The Academy Awards ceremony routinely honors film stars who died during the previous year, but the gala broadcast on Sunday, Feb. 9, includes someone better known for his work away from the silver screen: NBA legend Kobe Bryant.
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"The In Memoriam segment has always been an important part of the show, and this year is no different in that we're honoring all of our community that we've lost,” show producer Stephanie Allain told Entertainment Tonight. "I think what's really appropriate is that Kobe was part of the film community, and as such, he will be embraced within the In Memoriam segment."
Bryant won an Oscar in 2018 for Best Animated Short, two years after his retirement from the Los Angeles Lakers. He brought home a golden statue for his contribution as executive producer to the animated short film, “Dear Basketball,” which was based on a poem he wrote about his retirement.
He accepted his Oscar statue from "Star Wars'' star Mark Hamill and shared the award with Disney animator Glen Keane.
“Thank you, Academy,” Keane said to kick off his acceptance speech. "And to Kobe, for writing 'Dear Basketball,' it's a message for all of us. Whatever form your dream may take, it's through passion and perseverance that the impossible is possible."
Bryant, who was 39 at the time, appeared to be in disbelief from his win and had to take a deep breath before he delivered his message.
"As basketball players, we are really supposed to shut up and dribble," he said. "But I am glad we do a little bit more than that."
He thanked his wife, Vanessa, and his three daughters, Natalia, Gianna and Bianca.
Bryant followed up by expressing his love in Italian – a language he learned growing up in Italy.
Backstage, Kobe received applause for the win, according to a report from FOX Sports. “I feel better than winning championships,” Bryant told reporters in the interview room. “This is crazy, man, it’s crazy.''
When Bryant initially said he wanted to write short stories after his retirement from basketball, the reception was less than enthusiastic. His Oscar win, however, renewed his faith.
In his own words, “To be here now and have this sense of validation, this is crazy, man."
Published in 2015, the poem begins: "Dear Basketball, from the moment I started rolling my dad's tube socks and shooting imaginary game-winning shots in the Great Western Forum, I knew one thing was real: I fell in love with you."
Bryant ended his athletic career as a five-time NBA champion. He played 20 seasons with the Lakers before retiring following the 2015-2016 season.
"I can't love you obsessively for much longer," he wrote in the poem. “This season is all I have left to give. My heart can take the pounding, my mind can handle the grind. But my body knows it's time to say goodbye."
His daughter Gianna, who died along with Bryant during the helicopter crash last month, was the basketball player's main source of inspiration for turning the poem into a film. In 2018, he told reporters that an 11-year-old Gianna said, "Dad, you always tell us to go after our dreams, so man up."