the core themes in this poem. Because here’s the thing about dreams… they’re temporary.

It is rare that we die doing what we love. Even if we find that dream career–like Kobe did–most of us will retire (by choice or by necessity) before we pass away. Such is the case for Kobe, and such will (likely) be our case.

“And I’ll always love you for it. / But I can’t love you obsessively for much longer.” Kobe is saying goodbye to his basketball obsession but not his love for the sport. Because here’s the other thing about dreams (literal or metaphorical), they can end but live on in our hearts, in our minds, in our memories… And that’s exactly what Kobe is suggesting with his final stanza:

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

Time stands still in his heart. He is still “that kid.” The clock has winded down on his career “5…4…3…2…1” but his love is never over. This is why there is no period at the end. In a poem full of sentences (approximately 17 out of approx. 52 lines), Kobe chooses not to make this last line one of them. For us, the readers, and for Kobe, the shot is still in the air or hanging above the rim. And there we remain, together, frozen in time.

Kobe’s legacy in the NBA,

his love for basketball,

and this final line of poetry

will never be over.

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