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Beethoven and basketball: Kobe Bryant (1978-2020)

Luis Dias

In this the 250th birth anniversary year of certainly the most iconic composer of all time, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), I’m reading through as much material as I can lay my hands on about this extensively written-about, and yet still somewhat misunderstood genius.

What is striking is that although his life (as his biographer John Suchet puts it in his eminently readable ‘Beethoven: the Man Revealed’) was marked by “paradox and contradiction”, getting a mammoth funeral for instance even though his music was not universally applauded in his lifetime and not much support offered when he was terminally ill, Beethoven continues to speak and touch lives through his music across generations well into our present-day, in unimaginable ways.

How would Beethoven have reacted for example had he known his music would profoundly influence a star basketball player like Kobe Bryant in the 21st century? The sport itself was invented in 1891, over half a century after Beethoven’s death, on a continent thousands of miles away from his comfort zone.

I’d like to think that on some level, Beethoven knew he was writing for posterity, so it may not have surprised him as much. But that a sports game strategy could involve having Beethoven’s music playing in a player’s head, that might have been unexpected.

Although not a great basketball fan, even I have heard of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, and it was a great shock to read about his tragic death in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California.

Music seems to have played a significant role in Bryant’s life. He met his wife Vanessa in 1999 when he was working on his debut music album ‘Visions’, and she was in the same building as background dancer for another music video.

Four years ago, the sports media went to town over Kobe’s romantic gesture to his wife. He wished to “play something nice” for Vanessa on the piano, so what did he choose? Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata (Piano Sonata number 14 ‘Quasi una fantasia’ in C sharp minor, Opus 27, number 2).

Much was made about the fact that he taught himself to play it “by ear”, quoting him as saying that “sitting down and taking lessons” would be “too easy” (!). One section of the press even called it “the most unconventional (yet completely logical) way.”

Any serious student of the piano will know how easy it is to pick up bad habits and faulty technique without the supervision of a good teacher, so one could put Bryant’s comment and the journalist’s gushing approval down to ignorance. Also, when you watch videos online of Kobe playing (and in many cases, it’s even called “Kobe’s Moonlight Sonata”!) he plays just the opening few bars, under two minutes of playing time, of a sonata that is 201 bars long, and is 15 to 17 minutes in duration, depending on the tempo taken to play its three movements. In many of these video uploads, there are stringed instrumentalists doubling the melodic line and shoring up the harmony in the brooding opening.

That said, it was an epic romantic gesture on Kobe’s part. The media doesn’t devote any time to Vanessa’s reaction, but I’m guessing she would have been deeply touched. Who wouldn’t?

The endorsement of classical music by sports personalities (approaching near-cult idol status among fans) is often the entry point of so many into the genre. If you visit YouTube and search for Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’, for example, you’ll find so many visitors’ comments openly admitting that they were drawn to listen to the music thanks to Kobe Bryant.

In 2015, Bryant had written a touching retirement poem, ‘Dear Basketball’, which became the subject of an Oscar award-winning animation film (2018).

And here’s another Beethoven connection: Bryant and the film animator Glen Keane shared a common love of Beethoven’s music.

Keane had animated Beast in Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ while listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and was amazed to learn that in one championship game, “Kobe structured his performance and the strategy of the game to the rhythms of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.”

I’m not exactly sure what this means in real terms; structuring game performance and strategy to a music rhythm. Perhaps a basketball expert can enlighten me.

Beethoven’s Fifth is of course famous for its famous rhythmic opening, Da –da-da- DAAA, Morse code for V, used by the Allies in World War Two as a campaign for victory, despite Beethoven’s ‘German’-ness.

The Beethoven connection extends even further: The music for the short animation film ‘Dear Basketball’ was scored by the living legend John Williams (of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, ‘Jaws’, ‘Star Wars’, ‘Superman’, ‘Indiana Jones’, ‘ET the Extra-Terrestrial’, ‘Home Alone’, ‘Jurassic Park’, ‘Schindler’s List’, ‘Saving Private Ryan’, ‘The Terminal’ and ‘Harry Potter’ fame, among seemingly innumerable other hit scores)who also was “inspired” by that very same rhythm of Beethoven’s Fifth when he composed the famous ‘Star Wars’ theme, giving it a little twist to make it his own.

Bryant offered something of an explanation about the similarity between sport and music in a 2017 interview: “Every game has a structure, just like a piece of music has structure, and momentum. You have to be conscious of how that momentum is building to be able to shift or alter it.”

I found this comparison most interesting. Bryant obviously looked at music as a living, breathing organism, as something “playing” (if you pardon the intentional pun) out in real-time, and not at all a fuddy-duddy dusty old score from a long time ago. The more I get to “know” Beethoven by reading about him and his life and times, the more I feel certain he would have concurred.

Bryant also made another reference to momentum in both music and in a game, and how as a basketball player, a lot of the time he essentially “conducts” a game.

Keane and Bryant watched footage from Bryant’s games in preparation for ‘Dear Basketball’, and Keane was struck by how Bryant remembered every single thing about every play, down even to what was running through his mind at each point. That’s passion, focus and concentration for you.

There is another, non-musical point Bryant made in another interview following his Oscar award that I know Beethoven would have heartily endorsed:

When asked about athletes making political statements, Bryant said, “I think for us, not just as athletes but as people in general, we have the ability to speak up for what it is we believe in. Whether you’re a professional athlete or not, whether you’re an actor or not, you still have the ability to speak up for what it is you believe in, as well as people have the right to criticise. This is the democracy that we live in. That’s what makes

[my country]

beautiful.”

Bahut khoob! Had Beethoven or Bryant been in contemporary India, no prizes for guessing on which side of the raging debate in our country they would have been on.Da-da-da-DAA! Here’s to victory! Game on!

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