Of all the places in Boston to meet up with a future Hall of Famer, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp found the funeral home the strangest. They had heard rumors about the NBA great having turned towards the unnatural, even the sacrilegious, to sustain his health. They had heard about trips to Germany, Transylvania, and God knows where. They had heard these rumors and thought about taking a rain check, but, in the end, they rounded the corner where Puritan tombstones still stood in moss and shadow and had stood since the 1600s. They walked up the cobblestone street—part of the old town Freedom Trail. One of them even ran his fingertips along the bars of black iron that fenced in the graveyard, but nothing prepared them for the sight of Kobe Bryant lying in corpse-like in a coffin.
And, when they entered, they let out a collective gasp. Are we too late? Did it already happen? But, then, in an act of seeming self-parody, Kobe raised himself from the dead. With arms uncrossed and stretched before him, he sat up and said, “Tim! Johnny! You made it! Tonight is my last game in Boston.” With each sentence, the excitement drained from his face like blood, leaving him pale and serious. And, what excitement there was in the early greetings, sounded hollow with rehearsal.
Kobe climbed out of the coffin, which his frame had filled as if it were a mere shoebox. “I’ll be with you guys in a minute.” He turned to the funeral director: “Do you have any wider coffins? It felt too constrictive—I could barely cross my arms.”
The Bela Lugosi-looking funeral director thought on the request for a moment and then, “Let me see what I can find.”
“Fellows—I’m so glad you could make it. Tonight’s my last night in Boston.”
“That’s great, Kobe, but why did you want us here for it?” asked the director who peaked well over a decade ago.
“Yeah, Kobe, I’m not really a basketball guy,” added the actor who also peaked over a decade ago, but had recently resurfaced to critical acclaim due to his performance in the film Black Mass, which happened to take place largely in Boston.
“Well,” said Kobe, “this is my last game in Boston, and I want a documentary made about it.”
Tim Burton ran a knobby hand through his uncombed hair. “Wouldn’t Spike Lee be better suited? You two worked on that thing before, right?”
“I thought about that, Tim, but I feel like going with Spike would be somewhat blasé at this point. I really want to shake things up and show people a different side to Kobe Bryant.”
“And you want this to all be done by tonight?”
“Yeah, that seems doable. Aren’t you the director who does everything in one take? This should only take one take; it’s about real life, Tim. You only get one take at real life.” Kobe spoke in a manner that walked a tightrope between dead serious and deadpan facetious. Burton attempted to split the two like a fine hair, while Depp gravitated towards the seriousness: “Sounds like a solid project, Tim. What’s my part in it, Kobe?”
“Well, Johnny, I’m glad you asked. I want you to play me tonight.”
“Like one on one?” asked the Hollywood actor. “I thought you were playing the Leprechaun fucks.”
“No, like, I want you to play me,” said Kobe. He placed his hand firmly on Depp’s shoulder and stared into the universe of the Hollywood star’s eyes.
“Kobe,” interjected Burton, rubbing his bony hands through his unkempt hair again, “I think you’re confusing me with another director. I’m not really a one take guy. Plus, I would have to do set design and casting and write dialogue. I’m sort of an auteur.”
“But, Tim, it’s a documentary. You can do this in one night.”
Burton frowned. “But you just said Johnny Depp is going to be playing your part. Doesn’t that make it a movie?”
“Tim, how much basketball do you watch? If you’ve been paying attention, then you probably already know I, too, am an auteur. Follow me, and I’ll show you.”
A man with a thick Hungarian accent called from the back of the funeral parlor. “Mr. Bryant! Mr. Bryant! We have something. Would you like to see it now or later?”
Without turning around, the basketball at the end of his career answered, “It’ll have to do. This is my last night in Boston.” And, with that, the three men walked out underneath an overcast New England sky and headed for the TD Garden.
No one was in the arena yet, except for the three artists. Kobe Bryant stood at center court. He had two hands on Depp’s shoulders. “Okay, Johnny, you’ll have to stand right here.”
“Okay.” The actor was starting to make sense of the project.
“And, Tim, you’ll need to be down here and up there in the rafters. We’ll need shots from above and below. You know, I want people to really feel the micro- and the macro- of it all.”
