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Searching Through Kobe Bryant’s High School Years for Answers to His Controversial Legacy

In his new book ‘The Rise,’ Philadelphia sports columnist Mike Sielski recounts the early years of the complicated basketball phenom. He talks to MEL about trying to craft Kobe’s origin story and how he balances the athlete’s sexual-assault allegation with his brilliance on the court

Many sports fans, especially those who root for the L.A. Lakers, can tell you where they were on January 26, 2020, when they heard that Kobe Bryant and eight others, including his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, had died in a helicopter crash. Only 41 years old, just four years removed from his brilliant career with the Lakers, Bryant had been a towering figure in life. But the tragedy of his death made it difficult to assess his legacy, especially in the age of #MeToo, when reflecting back on the darkest chapter of his story. I’m referring, of course, to the very credible sexual-assault allegations brought against him in the summer of 2003. A 19-year-old employee at Colorado’s Lodge & Spa at Cordillera told police back then that Bryant choked and raped her, the superstar reportedly saying to her, “You’re not gonna tell anybody right.”

Bryant admitted to having sex with the woman but insisted the encounter was consensual. A year later, Colorado prosecutors dropped the case, in large part because his accuser wouldn’t testify, but even so the accusations severely tarnished Bryant’s image, which he sought to rebuild in subsequent years. And for the most part, he succeeded, retiring from the NBA as one of the game’s all-time greats. He then went on to rebrand himself as an entrepreneur and storyteller, even winning an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film in 2018 for Dear Basketball, his sentimental farewell to the sport he had pursued relentlessly since boyhood. 

His was a complicated story: a magnetic figure on the court, an assassin with breathtaking skills, but also alienating and aloof, competitive and arrogant, blessed with a disarming smile and charisma. So how do you tell it? 

For Mike Sielski, a sports columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer, it started with his longtime friend Jeremy Treatman. A former journalist who was one of Bryant’s basketball coaches at Lower Merion High School, Treatman mentioned to Sielski that he had a collection of old audiotape interviews he’d conducted with Bryant during his time at Lower Merion, right before he skipped college and went straight to the NBA, a rare feat at the time. Would Sielski be interested in turning them into a book?

Using those tapes, as well as interviews Bryant gave Treatman during his early days in the pros, Sielski sought to put together an origin story of sorts about the young Kobe Bryant, the kid whose father was Joe Bryant, a promising player in his day whose NBA career had flamed out before he found success in Italy. Kobe and his siblings lived abroad for years before moving back to Philly and enrolling in Lower Merion, which he led to a championship in his senior year. (Along the way, the school had to vanquish its hated rivals, the Chester Clippers, from a rougher, much less economically vibrant part of town than Lower Merion.) Sielski didn’t want to “explain” Kobe Bryant or provide the ah-ha moment that would illuminate, for instance, what might have allegedly led him to such violent acts in that Colorado spa. “I didn’t want to write a book that was like, ‘Here’s my take on Kobe,’” he tells me over Zoom. “I wanted it to be, ‘Here’s Kobe as best as I can do it.’”

Those looking to The Rise: Kobe Bryant and the Pursuit of Immortality for some grand theory will be disappointed. But Sielski’s immersive book is incredibly valuable for everything it doesn’t do. On screen, we’ve become accustomed to underwhelming origin stories that reverse-engineer an iconic character’s past, awkwardly insisting that every scene and every moment we see helped make them the famous figure we’ve known forever. The Rise is a far subtler affair, dramatizing Bryant’s childhood through dozens and dozens of interviews, firsthand accounts and Bryant’s own words. We hear from high school teammates, opposing players, coaches, teachers and friends. But The Rise isn’t trying to summarize, instead accepting that someone as driven and mercurial as Kobe Bryant probably can’t be fully encapsulated in a narrative. We only understand so much about the people around us.

Beyond being a gripping tale of a mercilessly focused, prodigiously talented young man who wouldn’t let anything get in his way of being in the NBA, The Rise does offer enough gentle hints about the boy who became the Black Mamba — how the shy kid with the skinny frame morphed into one of the league’s most electrifying and divisive superstars. Not that Sielski forces connections or heavily foreshadows the darkness that awaits his subject — whether it’s the rape accusations or the fatal helicopter crash. By being so restrained, The Rise manages to be insightful while leaving room for nuance and mystery. My assumption is that however you felt about Kobe Bryant — if you loved him or loathed him — it will only be amplified by reading The Rise. The Kobe in these pages is both endearing and obnoxious, inspiring and a cautionary tale. He’s otherworldly, and yet, very much like so many other teenagers. 

