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WHERE DOES GREATNESS COME FROM?
CHRIS BALLARD
May 14, 2012
You might assume that Kobe Bryant inherited his talent for basketball and his burning need to dominate from his father, former NBA and Italian league player Joe (Jellybean) Bryant. But Joe and Kobe are substantially different, and while the son got some gifts from his father, he got his fire from an unexpected source
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May 14, 2012

Where Does Greatness Come From?

You might assume that Kobe Bryant inherited his talent for basketball and his burning need to dominate from his father, former NBA and Italian league player Joe (Jellybean) Bryant. But Joe and Kobe are substantially different, and while the son got some gifts from his father, he got his fire from an unexpected source

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"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."

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.

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