Where does greatness come from? (cont.)
Twenty years later, Joe's coaching style hasn't changed much. At a Tuesday practice, only nine Cobras are present. With a big game the following day, Bryant looks around the gym and, spotting a visiting reporter, calls him over. "Hey, we need a guinea pig," he says. "Play down low in the 2-3 zone."
For the next 20 minutes the Cobras practice attacking a zone. Then the reporter becomes a two guard, and the team works on defending against a high pick-and-roll offense. Bryant directs the action, occasionally stopping to ask the players' opinions. "What do we want to do with this screen when they go horns?" he says, looking at Cruz and point guard Jai Reyes. Should they "X" the play, switching the two defenders on the high screen? Should they try to get through the screen? The idea of showing and recovering is broached. "That's how we do in the league, but you guys aren't in good enough shape," Bryant says with a chuckle. Still, Joe coaches by committee, and in the end the committee decides to hedge on the screen.
After practice Bryant sits courtside, long arms draped over plastic chairs. He says coaches make the mistake of trying to impose a system on their players, rather than adjusting the system to them. He says he tries "to give players the freedom to think, the freedom to play, not tell them what to do." Occasionally he mentions his son, speaking proudly of Kobe's work ethic and of how he plays better when angry. As Joe speaks, you can see flashes of his son. Not so much in his face -- Kobe looks more like his mother, with the high cheekbones and thin nose -- but in his mannerisms. Occasionally Joe's eyes narrow, and that's when you can sense it: that Bryant wariness. Just like Kobe, Joe takes everything in, appraising the world and adjusting to it.
Indeed, the whole Bryant family is guarded. Pam doesn't speak to the media, nor do Kobe's older sisters, Sharia and Shaya. Kobe long ago honed his unrevealing public persona: pursed lips, wry smile, soft voice, gritted teeth. While many star athletes write autobiographies by the time they are 25, Kobe hasn't, just as he doesn't tweet or open up in interviews. Such self-reflection might allow an opponent to uncover a weakness or, worse yet, force him to recognize one in himself.
Perhaps he got this from Joe, who has two minutes for everybody but an hour for no one. When asked after a few days to do a longer interview about his life, he hesitates. "I don't know," he says, eyes narrowing. "People have offered me a lot of money for my stories. I might write a book one day, once Kobe retires." By the following evening he has reconsidered. Just call in the morning, he says. Only, come the next day, Joe does not answer his phone. Not in the morning, not in the afternoon, not at night. Not when Griffin calls, or Joe's assistant coach, or even when it is pointed out that the reporter has traveled across nine time zones just to talk to him, and that exposure in a national magazine might benefit a man who says he wants to get a job in the NBA one day. Says Griffin, with a sigh, "Joe can be that way."
The falling out occurred in 2000, though neither Joe nor Kobe talks about it publicly anymore. At 21, Kobe got engaged to 18-year-old Vanessa Laine, whom he had met on the set of a video shoot when she was a high school senior. Joe did not approve. The problem, according to the Los Angeles Times, was that Joe was "uncomfortable that Vanessa, a Latina, is not African-American, and he is uneasy with [Kobe's] selfless devotion to her." When Kobe and Vanessa got married the following year, Joe and Pam didn't attend the wedding. When the Lakers played three games in Philadelphia during the 2001 NBA Finals, Joe was nowhere to be found. When, at the end of that series, the Lakers triumphed and Kobe was spotted holding the trophy in the shower and crying, everyone assumed it was out of joy, or relief. But he later told the Times, "That was about my dad."
The chill persisted for years. Some sons might have lashed out, especially those as famous and powerful as Kobe. After all, it was in Kobe's house that Joe and Pam had lived for three years after Kobe signed with the Lakers in 1996. It was Kobe who bought Joe a BMW, Kobe who in December 1999 purchased 50 percent of Olimpia Milano of the Italian League, at a reported cost of just under $2 million, so his father could be a team executive. Yet Kobe never said a bad word in public about his father. Joe, for his part, told the Times, "It's his life, we've got nothing to do with it. We've done our job." In 2003, when Kobe was charged with sexual assault and much of the country pilloried him (the case was later dismissed, while a civil case was settled out of court), Joe stayed quiet.
Not long after that, however, they got back on good terms. When Joe was named head coach of the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks late in the 2005 season, Kobe eventually came around to see his father, hugging him in public and bringing his two young daughters to games. "Dads and kids fight," Joe told his assistant, Michael Abraham, by way of explaining the rift now mended. "It just so happens that he's Kobe."
Joe lasted only a year and a half in that job, just as he lasted only a season or two in so many before and after. Abraham still isn't sure why. He has only good things to say about Joe -- "the most pleasant mentor-slash-coach I've ever worked for." Christi Thomas, a forward/center on the Sparks, adds, "I can't tell you how much [Joe] meant to me. He's one of the few coaches who believed in me, nurtured my confidence and made me believe I could be and do anything."
The Cobras players are similarly effusive. "He's a true players' coach," says Gentry Lewis, who has played everywhere from Okinawa to Saudi Arabia to Turkey. Other Cobras say they might have quit if not for Bryant. "Everyone respects him because he's Kobe's dad," says Earl. "Now I know where Kobe got his swag."
Despite all this, Joe has never held a coaching job in the NBA. He says he'd like to be an assistant, maybe work in player development, but he adds, "I might cause some trouble, bucking the system." Jerry West says he never considered hiring Joe on the Lakers, but he claims to have "no clue" why Bryant hasn't gotten a shot. As for Kobe, he backs his father, as he always has. "I've gotten so many requests from other coaches in the NBA to talk to him," Kobe said one recent night, an hour after a Lakers road game. He paused, frowned, adjusted his black beanie. "He doesn't really like dealing with the b.s. and politics," Kobe continued, starting to gather steam, "but when he gets his shot, he's going to take full advantage of it, because he is a great coach. The biggest thing in the NBA is understanding people and how you communicate with them, and he has that down pat."
It was classic Kobe, only now on behalf of his father: Every battle can -- and will -- be won.
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