I talked to Sielski on Wednesday, the day after his book’s publication, and we dug into Bryant’s sexual-assualt accusations, his penchant for being calculating and why his death contradicts the cozy sports narratives we’ve grown up cherishing. Sielski hasn’t talked about The Rise much yet, but he knows that some will come to it despising his subject and wondering why anyone would write a book about an accused rapist. This doesn’t bother Sielski, who has his own very complicated feelings about Kobe. “Some of the things you raised were things that were on my mind throughout the entire process of researching and reporting the book,” he admits. 

The Rise is often described as an origin story. Lately, those have been popular in movies and on television: The idea is that, if we go back to this famous character’s earliest days, we can get a sense of what made them who they are. Was that your intention? 

It really was, and I understand how fraught that sounds, because the implication is that Kobe is some kind of superhero. I didn’t want to turn him into a superhero. I wanted to show the full breadth of the guy through those early years. 

The hurdle that I had to get over intellectually was that the story that I tell in the book is relatively familiar to people in the Philadelphia area. And Philadelphia, as I’m sure you know, it’s very parochial — it’s kind of like its own Under the Dome entity. So when I got the idea [for the book], one of my hesitations was, “Boy, I feel like everybody knows this already.” But the more I thought about it, the more I thought, “Well, people in L.A. probably know it, but in between there [and Philadelphia], they may not.” The broader expanse of people who were interested in Kobe probably didn’t know this. 

It was the story about him that I could tell best, having grown up and lived in the Philadelphia area most of my life, knowing Gregg Downer, knowing Jeremy Treatman, knowing that they could point me in the right direction reporting-wise. So that was my goal: If you read this, and if I tell the story the right way, somebody who is familiar with Kobe as an adult will be able to see how he became the adult that he became.

Going into the book, did you have a “take” on Kobe?

I was more centered from a narrative standpoint on two things: The thread of him taking Lower Merion to the state championship game and winning was important to me, and then his development as a human being came second. The book begins with the helicopter crash, but it ends with a plane landing [after the Lakers lose in the playoffs at the end of Bryant’s first season], and that was on purpose. 

My take on Kobe was that he was such a complex figure and such an extreme figure in everything that he did. I didn’t want to create a caricature of him. I didn’t want to [do] The Mamba Mentality. I wanted it to be an outgrowth of telling an accurate and detailed story of that period of his life. But any kind of take I had on him, it was almost kaleidoscopic. Any time you looked at Kobe from a particular angle, if you change the angle a little bit, you saw him in a new way. At some point in his life, he was trying on personalities and identities like he was trying on clothes, and I wanted to reflect that. And rather than just come down and say, “This is what he was doing, and it was good or bad” or “Here’s how I feel about it,” I just wanted to let it stand on its own within the flow of the narrative.

I have to imagine when you’re writing this book that you thought, “Some people are going to be like, ‘He was a rapist. Why do we need an origin story about this prick?’” I like that The Rise doesn’t artificially try to foreshadow what’s to come in Bryant’s life but, still, you must have thought about how to address the sexual-assault allegations in the book.

I absolutely did. And I was very fortunate — and very relieved, honestly — when I got the one anecdote from his high school guidance counselor about the sexual harassment seminar. [In the book, Bryant tries to skip the seminar, saying, “I don’t need this.” The counselor tells him, “Kobe, you need this.” Bryant sits back down.] 

That sounds terrible to say — I know how that sounds — but [that anecdote] made it easier to be dispassionate and sort of [say], “Okay, I’m going to tell you the story of him in totality. I can address what happened in Colorado in a way that is appropriate and brings the appropriate gravity to it and the seriousness of it.” I never wanted to sidestep it, but I [knew] that it was going to be tricky if I didn’t get anything that allowed me to show him in full. 

One of the things you have to remember is that the people who knew him in Lower Merion love him. He is still a point of pride. I would bring that [sexual assault] incident up, and I would get varied responses. Some of them don’t want to get into that. Some of them would maybe make excuses. Some of them would deal with it honestly and [be] upfront. That made it tricky to get to the complexity of him.

