The two most famous Knicks fans are movie directors whose stature in the film world is inversely proportional to their stature in court shoes. The 5-foot-5 Woody Allen has largely satisfied his basketball jones at Madison Square Garden. While Annie Hall does find Alvy Singer sitting out a cocktail party to watch a game, Allen left a fantasy sequence featuring Walt Frazier and Earl the Pearl on the cutting-room floor. When Allen featured Anthony Mason (as himself) in Celebrity, the film gave him little to do beyond the dreary task of grinding with Charlize Theron. In Manhattan Murder Mystery, a hockey rink serves as a surrogate for the hardwood floor.
In contrast, we have 5-foot-6 Spike Lee. In She’s Gotta Have It, his B-boy fanboy Mars Blackmon yapped memorably on behalf of Air Jordan, Air Jordan, Air Jordan. Larry Bird is an important object of derision in Do the Right Thing. And in He Got Game, Ray Allen plays a high school phenom named Jesus, and Denzel Washington, as his father, dates a prostitute. This is Lee presenting a hoops star as a messiah while, incidentally, allowing his troublesome Madonna-whore complex to run rampant. The undersized directors surely enjoy the vicarious soaring of fandom, the sense of release. “What’s fascinating,” Allen says of the sport in Annie Hall, “is that it’s physical. You know, it’s one thing about intellectuals, they prove that you can be absolutely brilliant and have no idea what’s going on. But on the other hand … the body doesn’t lie.”
Lee’s Kobe Doin’ Work (ESPN, Saturday at 8 p.m. ET) supposes that film tells the truth 24 times a second, the game 12 minutes per quarter, the body every moment of life. A rather airier version of Zidane, which devoted its gaze entirely to 90 minutes in the life of the soccer star, the film aims to divine the soul of the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant by studying his performance against the Spurs on April 13, 2008. At stake were the top standing in the Western Conference and Bryant’s credibility as an MVP candidate. It was not a terribly interesting game; the Lakers won by 21 points, and Bryant, who sat out the fourth quarter, had, statistically, an unexceptional night: 20 points, five rebounds, five assists.
This is Kobe bein’ workmanlike, and Lee spends much time focusing on the least eye-catching parts of his game and the state of relaxed concentration that constitutes his on-court mindset. He hustles on defense, works the refs, talks trash, gives pep talks in two languages, and sits on the bench serenely flashing that endorsement-deal smile. In the more thrilling moments, he passes like a genius, leaps like a dream, and travels with impunity.
All the while, Bryant lays down analysis in voice-over, like a director on a DVD commentary track. There are some light moments of self-discovery here—”I didn’t realize I talk that much”—and some remarks that deepen our understanding of the game. At one point, he uses the word malaise to describe players’ post-halftime torpor, and you remember why Bryant, who had a fairly posh and cosmopolitan upbringing, was teased and scorned by colleagues during his early years as a pro. But mostly you get jock clichés and color-commentary truisms. “You gotta move the ball against San Antonio.” “We’re all blessed to be in this position.” “I absolutely hate turnovers.” This is a Spike Lee Joint that might as well be produced by NBA Films—though the league would assuredly come up with a score more compelling than the wishy-washy fake jazz here twaddled out by Bruce Hornsby.
Kobe Doin’ Work has no interest in biography, and if you think it might mention the dropped sexual-assault case of 2003, then I have a Colorado resort to sell you. Rather, the movie aspires to be a work of philosophy. Early on, before the game’s begun, we hear on-air analyst Jeff Van Gundy deliver another SportsCenter chestnut: “I expect Kobe to be Kobe.” Lee turns this cliché into something of a koan. On the court, on even an undistinguished night, Kobe is Kobe, revealing his core self through his style of play, and it’s beautiful. Then he gets in his Range Rover and drives home.