A Very American Coup By Michael – Louis...
Bryant Not Just Kobe’s Dad, He’s Working-Class
It’s roughly 20 minutes since the Sparks ended their practice.
Coach Joe Bryant is still out on the floor, shirt and shorts drenched, sweat glistening on his shaved head.
But he’s not running a team drill or training a prospect. “Jellybean,” a nickname given to him by high school friend Mo Howard because Bryant loved the multicolored candies and danced “like jelly shaking in a bowl,” is pumping out jumpers — 15 feet, 18 feet, three-pointers. He makes five or six in a row, then clanks one and howls as if he cost his team Game 7.
This is not a show for the few visitors this day in the Toyota Sports Center, the El Segundo facility where the Sparks and Lakers work out. Bryant doesn’t just run practice. He runs in practice with the Sparks, then shoots long after his players are done.
Not bad for a guy who turns 52 in October.
“Hey, you know I got to keep my game tight in case some young guy wants to come along and play,” said Bryant, followed by his trademark throaty laugh.
You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who loves basketball more than Bryant. He has been transferring his brand of joie de vivre to the Sparks, who were foundering last season under Henry Bibby. The Sparks were 13-15 before Bryant replaced Bibby on Aug. 18. This season, the Sparks are 10-3 and looking like a playoff contender.
“I think he’s brought more of a confidence, a calmness. We’re very loose,” All-Star center Lisa Leslie said. “It’s hard not to compare. But him compared to Bibby is night and day. He’s very laid-back, ‘You guys figure it out, you’re veterans, you know what to do.’ His style is totally different from any other coach we’ve seen here.”
Adds forward Christi Thomas: “He’s such a motivational coach, and he’s so passionate about the game it just bleeds into you every day during practice. He gets out there, he’s 50-plus years old out there practicing with us every day. For somebody to take that much pride and passion into the game we love so much, it means a lot to us.”
Bryant learned the game on the hard courts in highly competitive summer leagues in his native Philadelphia. He emerged nationally at La Salle University as an all-purpose 6-foot-9 forward who could cover guards in the open court as well as centers in the paint.
After leaving school early to enter the NBA under the then-”hardship” rule, Bryant played eight seasons in the league and eight more in Italy.
“Basketball’s been very, very good to me,” Bryant said. “Without it I wouldn’t be here talking now, or meet some of the people I’ve met in my lifetime. I look at basketball not just in terms of wins and losses, but the experience it gives you in life.”
But don’t confuse the word “love” with “obsession.” The game has taken him to the NBA and Europe, as well as coaching stints in college, minor league men’s pro ball in the U.S., Japan and his present stop in the WNBA. Still, Bryant is not a vagabond in high tops. It’s not basketball at the expense of everything else.
He and Pamela Cox have been married for 32 years and have three children and four granddaughters. Daughters Shaya and Sharia played basketball and volleyball in high school, then went on to volleyball at La Salle and Temple. Son Kobe is a star with the Lakers.
Even as coach, Bryant enjoys the perception of being a free spirit. It’s rare not to see a smile on his face.
“I’m still a fun-loving guy; I’m not going to change. It’s who I am. With me, the glass is always half-full no matter what’s going on in life,” Bryant said.
“I think it’s about respect. You respect me. I respect you. Life is simple. There are people you don’t get along with; there are things you don’t agree on. You just turn the other cheek and move on. It’s simple.”
Drafted by Golden State in 1975, Bryant began his NBA career with the Philadelphia 76ers, following a trade, and ended with the then-San Diego Clippers and Houston Rockets.
His career numbers are not spectacular — 8.7 points and 4.0 rebounds a game. In Philadelphia he came off the bench when All-Stars Julius Erving or George McGinnis needed a rest. In San Diego, he had his best season, averaging 11.8 points in 1981-82.
Although he was an excellent dribbler and at his best in a wide-open, running game, NBA teams were then stuck on the idea that a forward or center could be effective only in the low post, playing with his back to the basket.
“As a player Joe was superb,” said Paul Westhead, who coached Bryant in college and now coaches against him in the WNBA with Phoenix.
“He had all the skills and he performed. He was a [6-9] point guard before anyone let people of that size handle the ball. But he could score, he could run, rebound, dunk … very much ahead of his time.”
Former NBA star World B. Free, who played with Bryant in Philadelphia and San Diego, said his good friend “could play guard-forward-center, whatever position you wanted to put him in. He could have been bigger than he was, but he let the team be the big part of the game. But Joe could score as well as Dr. J, just a different style.”
Former NBA coach and current television analyst Doug Collins, a teammate in Philadelphia, agreed.