I didn’t want somebody to read [the book] and go, “Oh, it’s just an homage to a guy who’s a jerk and a terrible person.” He was such a seminal figure for all the reasons we’re talking about in our culture, [but] the idea of just ignoring [the rape accusations] — or honing in on that explicitly as the only thing that defined him — was not a route I wanted to take. I didn’t want to say it doesn’t matter, and I didn’t want to say it’s everything, because that’s not interesting and it’s not accurate.

Have you gotten any feedback yet from people reading The Rise looking for clues into what made him do what he allegedly did in Colorado? 

Not yet, no. Eventually, I’m sure I will. And there isn’t a whole lot I can do about that other than to say I tried to present him, as fully and accurately as I could, during that period of his [young] life. I also don’t delve into his marriage with Vanessa at all because he hadn’t met her during the time period that I covered in the book. I don’t get into the feuding with Shaquille O’Neal. I’m not saying that to suggest that a rape accusation is the equivalent of those [other] storylines — I’m just saying that those are aspects of his life that people are interested in that I’m not getting into, either.

I wanted to be able to deal with that part of his life in an honest way — and, as much as I could, allow readers to make the judgments for themselves. Everybody’s going to bring their own opinions and insights and feelings into that. For some people, they view him [through the rape accusations], and that’s fine. Some people look at him as just “the guy who won five championships with my favorite team,” and they can view him that way, too. But I’m going to try to present him in his complexity and let the chips fall where they may when it comes to judging him.

What struck me in the book was that people who grew up with Bryant insist that the NBA-era Bryant wasn’t their Kobe — they say they knew a different Kobe. You did all these interviews, and you wrote the book: Is it the same Kobe, or is it not the same Kobe?

I think they’re similar Kobes. I think there have been multiple Kobes. There was Kobe in high school. There was Kobe through most of his career in the NBA. There was Kobe when he seemed to soften a little bit and become, like, this mentor figure his last couple years in the league and then in retirement. So is he totally the same guy that he was at Lower Merion? No, none of us is the same person who we were in high school. But there’s enough of the Kobe who played 20 years with the Lakers and coined “the Mamba Mentality” that you can see how he gets to that point. 

To me, one of the more interesting themes of the book was that the people who knew him then still kind of look at him that way. They don’t necessarily see “five-time champion, 18-time All-Star, Hall-of-Famer, greatest player on the planet for a while.” They see the kid who was nervous every time the team bus went over a body of water and he’s white-knuckling the seat. They see the kid who was a little nervous giving an oral presentation in English class. That was something universal — I mean, I look at my old high school friends that way, too. I wanted to kind of capture that. 

This isn’t a central theme of The Rise, but masculinity is definitely woven in there. You’re writing about Bryant during his coming-of-age years. How do you see his masculinity playing into the narrative?

It was something that Kobe had to go through. He comes back [to the U.S.] in the fall of 1991 from Italy. He doesn’t have the same upbringing that most of the Black kids in the Lower Merion school district have; he doesn’t have the same upbringing that most of the white kids do. So where does he fit in? Basketball is his way in. He’s the new kid, he doesn’t know what’s cool in terms of fashion, music, all those things — and basketball is his way in. 

He was inclined to be that kind of “I’m going to kill you on the court” mode anyway. But I think he did ratchet it up in high school, in part because of where he was living and the perceptions and stereotypes that come with, “Oh, you’re a suburban Black kid.” What does that mean? Well, in Kobe’s mind, it means you got to go to the courts in Philly and go play there and prove yourself there. It means that you got to beat Chester High School, which is the dominant team in the state and, socioeconomically and racially, is much different from Lower Merion. 

Those things matter in adolescence — they just do, whether we like it or not. I do think Kobe saw it all as a rite of passage — like, the state championship in 1996 that Lower Merion won would’ve been lesser if that team didn’t have to beat Chester twice [to do it]. And that goes beyond just basketball — it goes to something deeper that you’re getting at.

Bryant worshiped Michael Jordan, who I think we’ve all officially decided is probably personally an asshole — but he was an incredible athlete, so we tolerate it. Bryant absolutely had that same quality. Was Kobe an asshole, or did he develop that as part of his drive to be a great athlete?

I think there was part of him that was that way. I mean, you see that in Italy — he comes to practice with his dad, and the head coach of the Italian team asks Kobe to stop dribbling and shooting, and Kobe curses him [out]. I think that was just inherently in him. I think it was a byproduct of the fact that while Joe and Pam Bryant were very rigorous in the way they parented their kids away from sports, when it came to basketball, they indulged him. 

