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That kind of imagination needs fuel. Joe Bryant might not be a killer, but he possessed a different quality: the capacity for nearly unconditional love. He gave his son freedom and constant support when he was young, sitting with the boy and breaking down Magic's dribble drive and Larry Bird's drop step on the VHS NBA tapes that Kobe's grandparents shipped from the States. Joe rebounded countless shots, played hundreds of games of one-on-one against his son, some so physical that Pam had to break them up. He taught Kobe to delight in the game yet never back down from another man.
Most important, Joe was always there: not only in Italy but also at Lower Merion High outside Philadelphia, where he was a jayvee coach while Kobe was a student, and in Los Angeles, where he helped with Kobe's transition to the Lakers. During Kobe's first years in the NBA, he had few friends and an icy relationship with his teammates, but he always had his dad. Joe was the one who taught him to be his own man, who gave him freedom to make his own choices, at least when it came to basketball. He was the anti--Marv Marinovich, empowering rather than dictatorial, encouraging his son to dream grand dreams.
Perhaps, then, the same qualities that kept Joe from reaching his potential as a player are what allowed him to be a superb father, one who instilled what he could not pass down. After all, how does a child—any child—gain tremendous confidence? When Kobe opted for the pros instead of college, Pam told The Sporting News, "We're always going to support him. That's what we always do."
"The most important thing," Joe said, "is that we wanted to raise our kids to be stronger and better people than we are."
Just like his father. In many respects Kobe surpassed Joe long ago. Now it is Joe who gets jobs based in part on the fame of his son. It is Joe who arrives for flights decked out in Kobe gear. Some might see Joe as a sad old man clinging to the game, going to the ends of the earth for coaching gigs. Yet to spend time around him is never to feel this way. He's been married for 38 years to the same woman and has close relationships with his children and grandchildren. He travels the world, immersing himself in new experiences.
While in Japan he ate sushi and coached the Tokyo Apaches, whose players included And1 Tour star John (Helicopter) Humphrey. In L.A. he worked with one of the greatest women's players of all time, Lisa Leslie. As coach of the Cobras he's explored Bangkok and visited Vietnam. This summer he might coach the Thai national team. Or maybe he'll return to Mexico. Who knows? "Basketball is basketball, all over the world," he says. Ask him how long he will coach, and he smiles. "As long as my wife will let me."
On Wednesday night the Cobras play the Malaysia Dragons, one of the top ABL teams. The game goes back and forth, and the reffing is atrocious. Travis George, one of the Cobras' two U.S. players, fouls out two minutes into the second half, leading Joe to pull aside the Thai ref and say, "That's too soon, baby, too soon." Yet the Cobras rally, staying in it until the end behind Bryant, who keeps calm on the bench and pulls off a clever coaching move with half a minute left, instructing Lewis to do what an opposing player had just done: fake an injury after being fouled so that a better shooter can take the free throws.
In the end the Cobras hold on to win 85--81. The players are ecstatic, roaring to the crowd of 300, now standing and cheering. And there, in the middle of it all, is Joe Bryant, slapping hands and hugging Reyes and being lifted off the ground by Lewis as if the Cobras had just won the NBA title. As the Thai fans whistle and cheer, Joe grins his gap-toothed grin and pumps his fist before embracing Pam and, finally, tilting his head back and laughing into the night.
And that's when it hits you, knowing that thousands of miles away Joe's son is gritting out a set of crunches or watching game film on his laptop or conjuring up a new grudge to fuel him through a back-to-back: Joe Bryant may never be great, but he is happy. Kobe Bryant may never be happy, and perhaps that's what makes him great.