Kobe Bryant’s New YA Book Is About a Lot More Than Basketball

‘The Wizenard Series: Training Camp’ is the first of five books about kids facing fears and vulnerabilities and using them to become better people—and better basketball players—with the help of a mysterious, magical new coach.

Kobe Bryant

Photo courtesy of Granity Studios

Photo courtesy of Granity Studios

After retiring from the NBA in 2016, Kobe Bryant has not taken a break. The winner of five championships with the Los Angeles Lakers added Academy Award winner to his list of accolades for his animated short film, “Dear Basketball” in 2018. And now the father of three girls—with another due with wife Vanessa in the summer—has launched a publishing company and his own young adult book series, written by Wesley King.

We chatted with him by phone about the inspiration behind the first book, “The Wizenard Series: Training Camp,” which centers on a group of young basketball players on a struggling team who are looking for a miracle and instead get a mysterious, magical new coach, Rolabi Wizenard. With his unorthodox coaching method, Rolabi teaches the players to look inside themselves to become better human beings, basketball players, and ultimately better teammates. The book is scheduled for a March 19 release and is available for preorder now.

What was your inspiration for the book? A coach, your dreams?

It’s a combination of all of the above. I’m very fortunate to have a lot of mentors in my life, and I’m currently coaching my daughter’s basketball team. So that was going on while I was creating the series and dealing with the young children. How do I create fun basketball drills and exercises that kind of inspire them, make it fun, but also teach them?

The Wizenard Series: Training Camp book cover

Photo courtesy of Granity Studios

Photo courtesy of Granity Studios

And the really big reason for it and why I decided to focus the first book on young males is because unfortunately in our society as young males you grow up to believe that vulnerability is a sign of weakness. And we don’t tend to deal with that stuff, and it festers within us and winds up revealing itself in very negative ways. I wanted to share the message that true strength comes from vulnerability.

True strength comes from vulnerability. Don’t hide from that. We’re not going to shy away from that. I think that was very important to get that message out there.

What is the big takeaway you want kids to get from the book? Is that it?

That’s 100% accurate. In all of our stories that you’ll see we don’t shy away from the tough stuff. I believe that our kids are stronger than we think they are. Especially at an early age, it’s very important to provide some direction or challenge them to think a little bit about how to navigate their inner emotions and the feelings they’re having—the fears, insecurities, pain, sadness, anxiety. Start navigating through all that stuff now so that when they grow up they’ll be better for it. So we don’t shy away from that stuff in the book.

It’s really important to understand what fear does to us. As adults it’s traumatic. Now imagine that for children. Because children experience fear and it’s important that fear at their level—whatever it is they fear at the time—that we start communicating to them how to navigate through that and not simply sweep it under the rug. How do you use that to become a better person? To become a better basketball player doctor, lawyer, whatever the case may be. That’s a very important message for our society.

It is so much more than basketball. And we hear that phrase a lot more today in politics and sports. Was that intentional? Or was it a message that came about organically?

It was intentional. I’ve seen a lot of coaches that think they’re just coaching the game. And so what they do is teach their kids what to think, how to play, and you wind up having these kids who play like robots and who are afraid to make mistakes. They’re afraid to think outside the box and to be creative. They grow up having this inner fear, and they can’t really reach their full potential. Fortunately I had coaches who understood the connection between sports and life.

When you’re teaching me how to dribble with my left hand, or how to box out, or how to shoot, they communicate those exercises in a way that has a bigger connection to life itself. You don’t separate the two; they go hand in hand. So in this book that you can’t separate becoming a better play and a better person.

They’re afraid to think outside the box, they’re afraid to be creative, and as a result they grow up having this inner fear and they can’t really reach their full potential… Fortunately I had coaches who understood the connection between sports and life.

Who are the coaches who really understood that from the start from you?

In the book I give thanks to my Wizenards, like Tex Winter, who was one of our coaches for the Lakers. I called him Yoda. He was like 82 years old when he first came to us and was straight a genius. Then obviously Phil Jackson [the winningest coach in NBA history with 11 championships], who was the best at it. And I had very good high school basketball coach named Gregg Downer, who was absolutely sensational as well. He’s still coaching at Lower Merion now; they’re actually going for another championship this year.

About Coach Rolabi (pronounced roll-uh-bee). Why did you decide to make him magical and so mysterious?

There’s a lot more history and a lot more depth that, as the series progresses, will start to unpack. But the original inspiration of Rolabi is Julie Andrews’ portrayal of “Mary Poppins.” Just magical. She comes into the scene, you have no idea where she came from. She’s stern but also provides guidance and won’t give you specific answers on things.

So did you watch Mary Poppins growing up?
I watched it growing up over and over and over, and my wife did as well. And so when we got married all our kids were into Mary Poppins. Our little girl Bianca has seen it so many times she knows almost every lyric of every song and she’s two.

Did you guys see the new Lin-Manuel Miranda and Emily Blunt reboot, Mary Poppins Returns?
Oh of course we did.

I know Rain, the star of the team, is the character you most closely identify with. How else would you say you relate to him?

Well Rain’s struggle and my struggle as a basketball player are essentially the same. Now the foundation of where that comes from is a little different, but the basketball on-court struggle is the same in that he really struggled with trusting others. So what Rain had to do was unpack where does that come from. And once he was able to square what those issues were, then he was able to accept it, walk hand in hand with it, and then start the process of getting better with it. It was the same for me.

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How old were you when that light went off for you?
Probably about 26.

Do you remember when it was? What game you were playing or what play it was?
I think it’s a process. When you have kids you have to start thinking about things other than yourself. Vanessa and I were so young when we got married, and when you have children, you’re thinking of our children and start looking outwardly more and start having a different perspective on life. I don’t know if you want to want to call it maturing, but you start having a bigger perspective of understanding compassion and empathy and really feeling what that means.

Talk about author Wesley King. How did you ultimately choose him?

I started looking at all his interviews online, and the one thing that I saw that I absolutely loved is he went to an elementary school and was reading to the class and the amount of fun that he was having with children during that reading, that’s what really connected me to him. And then I obviously read his OCDaniel mythical series. Then I flew him out there. And he’s taller than I am. He’s 6-8. And we started talking about basketball the story and the vision. And he looked at it and said “you want me to write five stories that take place over the same 10 practices at the same time?” He was in.

So the series all the same story told from different perspectives? Why?
Yes. You can’t really grow as a team unless you understand or see the growth of the teammates you have around you. In book one, what you see is a lot of inner perspective, a lot of self-awareness, and self-acceptance. Now we’ll start seeing the growth of them having the courage to voice what that inner journey was for them to others. That’s the progression: First you have inner acceptance, and then you can share you journey with others. And now you can kind of support and rally around each other. It’s important to see those different perspectives.