During the final training camp of Kobe Bryant’s NBA career, he had an idea for a teen book centered around basketball and magic.
In typical Mamba fashion, he dove headfirst into this idea by learning from the best. Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling gave him advice on world-building and a signed copy of a first-edition Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which Bryant regards as “sacred stuff.” J.J. Abrams, whose works include Star Trek and Star Wars installments, wondered aloud why nobody had thought of the concept before.
And George R.R. Martin, the author of Game of Thrones, told Bryant he was crazy.
“I said, ‘Bro, if you are telling me this is a crazy idea, we’re moving in the right direction,’” Bryant recalled, laughing.
The Wizenard Series: Training Camp, which is available for pre-order and will be released March 19, is the first book of a series involving a struggling inner-city basketball team. Like Game of Thrones, the book is told from the perspective of various people.
Unlike Martin’s mega-series, each player in The Wizenard gets a full section that spans the same 10-day time frame during training camp. After one player’s storyline ends, the next section begins with a different teen back on the first day as the book shows their individual experiences in the same situations.
Bryant created the book in collaboration with author Wesley King, whose books often deal with fantasy and magic. King has written from perspectives of multiple characters in a single book and touched upon psychological topics including anxiety and depression.
“Really, as much as magic plays a part in The Wizenard series … it was actually more about the characters and about sort of the gritty realism and getting in their heads,” King said.
Through basketball and magic, The Wizenard teaches lessons of compassion and confidence as the kids face their fears and learn about themselves beyond the game.
Bryant is the son of former NBA player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant and did not have a disadvantaged childhood. However, the series is based partly on Bryant’s own experiences and of others he observed growing up on the court.
The characters struggle to get by in an extremely low-income area called The Bottom. Only four players on the team own a basketball. It takes a month’s salary for some to get a decent pair of shoes.
For many, basketball is seen as the only escape.
“The Bottom, for example, is an area in west Philadelphia where I wound up playing a lot of my basketball,” Bryant said. “I didn’t want to create a story where I’m just pulling stuff out of thin air. I wanted to base it off of experiences and things that I’ve seen and places that I’ve played.”
King traveled to Philadelphia as part of his research to spend time with local teams and talk to the kids, which formed a template for the story.
“It reflects the day-to-day reality of a ton of those people across the U.S.,” King said. “It gave us this really real look at these boys who were surviving and using basketball to try and be better.”
While the representation of inner-city youth is a central part of the story, Bryant’s personal Philly upbringing relates more to a character in the book who gets bullied because he’s from a wealthier area.
“What was really important is, how can sports and how can the athletes on the team find a deeper connection in the differences?” Kobe said. “Where can they find the middle ground of similarities to be able to relate to each other and have empathy and compassion for each other, even though they come from different backgrounds?”
The character Bryant relates to most is Rain, who’s viewed as the leader of the team because he’s the best. But he’s also a selfish player who doesn’t trust his teammates, relying on himself to carry the offense.
“Rain’s weaknesses that he experiences on the court are the same as mine,” Bryant said. “It wasn’t so much of, ‘I don’t trust you to make that shot,’ it’s just, there was just a vulnerability within him, an unwillingness to trust somebody else before he trusts himself.”
Each player develops through facing his own struggles. One works two jobs; some have absent parents. Every athlete holds in unique fears and struggles to properly communicate with teammates, which subsequently hampers them on the court and in life.
Only by working through their fears can they become better athletes.
After all, the book is about basketball, with the majority of the plot taking place on the court. The coach, named Rolabi Wizenard, tells the players they can call him “Professor.”
“A lot of times, when people label themselves as coaches, coaches are just out there barking out orders, telling you what plays to run, scaring the crap out of you,” Bryant said. “As a professor, his job is to more just guide, mentor you, help you find your own way.”
As Rolabi teaches the kids to play basketball through his magical means, real-life athletes can take away the same lessons. Idioms such as creating a black hole on offense were taken almost literally, as players’ vision was largely removed and they had to find other ways to move the ball and get open.
At one point, the players stood on a crumbling mountain as they were forced to make a high-pressure shot.
“If you’re at practice and you’re approaching each shot, approach each play as if it is that mountain that may crumble, now you have that sense of significance and importance,” Bryant said. “You become accustomed to (it) so that when the game starts, you don’t have that nervousness, because you’ve been playing from the top of that mountain the whole time.”
The Professor’s teachings and “proverbs” at the beginning of each chapter are strikingly similar to Bryant’s own convictions.
“Rolabi obviously reflects a lot of that Mamba mentality,” King said. “I tried to make sure all of these things matched up with his perspective.”
When an athlete said something was impossible, Rolabi responded by saying “Possibility is notoriously subjective.”
That was the essence of Bryant’s career. It never seemed like he thought any goal was impossible.
He was a five-time NBA champion and the 2008 NBA Most Valuable Player. He won an Oscar for “Dear Basketball” and his book “The Mamba Mentality” is a New York Times Best Seller.
For the kids in the Bottom, their possibility – and impossibility – of life was what they made of it and was based on their own perspectives, magical or not.
Teens who read this book may open their minds and discover that what is possible isn’t prescribed by their situation.