The sports star farewell tour has become a booming business over the past few years. From Chipper Jones to Mariano Rivera to Derek Jeter, athletes who are iconic in their sport announcing their retirement early in order to say goodbye to the game and their fans is now part of the game. (Football media, for its part, has been driving itself up the wall waiting for a plume of smoke to emerge from a chimney and declare Peyton Manning officially finished before the Super Bowl.) But those guys are all beloved icons whom fans from all walks of life have an easy time getting behind.
Kobe Bryant is definitely not that kind of star. He’s played the part of the villain both on and off the court (and his legacy will forever be complicated by serious allegations that were never truly dispelled), which means that even though he announced his retirement months ago, he’s not saying goodbye with a traditional, tip-of-the-cap farewell tour. And when it came to the brands he’s partnered with, they’d have to take a different approach to saying goodbye, too. To that end, Nike worked with creative agency Conscious Minds–and renowned jazz pianist Robert Glasper–to create a farewell campaign that still felt like Kobe.
“We’re big sports fans here, and we’re also in advertising, so we’re familiar with all of that stuff,” Cameron DeArmond, creative director for Conscious Minds, explained. “But that’s not Kobe at all. Kobe is the villain–he’s despised because he works hard, he’s got this grit and attitude, and this swag. So we knew that we had to fit within Kobe, and tell Kobe’s story. So we didn’t want to call out his retirement. We wanted to take Kobe as a student, since he studies everything and everyone, and help transition the eternal student into the teacher. So it’s him leaving behind his lessons for all the future Kobes.”
The campaign is called “11 Lessons From The Master,” built around eleven different messages that Bryant has for young players. Those are being unveiled on the campaign’s website, with each lesson being unveiled slowly, over the course of Bryant’s final season. To introduce the campaign, Nike tapped Grammy-winning pianist Robert Glasper–who spent 2015 releasing a live covers album with his trio and adding the keys on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly–to record an original anthem for the campaign. In addition to the eleven lessons, the campaign also includes a short film called “Be Courageous,” which details both Glasper’s creative process on the recording and the inspiration he took from Bryant.
Fans can also remix the theme via Soundcloud, which adds a layer of interactivity to the campaign–something that was important, given the many views people have of Kobe Bryant.
“The track gives us one man’s interpretation of Kobe’s career, but there are so many people who bleed purple and gold, and we wanted to give them all a chance to contribute,” DeArmond says. “As we talked to people, we found that there are so many moments that people were calling out as their favorites–people remembered skipping school to see the parade, to fights, to specific games, a lot of which we had never even seen, and we watched so much footage.”
To create the anthem, Glasper revisited his own relationship to Kobe Bryant as a fan, too. “What I did was, for a few days straight, I would go on YouTube and watch Kobe highlights on mute, for hours every day,” Glasper told Co.Create “And I would come up with pieces of melodies from the highlights. Some highlights would inspire me to do something, then I’d rewind it and a melody would come to me, and I’d record it in my recorder, and then compile all the ideas together to come up with a sketch just from literally watching those highlights on mute.”
Twenty years of highlights is a lot to sift through (“Put 20 years in three minutes! Go!” Glasper joked about the task he set for himself), but the sheer amount of time Bryant has spent on the court–and in the public eye–informed the campaign in more ways than one. It didn’t hurt, either, that the campaign got underway before Bryant had officially announced his retirement, keeping the team’s efforts off of “farewell” and onto something that’s more fitting for Kobe Bryant.
“We didn’t even know for sure if this was it, but you have to be ahead of the curve–if Nike didn’t do something and start on it before the season, they wouldn’t have been on top of it if it did happen,” Conscious Minds executive producer Blake Heal said. “So while there’s a lens of this that we saw as a retirement campaign, I don’t think Kobe is the type who will ever retire as an artist or as a craftsman. The goal of this campaign, at least, isn’t to say ‘This is the end of Kobe,’ but to say ‘this is the end of Kobe for basketball, and as this goes on, you’ll see where he’s going next.’ It’s less about goodbye, and more about the learning as he reaches new parts of his career.”
To that end, the lessons Bryant bestows through the campaign are less about basketball and more about what basketball taught him about life. The first lesson, “Love the Hate” could apply equally to an athlete, a musician, an artist, or anyone else who’s trying to do something that people might have an opinion about, and the second, “Be Courageous,” hits all of those notes and more. In that way, the career transition he’s in the middle of–from player to whatever’s next–manifests itself well in the transition from “student” to “teacher.”
“It’s no secret that Kobe is a huge student, from technology to animals to design. He presses Nike to shave millimeters off of his shoes,” DeArmond explained. “He studies Meryl Streep, and how she prepares. I know Peyton and Jeter are disciplined athletes, but there’s something about Kobe as a student. He’s not an approachable guy, but this lets teenage athletes get these lessons that they can’t get from him elsewhere. They’re not about dribbling, but about preparation and teamwork, and how those don’t all smell good. They’re not all full of roses. But by collaborating with him, we’re making sure that we’re representing him honestly and authentically.”
That Bryant is a student of a variety of disciplines is well-known; the extent to which he understands them, though, is impressive. That’s something that Glasper learned when he was asked to compose the anthem using a 4/4/6/8 time signature–a request that, according to Heal, came straight from Bryant as a way to honor Black History Month and the date (April 4th, 1968) that Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated.
“The part about the 4/4/6/8, that wasn’t from me. They came to me with that,” Glasper said. “To know that he was that involved with it, I was very surprised, and it just adds another star to his chart for me.”
The idea that Kobe Bryant had an insight into how a campaign to sell basketball shoes–including one called the KOBE 11 BLM 4468, which similarly references Black History Month and the date of the assassination–could be applied to jazz composition may have surprised Glasper, but ultimately, the pianist understands why Bryant is such a relatable figure to musicians–and to other people on creative paths–which will probably serve him well in whatever comes next.
“It’s kind of like music to me–his thing kind of mirrors what happens with a lot of musicians,” Glasper said. “Myself, I’m a pianist, so when I was coming out of high school going into college, my friends said I sounded like Chick Corea. But as I kept playing and got my own gigs and was able to write my own music, I came into my own. The Chick Corea influence is there, but that’s not who you hear when you first hear me. Now you hear Robert Glasper, and then you can hear the Chick Corea influence after that. And that’s kind of how Kobe is to me. When he first got out of college, everybody was like, ‘Oh, he looks like Michael Jordan!’ But slowly but surely, he started coming into his own, and now he has all of these Kobe-isms. It was beautiful to watch, because a lot of people get stuck in the shadow of the person that they look up to the most, and they never really leave that. So it was beautiful to watch Kobe blossom into his own character, and now there are so many Kobe clones out there. That was the best thing about watching his career.”