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THE MAGAZINE
Posted: Friday May 11, 2012 10:34AM ; Updated: Friday May 11, 2012 2:21PM

Where does greatness come from? (cont.)

By Chris Ballard, Sports Illustrated

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***

After playing for 10 pro teams in three countries over 18 years, Jellybean has coached in the WNBA, the ABA, Japan, Mexico, Italy and currently in China.
After playing for 10 pro teams in three countries over 18 years, Jellybean has coached in the WNBA, the ABA, Japan, Mexico, Italy and currently in China.
Chau Doan/SI

In Bangkok it is nearing tip-off when Cobras starting forward Gentry Lewis is approached by Pam Bryant, Joe's wife. In her sixth decade, Pam remains striking: tall, with long black hair, high cheekbones and a regal bearing. She holds out a cell phone to Lewis. "It's Kobe," she says.

Lewis looks surprised. He puts the phone to his ear, and indeed, it is Kobe on the other end. He's heard that Lewis has been struggling. "Go out there and kick ass tonight," Kobe says. "Do what you do and have a good time, but remember: It's time to step up to the f------ plate."

Four hours later, after the Cobras have squeaked out a 79-74 win, Lewis recounts the phone call while sitting across the bar from Joe and Pam at the Roadhouse Barbecue bar and restaurant, a three-story haven for expats not far from Patpong, Bangkok's famous red-light district. Pam listens and nods, then joins the conversation. "It was 10 p.m. where Kobe was, and guess what he was doing?" she asks, incredulous. "Working out!" She shakes her head, unable to hide her pride.

Joe works on some nachos, pulls on a pint of Chang beer and smiles his gap-toothed smile. He is here because the team is having a postgame meet-and-greet with fans. There is only one problem: Even though the Cobras announced the Roadhouse event during the game, offered free appetizers and printed the info on the back of the (free) tickets, none of the few hundred fans at the game have shown up. In a corner sits the team's part-owner, a nervous Texan named Tom Griffin. Nearby, the president of Thailand's basketball association, Khun Surasak Chinawatana, a revered former Thai player and coach, sits quietly, looking disappointed.

Eventually the players wander over to a pool table. They coerce Jellybean into joining them. "Ain't played in 10 years," he protests. Playing against the Cobras' two guard, Martin Cruz, Bryant falls behind six balls to one. Then he embarks on an epic run. Finally he has only the 8 ball left, lined up for the corner pocket. He pauses, then raises his lanky frame from the table and shakes his head.

"No, sir!" he says with a laugh. "I can't do that to one of my players."

Then Bryant does something his son would never do, could not conceive of doing: He tosses his cue on the table and walks away from victory.

***

There is a common misconception that Kobe Bryant is just a younger, better version of his father: Tall professional basketball player sires same. Here is a chip off the old block. Ask those who know both men, though, and you hear something different. "If you'd told me that of all the guys I played with, it was Joe Bryant who would produce one of the greatest players of the next generation, I never would have believed you," says Steve Mix, the All-Star forward who started ahead of Bryant on the 76ers in the late 1970s. "Maybe Mo Cheeks, but never Joe."

Jerry West, who traded for Kobe and shepherded him during his formative years with the Lakers, is more emphatic. "They are two entirely different people," West says. "If your name is Jellybean, what does that say about you? It's not a bad thing, but what does it say? You're definitely not a warrior."

This is true. When Joe left La Salle after his junior year to enter the 1975 NBA draft, he landed with his hometown Sixers, who miscast him as a post player. Coming off the bench on a deep, talented team that included Darryl Dawkins, Lloyd B. Free, Julius Erving and Doug Collins, Bryant played limited minutes and became increasingly frustrated. In 1979, after his third and final child was born -- a boy he named Kobe after a type of beef from Japan -- Joe was traded to San Diego. There he enjoyed a brief renaissance before being shuttled off to the Rockets, who cut him at the end of the '82-83 season. He left the league bitter. "[Johnson] comes into the league with all that fancy stuff, and they call it magic," Joe said at the time. "I've been doing it all these years, and they call it schoolyard."

Everyone knew Jellybean had the talent -- "If the 25-year-old Joe played the 25-year-old Kobe in a game of one-on-one, I don't think it's a foregone conclusion that Kobe would win," Westhead says -- but it was his will that was in question. Del Harris (who coached Joe on the Rockets and Kobe on the Lakers) and Paul Silas (who coached Joe on the Clippers) have publicly suggested that Joe made too many fancy passes for his own good. A Lakers official quoted in Roland Lazenby's 2000 book, Mad Game, goes one step further: "[Joe] was a goofball. He threw away his NBA career."

A skinny 11-year-old Kobe played in a benefit game in Italy.
A skinny 11-year-old Kobe played in a benefit game in Italy.
Courtesy of the Bryant family

Not so his international career. In 1984, Bryant moved his family to Italy on the advice of Philly hoops guru Sonny Hill and became an instant star, averaging more than 30 points and twice scoring 53. The same traits that U.S. coaches hated in Bryant -- flashy play and irrepressible enthusiasm -- thrilled the Italian fans. He went on to play for three other teams there. By 1991, in his final overseas campaign, with the French team Mulhouse, Bryant had been a pro for 16 years.

Despite his experience, Bryant was not an obvious choice to be a coach. He'd never been a student of the game. Yet there he was, after moving back to the States with his family in the fall of '91, taking the most unlikely coaching job imaginable: with the girls' basketball team at Akiba Hebrew Academy, a tiny school near Philadelphia.

When the players heard who'd been hired as their new coach, they couldn't believe it. But Bryant didn't act like a big-time pro; he was more like the players' favorite uncle. He ran sprints with them and roared in delight when they made good plays. He taught them Italian, and they taught him how to yell out plays in Hebrew to confound their Catholic-school opponents. So there Bryant was, a year removed from pro ball, standing on the sideline of a small gym on the Main Line hollering, "M'shulash! [Triangle!]" at teenage girls.

On Sundays he brought 14-year-old Kobe to practice. The girls remember him as being skinny, quiet and intense. While Joe coached, Kobe stood on the side of the court bouncing a basketball off the wall for 20 minutes at a time, one hand behind his back and then the other. When the court was open, he'd practice dunking. Kobe never flirted or talked with the Akiba players. In scrimmages, though, when the Bryants would take on the girls two-on-five, Kobe came alive, sprinting and scrapping. "They'd absolutely kill us," says Amy Malissa, the center on the team. Already, Kobe was both serious and devoted.

Joe was devoted but not serious. Before the last road game of the season, star senior forward Rebecca Zacher realized she'd forgotten to pack her sports bra. Making matters worse, she was, in her words, "highly developed in the chest region." Frantic, she called her father, who began driving home to pick up the bra. Then she quietly broke the news to Bryant. The next thing she knew, he was running around the hallway and locker room, shouting, "Tape, right now! Anything you got!" When Rebecca informed him that you couldn't just wrap her in athletic tape like a mummy, Bryant mulled other possibilities. "Well," he said, "can you just hold them in one arm and play with the other?" Even mortified, Rebecca couldn't help laughing.

At the end of the season, Bryant left for an assistant coaching job at La Salle, but the girls never forgot him (especially Rebecca, whose father arrived at halftime with the bra). The Akiba players still talk about how special that year was, how it made them care about the game, how Bryant gave them confidence as they embarked on their adult lives. More than one of them uses the word nurture, which comes up often when players discuss Joe. "We pushed ourselves because we wanted him to be proud," says Amy. "With Joe, it wasn't about the competition. It was about bettering yourself."

 
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