Where does greatness come from?
Unlike Kobe, Joe Bryant was criticized for not taking basketball seriously enough
People used to look for hints of Joe in his son, Kobe, not the other way around
Kobe looks to his father for love of basketball; his mother for his fire and drive
This story appears in the May 14, 2012 issue of Sports Illustrated. Buy the digital version of the magazine here.
It is 1981, and Kobe Bryant is 3 years old. He runs to his room, grabs his Clippers jersey and yanks it over his head. Then he steps into a pair of shorts, grabs a mini-basketball and heads to the living room to watch the Clippers game on TV. When Joe Bryant steps onto the court, Kobe mimics his father's every move. When Joe shoots a jumper, Kobe fires one at his plastic Dr. J basket. When Joe uses his guile to get to the hoop, Kobe slides by imaginary defenders, faking out the couch and the lamp. Kobe takes a seat when Joe does, grabs a towel when Joe does and, afterward, takes a shower just like Joe. Though still a toddler, Kobe already knows what he wants in life: to be just like his father.
Just like his father. It is 30 years later, and we all know what became of the son. The father, however, is harder to pin down. After playing for 10 pro teams in three countries over 18 years, he has coached in the WNBA, the ABA, Japan, Mexico and Italy, though never in the NBA. He's been a high school coach and a college assistant, and once he helmed a team in the SlamBall league, in which players jump off trampolines embedded in the court.
To find Joe Bryant these days requires a trip to Bangkok. The first thing that hits you in the city is its stench. It is warm, fetid, pulsing, a combination of exhaust and decaying food, of sweat and desperation. This is Bangkok in March, before the rainy season, during which the water crashes down for months and the city bloats until it floods. Here you can buy anything cheap: DVDs of the newest movies, black-market Cialis, backroom companionship. You can become someone new every night. It is a place where foreigners come looking for one more last chance.
It is here that Joe (Jellybean) Bryant has found his latest last chance, as the coach of the Cobras of the fledgling AirAsia ASEAN Basketball League. He arrived one morning in January and was on the bench that same night. He lives in a small apartment, knows about three words of Thai and gets about using public transportation. His team consists of two U.S. imports, two players from the Philippines and nine Thais, one of whom moved up from a local rec-league team.
|SI senior writer Chris Ballard discusses his feature on the life and times of Joe Bryant and his relationship with his son, Kobe.|
Now, nine games into the five-month season, the Cobras are struggling. They have three wins and no title sponsor, and so few fans that they have yet to charge for admission. Some of the players say they haven't been paid in weeks. None of this appears to bother Bryant, though. On this Sunday afternoon he strolls into the gym at Chulalongkorn University at 2:30, a half hour before game time. At 57 he is still lean and graceful; his only concessions to age are the hitch in his step and a slight forward tilt, as if he is leaning into a stiff breeze. During practices he wears yellow Kobe-branded Nike sneakers, purple Kobe-branded Nike shorts and long, white Kobe-branded Nike T-shirts, but for this game he is dressed in slacks, loafers and a white cobras polo shirt, his bald head accented by a pair of black-rimmed glasses that make him look vaguely hipsterish.
As Bryant makes his way through the gym, people stare and whisper -- some because they see only so many 6-9 black men in Thailand, others because they know who he is. But they don't identify him as Jellybean Bryant, the eight-year NBA veteran and flashy forward so beloved by Italian crowds that they used to sing that he was "better than Magic or Jabbar." Rather, the U.S. tourists and the Thai businessmen in number 24 jerseys and the Bangkok teenagers in mamba T-shirts see Bryant and all think the same thing. Even his players do. As Cobras reserve forward Michael Earl says with wide eyes, "That's Kobe's pops right here. Just think about that s---."
Once upon a time, people looked for hints of Joe in Kobe, not the other way around. Once they watched a small, stringy boy run onto the court at halftime of Joe's games in Italy, saw him heave up shots and thought, That kid has Jellybean written all over him. And who wouldn't want that? Joe was a legend on the playgrounds of Philadelphia, a tall guy who could handle the ball and pass it like a guard, shoot from the outside and kill you in the post. He picked up his nickname early, its exact derivation now lost to time. Maybe he got it because he loved candy, maybe because he had so many moves that he shook like jelly.