And I think Kobe knew how great he was — he saw himself on this path that he didn’t see anybody else on. And so, in his mind, that allowed him to get away with certain things. He [parked] in the faculty parking lot at Lower Merion High School because he was getting there at 6 a.m. “I’m going to be better at my job playing in the NBA — a year from now, two years from now — than the principal will be at his job, or any of these teachers are at their jobs, or any of my classmates will be at their jobs when they’re working. So, therefore, I’m going to park here.” 

Did he necessarily have to be a jerk at all times? No. Was he necessarily a jerk at all times? No. But he was a jerk often enough. I mean, you read and hear about some of the things he did at practice to his teammates — you know, crashing into a wall and his buddy Dan [Pangrazio] ends up with stitches in his arm or chucking a basketball at Robby Schwartz’s head because Robby dared [beat him in] a drill and taunt him a little bit. There’s stuff there, and it lasted throughout his career. I think only later in his life did he maybe kind of mute that and soften it a little bit.

I have to wonder: Was that later shift a genuine maturation? Or was it a cynical calculation on his part?

I can’t rule out that there wasn’t any cynicism involved or any calculation — that’s just how Kobe was. One of his friends told me he was always thinking a step ahead from everybody else. The idea even in high school that he would only tell so many people that he was going to jump to the NBA, he kind of relished lying about it. The media would ask him about it, and he’d say, “I don’t know, maybe I’ll go to La Salle, maybe I’ll go to Duke, I don’t know.” And all the while, he knows what’s going on behind the scenes to connect him to Adidas and Sonny Vaccaro and make the jump [to the pros]. So, obviously, you can’t rule it out completely. 

But by the same token, he was 39, 40, 41 years old, so it’s certainly possible that some of what we saw — if not most of what we saw later in his life — was “I’ve screwed up in big ways. I’ve got four daughters now. I don’t have basketball.” Your perspective on these things change — I mean, I’m 46 and that’s happened to me. The way I look at certain things and approach things that I was really interested in before I got married and had kids, I don’t look at the same way now. So I think with Kobe, it’s always a combination of things — it’s never just the one thing. Is there some calculation? Yeah, there probably is. Is there some honest-to-goodness maturation? Yeah, there probably was a lot of that, too.

In the entertainment industry, there’s been such a reckoning about how to discuss artists like Woody Allen or Roman Polanski: Do we show their movies or not? In the sports world, how should we talk about Kobe? Should we celebrate him?

This is something I deal with a lot in writing sports columns. When The Last Dance came out, I wrote one column about The Last Dance, and it was about how Michael Jordan treated Jerry Krause throughout that series. I thought that was incredibly, incredibly graceless and showed a side of Michael Jordan that people didn’t want to acknowledge. We can acknowledge how great an athlete he was — and, to your point, yeah, maybe he needed to be a jerk to manifest that greatness — but the fight’s over, Michael. And not only that, Jerry Krause has been dead for three years — now you’re kicking him when he can’t fight back. So my perspective on all this is you deal with these figures in their totality. 

I have never been someone to celebrate an athlete that I covered. I covered Allen Iverson, I covered Donovan McNabb, I covered the 2017 Eagles, which is probably the most beloved team in the history of Philadelphia sports. When you’ve been on this job a while and you’re looking for stories and you’re writing on deadline and you’ve got to have something to say, the idea of godding up these athletes and these stars gets old quickly. 

If somebody else wants to frame Kobe Bryant as beyond reproach, that’s on them — I’m not going to do that. Did he accomplish incredible things on the basketball court? Absolutely. Did he do some things that nobody should be praised for doing? Absolutely. And that’s part of the tapestry of his entire life. The world is gray, and I wanted to present Kobe — and I try to write about [all] these figures as a general rule [in this way] — keeping that gray there at all times.

You and I are both white, but in the book, you talk at length about how Bryant’s Blackness affected him — namely, how he wasn’t perceived as being “Black enough” by some because he went to a nice school and lived pretty comfortably. I got the impression that Bryant felt he had to prove something to other Black players by being tough. 

There absolutely was something there. How much of it and what proportion compared to other things? I don’t know, but it was there. And it was something that people who knew him away from basketball spoke to me in-depth about — they really wanted to share that aspect of how they knew Kobe. He was involved, for instance, in the Student Voice, the Black student union at Lower Merion High School. And it was clear during that time in his life that he’s kind of on this quest to figure out “Who am I, exactly? I know it in some respects, and I don’t know it in other respects.” 

