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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.
So where does the son's legendary competitive drive come from? Watch Pam Bryant at her husband's games. When Joe gets too into it, barking at the refs, she stares him down and wags a finger, lest he get a foolish T. When Pam played basketball as a girl, she used to hound boys on the court. Later, in family games, she never shied from contact. Once, when Kobe was 14 and he tried to dunk on her in a backyard game, she leveled him with a forearm. "She would drop you," says Kobe. "Oh, yeah, she was rough."
Pam came from basketball talent. Her younger brother is Chubby Cox, a guard at Villanova and USF before a seven-game NBA stint with Washington in the early 1980s, and her nephews include John Cox, who is now a pro in France, and Sharif Butler, who played at TCU in the mid-'90s. It was Sharif, Kobe's older cousin, who relentlessly beat him at one-on-one. "He'd terrorize me," says Kobe.
"I think that's part of what made Kobe who he is," says John Cox. "Losing those games to Sharif."
This fire was Pam's gift to him, as Kobe sees it. "My mom's the feisty one," he says. "She has that killer in her."
From his father, Kobe says, he took the love for basketball, the ability to see the game on multiple levels—"He taught me that early and understands it unlike anyone I've ever met"—and a feeling for people. "My father has this great understanding and compassion. That's how I understand how to communicate with guys and lead a group."
Yet it is never that simple, that linear. There is nurture and nature, but there are so many other factors. Jerry West thinks that Kobe's greatest talent is his imagination. All those years in Italy, Kobe played what he calls "shadow basketball" by himself, imagining his opponents, imagining his future. "I think you need imagination to accomplish great things in life, and it has to be vivid," West says. "Regardless of what Kobe accomplished, it was never enough."