The Greatness Of Kobe Bryant Is Definitely A Family Affair
Lakers star Kobe Bryant’s new Sports Illustrated feature as NBA Playoffs resume:
“It is 1981, and Kobe Bryant is 3 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—.”