“Joe was a great energy guy,” he said. “He really, really loved to play basketball, and had great joy being on the court.”
Don’t think for a moment, however, Bryant wasn’t competitive. Free recalled one practice session when Bryant and Steve Mix got into a shooting contest.
“JB was a confident person. He never wanted the veterans to outdo him,” Free said. “He and Mix were playing H-O-R-S-E and Joe was just killing him with jumpers, layups. Then he’d give Mix that smile — ‘You can’t touch me.’ And Mix was an All-Star. I knew Joe was special. He’s a great guy but is all business on the court.”
Bryant doesn’t dispute this.
“When you step on the court, you play hard,” he said. “We always said in Philly, when you come on the court bring your lunch because it’s going to be a long afternoon. When you get between those lines, no matter who, you play hard, physical, nasty, you intimidate. That’s the name of the game.”
While growing up, Kobe heard plenty of stories about his dad’s ability.
“They would tell me he was Magic [Johnson] before Magic,” he said.
But that didn’t compare to some of their one-on-one matchups in the family backyard.
“He made me earn everything,” Kobe said. “I never dunked on him. He always knew how to position himself. It’s like he had all the tricks of the trade.
“But he taught me how to think the game. When I came back to the States, I was very ahead of school-level. I was playing with purpose, not just running around. He gave me that basketball IQ for playing the game.”
As far as coaching goes, Bryant’s views are not necessarily traditional. For one thing, he’s not big on the term “coach.” He prefers “teacher” instead.
“As a coach, each time you have to stand up and tell them where to go and what to do. I think as a teacher, you give them the lesson plan. And as the season goes on, as the game goes on, they know what to do. I think that’s the difference,” Bryant said.
“You know your lesson plan works when they come back to the bench and say, ‘I know I could have gone this way because they were playing this way.’ That’s what makes you a teacher, when your players learn what to do. And sometimes, it comes to the point that as a teacher, if you teach the lesson well, at halftime you don’t have to say anything. Because they know. That’s the beauty of it.”
Johnny Buss, the Sparks’ president, said he knew Bryant was “young as a coach, and still had a lot to learn,” which is why Michael Abraham and Margaret Mohr, both considered strong tacticians, were hired as assistants.
But Buss liked Bryant’s nurturing style with the players. And he also liked Bryant’s knowledge and feel for pro ball.
“I’m still partial to NBA experience,” Buss said. “When you go through the NBA, almost regardless of the years it was — 30 years ago or recently — the experience is still above any [other] experience that we can really afford for the WNBA.
“Meaning that yeah, there’s some college experience, a Pat Summitt or a Geno [Auriemma], somebody like that,” he said, referring to the women’s head coaches at Tennessee and Connecticut. “But we’d be spending a million dollars a year.”
Buss described Bryant as “one of the nice guys, someone who will sit down and talk with you.”
“I’ve always wanted that in the WNBA, a one-on-one kind of guy with the players, me, everybody,” Buss said. “He doesn’t really have any air about him that might be unsettling. He doesn’t ever come across as if he has a second agenda. Other coaches have, in my past.”
Even nice guys have limits.
Joe and Kobe Bryant had a publicly acknowledged falling-out in 2001, when Kobe got married. They have since reconciled — Kobe has come to Sparks games, including one last weekend, and the family was together in Las Vegas last Monday for Shaya’s wedding.
But neither father nor son will speak publicly anymore about the disagreement.
Former Lakers head coach Del Harris said the bond between father and son has always been strong.
“As for seeing him as a coach, I just never gave it any thought. But as a father I thought he conducted himself well under tough circumstances when I had Kobe as an 18- and 19-year-old prodigy,” said Harris, now a Dallas Mavericks assistant coach.
“I know he could see the greatness in Kobe, as we all could, but it was down the road, not to be at that moment on that team. It was hard to see Kobe not get to be a starter right away, but he had to bide his time behind Rick Fox, Eddie Jones and Robert Horry.
“But Joe handled the waiting well as far as I know and I appreciated that,” said Harris, who coached the elder Bryant in Houston.
“We always had positive conversations. It was my belief that Kobe was best served by earning every minute and in the process, I think he disciplined his game sooner than he would have had he been allowed to play big minutes no matter how he did, simply because we could all see that greatness was inevitable.”
Kobe said his best memory about his father occurred when Kobe was a teenager playing in the Sonny Hill summer pro league in Philadelphia. The opposition that night included Mark Jackson, who was an NBA guard.
“I didn’t score a point, and I was so disappointed,” Kobe said. “Dad came over and told me, ‘It doesn’t matter if you score zero or 100 points. We’re going to love you.’ Hearing him say that gave me so much confidence. I knew no matter what, he had my back.”