The people who knew him through that — who knew him away from basketball, who knew him as a Black student at Lower Merion High School — really talked to me, with emotion and intelligence, about how that affected Kobe, how that motivated him, how they tried to kind of protect him in some ways from what they had gone through as Black students in that sort of milieu. Not that it was as bad as some other places, but it wasn’t all peaches and cream, either. 

So, yeah, I think that did matter to him quite a bit, and that was important to get into the book. As you said, it’s something I couldn’t begin to understand, but I [knew] that it was something that was going to be a part of the story. And once I started to talk to those people who knew him in that regard, it really opened my eyes to that aspect. 

The Rise mentions that the family wouldn’t agree to be interviewed. Bryant’s relationship with his dad Joe was so pivotal in his life. If you could have talked to Joe, what would you have asked him?

Two things: I would’ve wanted to ask him, “Tell me what happened in 2001 and 2002.” Bill Plaschke from the L.A. Times did a memorable column [in 2003] where he talked to Joe and talked to Kobe about why the family had fractured. But I would’ve liked to have asked Joe that myself: “What happened, and what has the effect been on you and Pam and the family?”

And then I would’ve wanted to ask him, “Talk to me about the differences between you and Kobe. Why were you a free spirit, ne’er-do-well — it didn’t quite work [out] for you in the NBA the way you would’ve wanted to — and why was Kobe the opposite in some ways? Why was Kobe so driven and so determined to the point that he would shut people out for a while and forgo a social life, often when he was in high school? Where did that come from? Is that just from Pam? Is that her side of Kobe’s personality? What is it?” 

Those are the two things I really would’ve wanted to dive into. Because as a father of two myself, that’s something I think about with my sons. There are times where, if my sons are misbehaving or getting upset, I will overreact to them, and I know it’s because I see in their reactions the way that I would’ve reacted when I was their age. And it’s like, “Oh, I remember how miserable I was when I was 10 and I was acting this way and reacting like this — don’t do that, don’t be like me!” And so I overreact. I would’ve wanted to ask Joe about that: “In some ways, you guys were similar, but in some ways you guys were so different. How do you think he came to be that way? And how did you react to it and deal with it when he acted that way?”

But it also seems like we know the answer: As much as Kobe loved his dad, he saw him as a cautionary tale because he was undisciplined. 

I think there’s a lot of that. I think he loved his dad so much — and he and his friends spoke about this, [how] he was going to salvage his dad’s good name in basketball. He heard Joe talk about “I didn’t get the fair shot. I should have been a star. I had to go to Italy to be the best version of myself as a player.” Kobe was going to restore his dad’s good name. So yeah, I think there’s a lot of that. And I think if Kobe didn’t think that explicitly — or say it explicitly when he was young — I’ll bet he would’ve said it when he was 25 or 35.

One of the things that’s so complicated about Bryant’s narrative is that his death robbed us of the typical redemption arc we seek in athletes. And so we don’t know how to feel about him because we didn’t get our expected ending.

Toward the end of the book, I contrast him with Michael Jordan. Jordan never really — in the public eye, anyway — had to redeem himself. Six championships in six chances, he was Nike, he was squeaky clean. The biggest controversy, so to speak, around [his] playing career was, “Okay, was he gambling?” — which is something that a lot of people do and can easily be written off in some ways. And then the “Republicans buy sneakers too” [comment] — “he’s too corporate” sort of thing, “he’s kind of soulless.” But on the grand scale of transgressions that athletes can commit, that’s pretty low. 

Kobe was different. And I think what made Kobe’s story fascinating — and why his death hit people so hard in some respects — is that he was traveling that natural redemptive narrative arc. He was on his way to rehabilitating himself. Whether he was actually doing that or not — whether in many people’s eyes he was ever going to get there [because], as you said, some people were always going to view him as a terrible human being because of what happened in Colorado — he was traveling that arc. And so, when he dies, there’s not only a feeling of “Oh my god, we lost this incredible athlete.” There’s this feeling of “He was doing so many good things now, and it looked like he had recovered from this low point in his life” — that, of course, he’d brought on himself. 