“I’m not sure I can be in both—”
Kobe silenced the director by stomping his foot on the hardwood. The thud echoed. “Don’t doubt me, Tim. Never. Not once. Listen to the vision, absorb the vision, or disappear from the vision.”
Burton frowned and held up a hand that suggested, “You’re right. I’m wrong. Please continue.” Depp stood at center court, awaiting the vision, impressed by the power of the visionary.
“Okay, so what’s going to happen is a giant octopus will descend from the rafters. I call this Plan 8 because it has eight legs. Also, I once wore number eight.”
“Ah,” smiled Depp, “it’s about an internal struggle.”
Burton shook his head. “When is this taking place? Is it before the game? Is it halftime?”
“We’ve been over this, Tim. The octopus will descend during the game, and Johnny Depp as me will conquer it while a bebop jazz Cuban sci-fi mix plays over the loudspeakers. The crowd will love it or die by it.”
“Such is the way with art,” said Johnny. “Now, does the octopus have a motor or do I move the tentacles myself?”
“Tim, ditch the motor.” Then, pointing towards Johnny and smiling with genuine understanding of another for the first time in his life, “Do it all yourself—every last tentacle.”
“What then?” With every twist and turn in the incoherent plot, Depp began to sniff Oscar buzz or the discovery that he really was Kobe Bryant. “Also, Kobe, do you ever wear hats? I’ve done some of my best work while wearing a hat.”
“Too far, Johnny. No hats.”
Burton’s feet shuffled him away from center court. He thought to himself, what were those lines I wrote for Orson Welles all those years ago? He found himself staring at his own reflection; a tried and true shot lifted from Hollywood cliché. He watched his lips mouth the words—those words he had written for Orson Welles to speak into the ear of a downtrodden Ed Wood, that ill-famed director who shot everything in one take. Why spend your life making someone else’s dreams?
Then, through the glass, he noticed jerseys on mannequins in the gift shop. He spoke the words aloud this time: “Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else’s dreams?” He entered the gift shop.
“We’re not open yet, sir,” said a woman behind the cash register as she organized keychains in the shapes of little men leaning on canes. But, when she looked up, “Hey, are you that film director?”
He seized on the recognition, “Do you have any Kobe jerseys?”
“Hell no!” She laughed. “You’re the ruler of the galaxy—show a little taste!”
“Okay, what do you have?”
She held up her arms, “All this,” and as far as the eyes could see nothing but green and white jerseys.
“Okay, I’ll take one.”
Wearing Kobe’s uniform, Depp stood at center court. Meanwhile, Kobe sat courtside, squinting through the kaleidoscope box of his own hands. Thumb up on one. Thumb down on the other. He framed the scene.
Depp engaged with tentacles that he himself had to drape over and around his body. The fight was long and arduous, but, eventually, he emerged victorious. The octopus collapsed in heap of deflated defeat. An antique radio microphone descended from the rafters. Depp grabbed ahold of it, flexing like a champion heavyweight, and spoke to the imaginary crowd of leprechaun fans, “Home? I have no home.”
From the shadows, Burton stepped, becoming his own actor, becoming the antagonist this plot so desperately needed.
“Hunted, despised, living like an animal!”
Burton unzipped his Celtic green warmup jacket.
“The jungle is my home. But I will show the world that I can be its master!”
Burton ripped off the Celtic green breakaway pants.
“I will perfect my own race of people.” Kobe mouthed the words along with the overzealous Depp. Burton entered the circle of light. Kobe lowered his hands. He blinked. Was Burton wearing a number thirty-three jersey? Ah, yes, yes, he was. Depp lost the words of the monologue Kobe had directed him to say, but no matter. Kobe stood. Kobe shouted the words himself: “A race of atomic supermen which will conquer the world!” He had been waiting for a true opponent—a Larry Bird in the flesh—and now he had one.
“This is the one. This is the one I’ll be remembered for.” They all spoke the words as if the words belonged to them, and the octopus came to life.
Or, at least its shadow did, as the rubber and foam tentacles were lifted back towards the championship banners from a deep and ancient past. When the floor was cleared of all Gothic artifacts, two rosters from the present started to warm-up, including Kobe Bryant, the great auteur turned ceremonial basketball player.
Bryan Harvey tweets @LawnChairBoys.