As his coaches and teammates will tell you, Jellybean was way ahead of his time, a point forward before Don Nelson concocted the concept. He dribbled behind his back, played to the crowd and wore an ever-present smile that his coach at La Salle, Paul Westhead, describes as "miraculous." Bryant's affability came from his father, Big Joe, a gentle 6-5 rock of a man who attended seemingly every high school and college game in Philly. Like Big Joe, Jellybean was always in a good mood. He saw life as a great adventure. That outlook didn't always endear him to coaches. "Back then they wanted people to play with a scowl and be all about the fundamentals," says Westhead. "That wasn't Joe."
In the second-to-last game of Bryant's junior season, against Lafayette, La Salle was aiming for an NCAA berth. With two minutes left and his team up eight, Bryant stole the ball. At the time, dunking was outlawed by the NCAA and resulted in a two-shot technical foul, but that didn't stop Jellybean. He galloped downcourt and threw down a tremendous two-handed flush. "Coach, I had to," a grinning Bryant told Westhead upon returning to the bench. "I've been waiting all season to do that."
Fortunately, La Salle hung on for a seven-point victory. Years later, though, after Bryant failed to stick for more than four seasons with any NBA team, Westhead would wonder what might have been if Joe had been more serious about the game. If he'd been more like his son.
The boy who once dreamed of becoming his father has moved on to other goals. On a rainy March evening 8,000 miles from Bangkok, Kobe Bryant arrives at Oracle Arena in Oakland at 5:15, more than two hours before the Lakers' tip-off against the Warriors and before all but a couple of teammates.
Now in his 16th NBA season, Bryant has defied all the critics -- the ones who said he was merely a Michael Jordan clone, that he couldn't win without Shaquille O'Neal, that he was too selfish to be a leader. At 33 he stands behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain in career NBA points. He is also at the beginning of the end, even if he refuses to admit it. There are too many miles on his body, too few leaps left in those legs, too many talented young players in the league. This season Bryant played heroically for the Lakers, putting together a near-MVP campaign and carrying the team to the third seed in the West. But he also appeared fallible far more often than before. His shooting percentage, 43.0, was the lowest since his second year; his turnovers were up, to 3.52 per game; and, most concerning, he faltered in the clutch. Of the crunch-time shots Bryant took this season, he made only 32.7 percent, and 21.4 percent from three-point range.
There is little Kobe could have done, at least physically, to prevent this decline. No player in NBA history has worked harder or longer to maintain his excellence. Kobe has taken a mono-maniacal approach to the game, forgoing hobbies, camaraderie and close friendships to focus on his basketball goals. Even now Lakers staffers say they never know when they might find Bryant working out: at 4 a.m., at 11 p.m., before shootarounds. He travels with his own trainer, Tim Grover, and he persuaded the team to hire his longtime physical therapist, Judy Seto, so he could receive treatment at all hours. When the Lakers held a Super Bowl party in February at the Ritz-Carlton in Philadelphia, all but one of the players relaxed and watched the game. Bryant sat in a corner with his ankle in a bucket of ice and directed Seto as she worked on his limbs. In Bryant's world the clock is always ticking.
That's why he has arrived early on this night and is methodically practicing jumpers, his businesslike expression never changing. Four hours later, when the Lakers are struggling in the fourth quarter, Bryant will catch the ball at the top of the key with just over a minute left and his team down by two to the lottery-bound Warriors. Dribbling left, Bryant will draw a double team, but instead of passing he will keep going, into the teeth of the defense. Then he will leap off two feet and fade away, launching a low-percentage, high-arcing jumper. It will go in. On the next possession he will do the same thing, from the same spot, with the same result, helping lead L.A. to a 104-101 victory.
And with that he will scowl his Kobe scowl, and the crowd will erupt, for Bryant has reached the stage in which people go to games just to say that they saw him in his prime, the way they did with Michael. They bring their kids and point out the graceful man with the purple armband and the egg-shaped head, and they hope that he will make a signature late-game shot -- one that is both irresponsible and iconic -- because that is the promise he has made to them, the one his father never could: He will win no matter the cost.