Books

How Canadian writer Wesley King worked with Kobe Bryant to write a middle-grade book series about basketball

The Nova Scotia author talks about collaborating with the late basketball legend to create The Wizenard Series.
Wesley King is a children's author based in Nova Scotia. (Granity Studios)

Wesley King is a Nova Scotia children's writer whose books include middle-grade novels The VindicoSara and the Search for Normal, A World Below and OCDaniel.

King told CBC Books that it was four years ago when NBA legend Kobe Bryant reached out to him to collaborate on a new children's book series about basketball and magic.

The Wizenard Series began in 2019 with Training Camp, about the West Bottom Badgers, a losing basketball team of kids who live in a poor neighbourhood. When their new coach, Professor Wizenard, shows up, the players start seeing magical visions that change their perspective on the game and their lives.

The second book in the series is the 2020 book Season One. It follows Reggie, a benchwarmer who works tirelessly to improve his game, but the gym is mysteriously impeding his progress. 

Bryant died in a helicopter accident on Jan. 26, 2020. His former team, the Los Angeles Lakers won the 2020 NBA championship on Oct. 11 and dedicated the win to him.

King spoke with CBC Books about working with the basketball star to write the Wizenard series.

A cryptic email

"Four years ago, I had received a somewhat cryptic email from my agent. They told me that Kobe wanted to write a book with me. Without context, it made no sense at the time. 

"From there, we set up a phone call. We had a quick exchange. He was a fan of my books — he had read my first book, The Vindico, and then devoured the rest of them. He said he loved my writing style. 

"I think a moment of honesty won him over: I told him bluntly that I wasn't a fan of his, as I was a longtime fan of the Toronto Raptors. He got a kick out of that. 

I told him bluntly that I wasn't a fan of his, as I was a longtime fan of the Toronto Raptors. He got a kick out of that.

"In our first meeting, we decided that we shared the same values and message. We had no idea what we were doing or what type of story we were going to write. We had a general outlook and from there we dove in."

Basketball star Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash in Jan. 2020. (Harry How/Getty Images)

Collaborating with Kobe

"It would probably surprise people how collaborative writing this book was. A lot of people have the impression that he came up with a one-line idea and I ran with it. But it was a day-by-day collaboration. We were on the phone constantly and sharing text messages. We were looking at it page by page.

A lot of people have the impression that he came with a one-line idea and I ran with it. But it was a day-by-day collaboration.

"He was technically the co-writer and creator. It was greatly collaborative and he gave me the lead on everything. He presented the general creative idea that I could package and bottle into something that might fit the framework of the story better."

Talking basketball

"The Wizenard Series is about these young people, where basketball is the centre of their lives. Writing this series was about delving into some of the deeper fears and self-doubts that we all possess and how we identify them and build out from there. 

"Reggie's great challenge was that he had labelled himself as a loser and had come to accept his place at the bottom of society. The story is about Reggie redefining his own label of himself. 

The Wizenard Series is about these young people where basketball is the centre of their lives.

"Finding the voice of these characters involved a lot of editing and fine tuning. The editing side is where things really take on the colour and come together — and we put a ton of editing into this series."

Wesley King was on his boat in Halifax when he got a call that changed his life: Kobe Bryant, the basketball legend, wanted to talk to him about developing a children's book together. That phone call led to The Wizenard Series, which is about the ups and downs of youth basketball, and what’s possible with hard work and a little magic. King joined Tom Power to talk about the book series and share his memories of the late basketball star four months after his death. 9:32

The Wizenard world 

"There was a process of putting the book together. We wrote different drafts and different feels of the book. The book has the real 'Mamba Mentality' of Kobe — themes like 'when in doubt, get back into the gym' and 'put the work in and grind it out on your own.'

"The challenge of this book was in taking those messages and not making them too aggressive for children. That was a balance. But he also wasn't one to pull punches, so the main character of Reggie suffers throughout the story. He faces deep psychological doubts in the book.

The book has the real 'Mamba Mentality' of Kobe — themes like 'when in doubt, get back into the gym' and 'put the work in and grind it out on your own'

"The Wizenard Series: Training Camp and The Wizenard Series: Season One are both psychological books. There's not this literal villain walking around causing trouble.

"We were headed that way in the series — having a villain — but the books are more about internalized mental battles. 

"Season One  is a more of a linear story. I think it's a good story for kids right now. It's about the things we can do on our own to make ourselves ready to be ready. I think the story might resonate right now, with a lot of young athletes stuck at home in a pandemic."

Los Angeles' LeBron James walks along the sideline featuring a Kobe Bryant memorial during 2020 NBA Playoffs. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

To be continued?

"The day after his passing, I was set to fly down to Los Angeles to work on books three, four and five of the series. We had brainstorm sessions laid out for the week. That had been the plan. 

It's my hope that the series will continue but we will continue to reassess and see how things go.

"His passing put things up in the air — along with how the world is right now during a pandemic. It's my hope that the series will continue but we will continue to reassess and see how things go."

Wesley King's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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