Kobe Bryant occupied the long road trips and plane journeys between NBA games writing, revising, and writing again, reports Rachel Steinberg.
He believed sport—and the world—revolved around storytelling. But even the formidable five-time NBA champion wasn’t taken seriously when he told people about his retirement plan. He wanted to make art.
Bryant’s own story was tragically cut short two weeks ago by a fatal helicopter crash.
But on Sunday former NFL wide receiver-turned-director Matthew Cherry could carry on the legendary Laker's lesser-known legacy.
Bryant silenced doubters when, in 2018, he became the first former professional athlete to take home an Academy Award and the first African-American to win Best Animated Short.
Cherry, with his film Hair Love, would be the second person to accomplish both.
Backstage at the Oscars, clutching his trophy for Dear Basketball, a shocked Bryant seemed surprised to confess winning an Oscar felt better than becoming an NBA champion. Cherry, on the other hand, is certain which trophy he would prefer.
“A Superbowl or an Oscar? Definitely an Oscar,” Cherry said with zero hesitation.
“Sports are great but art, in my opinion, has the power to be more impactful in terms of getting into the consciousness.
“Actually seeing young girls and boys see themselves in the film, that’s a different level of impact.
“Sports can inspire you to be your best self and perform at a really high level.
“But if you make a really strong piece of art you can change the way someone thinks about themselves. You can change their life.”
Bryant, whose Granity Studios produced books, films and a storytelling podcast, was well aware of the journeyman football player who could succeed him.
Less than two weeks before the crash, Bryant, who once lamented the lack of diversity in animation, tweeted a video of Cherry celebrating his nomination.
Cherry, 38, was inspired to create Hair Love after noticing a troubling trend on YouTube.
He said: “I came across a couple viral videos of dads doing their daughters’ hair.
“I did a deeper dive into why videos of dads and daughters were performing better than ones with moms. And it was kind of a double-edged sword.
“A lot of the videos were really cute but I found a lot had to do the fact that people weren’t used to seeing black fathers do domestic tasks.
“So I thought it would be really cool to bring normalisation to black fathers and try to combat some stereotypes.”
The result is an evocative, poignant, and at times whimsical six-minute story of a dad determined to style his little girl’s hair for the first time—with a lot of help from a YouTube tutorial.
Cherry’s protagonist wasn’t the only one to benefit from the World Wide Web. The film’s very existence depended on it.
He said: “I basically Googled the only two black people in animation I knew because I thought it was really important to get them in early to help give the project validity.”
Fortunately both Peter Ramsey (Spider Man: Into the Spiderverse) and Pixar’s Frank Abney were eager to sign on. And so Cherry launched a Kickstarter campaign hoping to raise $75,000. He received nearly $300,000.
Celebrities including Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, NBA All-Star Dwayne Wade and fellow Oscar nominee Ava Duvernay helped the project go viral.
Sony put Hair Love in front of Angry Birds 2 last summer. In December, Cherry learned it was on the Academy’s shortlist.
The Chicago native said: “It was really surreal. It was kind of in the back of my mind as a best-case scenario. It feels like a dream.”
When Cherry speaks about film he exudes the gusto of a man who has finally found his vocation.
He’s more pragmatic about the three years he spent in the NFL, bouncing between practice squads and active rosters on clubs including the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cincinnati Bengals, Carolina Panthers and Baltimore Ravens.
Cherry said: “I always joke I get more love being a former player than I did being an actual one.
“It’s complicated. Like for anybody who used to work a job and it doesn’t pan out the way they want it to. It’s definitely a tricky relationship.”
One major challenge for the University of Akron media graduate, who majored in radio and TV, was coming into the NFL undrafted.
He said: “It gets to a point where it starts to become political and it’s more about things outside of your control, like what school you went to, how high you were drafted, things like that.
“To make it into the league you have to be great, but in order to stay it gets a bit more complicated.”
Cherry walked away from football in 2007 after a shoulder issue landed him on the injured reserves.
It’s only recently he’s been able to watch games as a fan.
After retiring, Cherry moved to LA where he started as a PA on the set of Girlfriends before joining big-budget sci-fi Heroes.
Through sheer graft and determination he worked his way up to directing music videos featuring Beyoncé and executive producing Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.
Cherry is still hard at work. He’s spending his pre-Oscars week on set of the sitcom Mixed-ish and is planning a feature film.
On his journey to the top the career-changer mostly kept his old line of work secret.
Because, he said: “As a former athlete I think you have to work a little harder to sell people.
“I think sometimes people assume you’ve got a lot of money and you’re just playing around and not being serious.”
Once, on a plane destined for basketball’s biggest stage, sat a determined writer who absolutely understood.