We like those kinds of stories in sports. It’s Kurt Warner winning the Super Bowl after bagging groceries. It’s Nick Foles winning the Super Bowl after he almost retires and he beats Tom Brady. We don’t root for Goliath. Somehow Kobe, in some ways, had become David again, because he had come so close to losing everything. That’s what hit people hard about his death: He had somehow reversed the discussion about him. Now he was this seminal figure, and it was almost like he had put the dark stuff to the side. That comes from nothing other than the way we like to view our athletes and our stars.

The Rise touches on celebrity a little, but you make it seem like, even from the start, Bryant really loved being famous. 

There’s that scene in Myrtle Beach where he’s getting asked for autographs [as a teen], and he’s just kind of like, “Yeah, this is what I expect. If I’m going to be on TV, people are going to want autographs.” That just gets to that plan and the way he saw himself: “I’m going to be the best basketball player in the world. I’m going to be famous. I have to expect this. I’ll take Brandy to the prom. I’ll accept all this fame.” Whatever pushback you get from him is like, “They hate me because they ain’t me,” basically. It’s not really weighing on him that he’s famous — [there’s no] “Woe is me.” It’s more like, “I’m the man, and they don’t recognize that I’m the man.”

The rape accusations against Bryant were before #MeToo. When you talked to people who grew up knowing him about those allegations, did the larger #MeToo movement come up?

It didn’t come up often. The people from Kobe’s life at that time view him as “That’s the Kobe we knew — and then he went off to L.A. We hold onto the Kobe who we knew.” I think one of his teammates says that explicitly: “This dude had his ass kissed from the time he was 15 until the day he died, so of course he’s going to be different from the one that we knew.” 

But he is such a point of pride in that community that I don’t think people want to look at him [in a negative light]. And I get it: You want to remember your friends when they were your best friends and when you had the best times with them. So, it didn’t often come up, but I would ask about it: “How do you guys reconcile yourselves…?” And they would just say, “I support Kobe.”

Now that you’ve written the book, do you feel like you have a better understanding of how Kobe became Kobe? Or is he just unfathomable?

I think your question about calculation-versus-maturation gets to the heart of it. I think there’s always going to be a mystery at the heart of him. He planned so much so young: He says in eighth grade, “I’m going to play in the NBA.” Once the summer of 1995 comes around, there’s this plan of “I’m going to jump [to the pros], and I’m not going to tell anybody, and this will work out.” One step ahead of everybody else. 

Once you find that out about him and learn that about him, it does make you wonder about everything else that comes after. How much of it is sincere? How much of it is genuine? How much of it is “This is what I’m supposed to say”? 

There’s a moment at the end of the book, in the afterword, where I described interviewing him after a game in 2007. It was clear at the time that he [was] still on his rehabilitation tour. And I asked him about it because I had heard from Jeremy Treatman, his confidant: “Oh, people in Philadelphia will love him when he comes back and plays here.” And in that moment, you could see the gears turning in his head when I asked him that question: “Would you come back and finish your career with the Sixers?” He is searching for the right thing to say. [In the book, Sielski quotes Bryant as replying, “It would be nice to play here. In high school, that’s all I thought about.”] Is it true? Is it not true? I don’t know. But it was a good thing to say at that time because people in Philadelphia would’ve read that and gone, “Oh cool, Kobe Bryant playing for the Sixers, that’d be awesome.” Is that what he genuinely felt, or was that what he thought he ought to say in that moment to benefit himself? I don’t know.

The Rise concludes with Bryant at the end of his first season in the NBA, the Lakers getting bounced out of the playoffs, and he’s right back in the gym, shooting hoops, trying to get better. It’s very understated, but to me, it reads like a tragedy. It’s a very, very complicated tragedy, but my interpretation of the ending of the book is this guy is so single-minded — he’s just shooting because that’s all he knows. 

I think your book is a Rorschach test — what you bring to it is what you get out of it. But I read that ending and thought, “This is a man who is so single-minded that he isn’t equipped to deal with the real world.” Am I bringing my own thing into that? 

A little bit, but that’s totally a reasonable take. I think there’s a lot of truth in that. Look at what he was doing that first year in the NBA: He’s calling up [his agent’s] assistant Elissa Grabow and coming over and sitting on her couch in her living room while she’s having dinner parties. He’s just sitting there, he’s not engaging with her friends — he’s sitting there watching TV. “Hey, I don’t have anything to do after this game, can I come over and we’ll watch Mr. Bean on HBO?”

In some ways, he didn’t engage with the real world in a typical way. And in a lot of ways, I think you saw the ramifications of that.