It is 1981, and Kobe Bryant is three years old. He runs to his room, grabs his Clippers jersey and yanks it over his head. Then he steps into a pair of shorts, grabs a mini-basketball and heads to the living room to watch the Clippers game on TV. When Joe Bryant steps onto the court, Kobe mimics his father's every move. When Joe shoots a jumper, Kobe fires one at his plastic Dr. J basket. When Joe uses his guile to get to the hoop, Kobe slides by imaginary defenders, faking out the couch and the lamp. Kobe takes a seat when Joe does, grabs a towel when Joe does and, afterward, takes a shower just like Joe. Though still a toddler, Kobe already knows what he wants in life: to be just like his father.
Just like his father. It is 30 years later, and we all know what became of the son. The father, however, is harder to pin down. After playing for 10 pro teams in three countries over 18 years, he has coached in the WNBA, the ABA, Japan, Mexico and Italy, though never in the NBA. He's been a high school coach and a college assistant, and once he helmed a team in the SlamBall league, in which players jump off trampolines embedded in the court.
To find Joe Bryant these days requires a trip to Bangkok. The first thing that hits you in the city is its stench. It is warm, fetid, pulsing, a combination of exhaust and decaying food, of sweat and desperation. This is Bangkok in March, before the rainy season, during which the water crashes down for months and the city bloats until it floods. Here you can buy anything cheap: DVDs of the newest movies, black market Cialis, backroom companionship. You can become someone new every night. It is a place where foreigners come looking for one more last chance.
It is here that Joe (Jellybean) Bryant has found his latest last chance, as the coach of the Cobras of the fledgling AirAsia ASEAN Basketball League. He arrived one morning in January and was on the bench that same night. He lives in a small apartment, knows about three words of Thai and gets about using public transportation. His team consists of two U.S. imports, two players from the Philippines and nine Thais, one of whom moved up from a local rec-league team.
Now, nine games into the five-month season, the Cobras are struggling. They have three wins and no title sponsor, and so few fans that they have yet to charge for admission. Some of the players say they haven't been paid in weeks. None of this appears to bother Bryant, though. On this Sunday afternoon he strolls into the gym at Chulalongkorn University at 2:30, a half hour before game time. At 57 he is still lean and graceful; his only concessions to age are the hitch in his step and a slight forward tilt, as if he is leaning into a stiff breeze. During practices he wears yellow Kobe-branded Nike sneakers, purple Kobe-branded Nike shorts and long, white Kobe-branded Nike T-shirts, but for this game he is dressed in slacks, loafers and a white COBRAS polo shirt, his bald head accented by a pair of black-rimmed glasses that make him look vaguely hipsterish.
As Bryant makes his way through the gym, people stare and whisper—some because they see only so many 6'9" black men in Thailand, others because they know who he is. But they don't identify him as Jellybean Bryant, the eight-year NBA veteran and flashy forward so beloved by Italian crowds that they used to sing that he was "better than Magic or Jabbar." Rather, the U.S. tourists and the Thai businessmen in number 24 jerseys and the Bangkok teenagers in MAMBA T-shirts see Bryant and all think the same thing. Even his players do. As Cobras reserve forward Michael Earl says with wide eyes, "That's Kobe's pops right here. Just think about that s---."
Once upon a time, people looked for hints of Joe in Kobe, not the other way around. Once they watched a small, stringy boy run onto the court at halftime of Joe's games in Italy, saw him heave up shots and thought, That kid has Jellybean written all over him. And who wouldn't want that? Joe was a legend on the playgrounds of Philadelphia, a tall guy who could handle the ball and pass it like a guard, shoot from the outside and kill you in the post. He picked up his nickname early, its exact derivation now lost to time. Maybe he got it because he loved candy, maybe because he had so many moves that he shook like jelly.
As his coaches and teammates will tell you, Jellybean was way ahead of his time, a point forward before Don Nelson concocted the concept. He dribbled behind his back, played to the crowd and wore an ever-present smile that his coach at La Salle, Paul Westhead, describes as "miraculous." Bryant's affability came from his father, Big Joe, a gentle 6'5" rock of a man who attended seemingly every high school and college game in Philly. Like Big Joe, Jellybean was always in a good mood. He saw life as a great adventure. That outlook didn't always endear him to coaches. "Back then they wanted people to play with a scowl and be all about the fundamentals," says Westhead. "That wasn't Joe."
In the second-to-last game of Bryant's junior season, against Lafayette, La Salle was aiming for an NCAA berth. With two minutes left and his team up eight, Bryant stole the ball. At the time, dunking was outlawed by the NCAA and resulted in a two-shot technical foul, but that didn't stop Jellybean. He galloped downcourt and threw down a tremendous two-handed flush. "Coach, I had to," a grinning Bryant told Westhead upon returning to the bench. "I've been waiting all season to do that."
Fortunately, La Salle hung on for a seven-point victory. Years later, though, after Bryant failed to stick for more than four seasons with any NBA team, Westhead would wonder what might have been if Joe had been more serious about the game. If he'd been more like his son.