They were living in Mulhouse, France, at the time. The boy was crying, and it took all the father's strength not to cry along with him as they took their 45-minute trip across the Swiss border to the international school the children attended.
"I was sad because Kobe was sad," Sharia says. "I never imagined feeling that way about somebody I'd never met. It hurt him as if it was a family member. For a week he was missing meals. It was really, really hard for him."
The Mulhouse club, for which Joe was playing, was shaky financially, and it was also time for the Bryant children to prepare themselves for college in the U.S., so the family moved back home a few weeks later. Kobe turned out to be a much better player than his Italian friends had thought. He launched himself into the American system without hesitation, joining the famed Sonny Hill summer league in Philadelphia. There a counselor scolded him for listing "NBA" as his future career on his application. "The guy said NBA players are one in a million," Bryant recalls. "I said, 'Man, look, I'm going to be that one in a million.' You see Magic, Michael—they made it. What's different about them? The whole thing kind of pissed me off."
No doubt Bryant was lured away from Duke, Michigan and North Carolina—his three college choices—by the prospect of a millionaire's contract, but the powers of his imagination should not be ignored. Jordan and Johnson were back in the NBA, and in Bryant's mind's eye, they were waving him onto the court. "I wanted to get in the league and play against those guys," he says.
"See, the kids in America, they don't do the work that Kobe did," Johnson says. "That's a problem with the young people now. They don't have the fundamentals."
Johnson, now 38 and a Lakers vice president, says he learned about Bryant's special feeling for him "because of his family telling me some things after he joined the Lakers. I also knew because he was always calling here at the office, telling me, 'Let's work out,' or, 'Where are you working out?' "
A lot is made of Bryant's similarity to Jordan. He jumps like Jordan. ("Like Julius, too," his father adds.) He slashes and creates his own shots, much like Jordan (and Julius), and when he needs the extra moment to aim his jump shot, he can hang there, bent forward slightly, as if his shoulder blades have become little wings.
Every now and then, though less often recently, the Lakers turn the Bryant-Jordan comparison around. "Sometimes you say Michael could do things Kobe does," Lakers guard Jon Barry says, "and sometimes it's unanimous that he couldn't."
Sometimes Bryant even sounds like Jordan, answering an interviewer's question the way Jordan would. "Thai's a by-product of him studying those tapes," says Joe Carbone, Bryant's personal trainer.
Yes, Bryant has a personal trainer, just like Mike. "I just have so much energy," Bryant says. On a game day, early in the morning, he is usually in the gym with Carbone, lifting weights and stretching before meeting his teammates for the shootaround. Some nights he will call Carbone and arrange to meet him at a gym even though the Lakers practiced that afternoon. This summer, regardless of how far the Lakers go in the playoffs, Bryant plans to work out at least five hours a day, half of the time in the weight room, the other half on the basketball floor. "That's when I'm going to pick up my game another five notches," he says.