November 30, 2015


We Had A Literary Expert Analyze Kobe Bryant's Basketball Poem

Leon Bennett/Getty Images
Leon Bennett/Getty Images

On Sunday (Nov. 29), Kobe Bryant announced his retirement from basketball, after playing professionally for over 20 years and helping the Los Angeles Lakers win five NBA championships. To announce his departure from the game, Bryant did something pretty uncommon in the sports world: He wrote a poem. 

After reading "Dear Basketball," published on The Players' Tribune on Sunday, we wanted to get into Kobe's head, and analyze the nitty-gritty details of his words. So, we asked a professional. Jameson Fitzpatrick is a poet and a professor of writing at New York University. He's been published in the Awl, Poetry Magazine, Prelude Magazine, The Offing and more. Read Kobe's words here, then check out our literary expert's professional analysis:

FUSE: What was your first impression of the poem?

Fitzpatrick: It's not the best poem I've ever read. It's not the world's most sophisticated free verse. The language isn't particularly interesting, but there's a lot going on in it that is true to poetic logic. It makes use of what poetry can do that other forms of writing can't do. I was impressed by a lot of other things.

First off: Can you explain to our readers what "free verse" means?

Free verse just means it's not in a preexisting metered form, like a sonnet or a sestina. There are some rhymes but it doesn't have a rhyme scheme, per se. That means there's metrical logic or that the lines are decided by the poet. They're not conforming to any particular kind of poem.

There were other things that I noticed that are real features of poetry and stood out. The first is that this is an epistolary poem, which just means that it is a letter poem. There are epistolary novels, there are epistolary poems. There's a long tradition of this: The poem under the pretense of a letter, of which this one is. More to that point, it's addressed to basketball itself, so there's personification going on. The relationship to basketball is characterized as a love affair. There's a technique or literary device called apostrophe where you break away from the audience in a play, for instance, and suddenly talk directly to the person, to someone or something. Often an apostrophe is addressed to an inanimate object, and here it's to basketball.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Did you find it interesting that Kobe Bryant chose a poem as the form for his swan song?

I do. It has to do with this letter form and personifying basketball. Poetry is an intimate art form. It's about the self and it's about feelings, right? It seems like he made a decision to be really open. This isn't your standard "I had such a great career, it'll be sad to leave it, thanks for everything" press release. He really spoke about how much basketball means to him. I think poetry is a form that makes it easier for us to talk about our feelings.

Is there anything particularly interesting, a line or two that stood out to you? Anything that felt especially engaging?

Sure. This idea of the apostrophe: In traditional poetry, it's usually the letter "O" and stands alone. Like, "O Night, You are so dense and confusing." When he does the all-caps "YOU," "YOU called me. I did everything for YOU," that emphasis of the all-caps felt a lot like that "O basketball."

I also loved the image that repeats throughout the poem of his dad's tube socks. This is an objective correlative, or something that communicates emotion to readers, some kind of meaning. The tube sock, which is in the third line, is the image of pristine purity. Tube socks are bright white, bleached cotton, a blank slate, but they're also something kind of disgusting. Socks and basketball socks are gross. He uses that tube sock in a really interesting way, because from the mention of the tube sock, we get to a tunnel. A tube is a lot like a tunnel. He says he's running out of the tunnel, and that running becomes not just out of that tunnel, but up and down the basketball court. That tube sock, the rolled up sock, comes back in the last stanza again. I think there's an interesting way that particular image moves throughout the course of the poem. 

What advice or overarching edits would you give Kobe?

One thing I might advise is the talk of the spirit and the soul, the mind and the body is a bit cliche or too familiar a term--using what you're talking about while you talk about it. One thing poetry can do is talk about familiar or universal themes but in new and surprising ways. I don't think he always surprises me as I would hope from a poem, but that said, I think it's really interesting and kind of sad that he says [the poem is about] the body triumphing over the spirit. He says, "My heart can take the pounding / My mind can handle the grind / But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye." There's a real acceptance of aging and mortality that's really beautiful. That's a more surprising way to talk about the spirit.