When Joe Bryant left La Salle in 1975 after his junior year to turn professional, it was because his family needed the money. "The rule back then was that you had to prove that you were in financial hardship," he says. He was a 6'9" forward with a guard's mentality, and he was chosen in the first round by the Golden State Warriors. He held out for more money. The Philadelphia 76ers traded for him, offering a reported $900,000 over five years, and that, he says, was that. "I was on the East Coast, so they put me under the basket," he says. "That used to be big, that East Coast-West Coast argument: If Magic had been in New York, would he have had the same kind of freedom he had in L.A.?"
Kobe was born a year after the 1977 NBA Finals, the premature peak of his father's eight-year NBA career. (Joe was a defensive specialist on the Sixers' second unit, behind Julius Erving and George McGinnis, as Philadelphia was dissected in six games by Bill Walton's Portland Trail Blazers.) Kobe, Joe says, "was named after a Kobe steak house in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. But I don't know if I should say that, because they might want the rights to his name."
In 1984, after Joe had finished his NBA career with the Houston Rockets, he and Pam and their three children set off on a family adventure with all kinds of unforeseen benefits. They moved to Rieti, Italy, where Joe began his European playing career. For eight years, during which he played for four teams, he moved his family from one town to the next like an actor in the theater, settling wherever he could find a production that had a role for him. In the meantime his son was developing a romance with basketball that he might never have experienced in America.
Six-year-old Kobe was enrolled in first grade in a school in Rieti where his two sisters—Shaya, then seven, and Sharia, eight—were entering the second and third grades, respectively. Because they were just learning to speak Italian, they had to work harder than other students. Perhaps had Kobe been a star soccer player, he would have been treated as someone sacred, but his talent for basketball carried no great weight. "In Italy they told me, 'You're a great player over here, but when you get over to America, it won't be like that,' " he recalls.
Basketball became his private hobby, and he had little choice but to be humble about it. "After school I would be the only guy on the basketball court, working on my moves, and then kids would start showing up with their soccer ball," he says. "I could hold them off if there were two or three of them, but when they got to be 11 or 12, I had to give up the court. It was either go home or be the goalkeeper."
By U.S. standards Kobe and his sisters enjoyed an unusually well-rounded life: The streets were safe at all hours, and children mixed easily with their parents in the bright cafe bars. "In America, families break apart because the son has to take a job in South Dakota," Joe Bryant says. "In Italy you'd see whole families living in one big villa. That's what our kids saw. We would go have a meal and end up sitting at the table, eating and talking, for three or four hours."
The Italians were impassioned believers in their basketball clubs, carrying team flags and scarves and wearing their team colors. Fans would throw coins at visiting players, hop in place together, chant in a single voice or sing in a bellow throughout each game. Whether Joe was playing for Reggio di Calabria near Sicily or Pistoia to the north—the sorts of small towns where Italian basketball thrives—he was a cult figure, a 30-points-per-game scorer, the direct opposite of his role in the NBA. "They used to sing songs for my father," Kobe says, and in Italian he sings one: "You know the player who's better than Magic or Jabbar? It's Joseph, Joseph Bryant!"
"If we upset one of the big teams in Italy, I didn't have to pay for a meal for the rest of the week," Joe recalls, laughing. "One year we upset somebody, and the town was like a festival. So much passion."
During the week Joe would practice with his club twice a day, a time-wasting European custom, but for the first time in his working life he took his meals at home. His club would play every Sunday and occasionally in midweek. On Saturday afternoons he would take the family for walks into the mountains. On Monday, his usual day off, Americans who were playing for other Italian clubs would bring their families and meet in the nearest big city—Florence, Rome, Venice—at McDonald's. Sharia and Shaya remember making friends with the daughters of ex-Sixer Harvey Catchings, Tauja and Tamika, who are now basketball stars at Illinois and Tennessee, respectively. "I have pictures of them walking through Venice with Kobe," Joe Bryant says.
On weekdays after school Joe would take Kobe to practice with him, something he couldn't have done in the NBA. While the team worked out, Kobe would shoot baskets in a corner, like a shadow thrown by his father. Italian basketball cognoscenti still remember Kobe shooting around during halftime and being shooed off the court as his father's games were resuming. "The crowd would be cheering me," Kobe says. "I loved it."