Posted: Friday May 11, 2012 10:34AM ; Updated: Friday May 11, 2012 2:21PM
This story appears in the May 14, 2012 issue of Sports Illustrated. Buy the digital version of the magazine here.
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---."
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.
The boy who once dreamed of becoming his father has moved on to other goals. On a rainy March evening 8,000 miles from Bangkok, Kobe Bryant arrives at Oracle Arena in Oakland at 5:15, more than two hours before the Lakers' tip-off against the Warriors and before all but a couple of teammates.
Now in his 16th NBA season, Bryant has defied all the critics -- the ones who said he was merely a Michael Jordan clone, that he couldn't win without Shaquille O'Neal, that he was too selfish to be a leader. At 33 he stands behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain in career NBA points. He is also at the beginning of the end, even if he refuses to admit it. There are too many miles on his body, too few leaps left in those legs, too many talented young players in the league. This season Bryant played heroically for the Lakers, putting together a near-MVP campaign and carrying the team to the third seed in the West. But he also appeared fallible far more often than before. His shooting percentage, 43.0, was the lowest since his second year; his turnovers were up, to 3.52 per game; and, most concerning, he faltered in the clutch. Of the crunch-time shots Bryant took this season, he made only 32.7 percent, and 21.4 percent from three-point range.
There is little Kobe could have done, at least physically, to prevent this decline. No player in NBA history has worked harder or longer to maintain his excellence. Kobe has taken a mono-maniacal approach to the game, forgoing hobbies, camaraderie and close friendships to focus on his basketball goals. Even now Lakers staffers say they never know when they might find Bryant working out: at 4 a.m., at 11 p.m., before shootarounds. He travels with his own trainer, Tim Grover, and he persuaded the team to hire his longtime physical therapist, Judy Seto, so he could receive treatment at all hours. When the Lakers held a Super Bowl party in February at the Ritz-Carlton in Philadelphia, all but one of the players relaxed and watched the game. Bryant sat in a corner with his ankle in a bucket of ice and directed Seto as she worked on his limbs. In Bryant's world the clock is always ticking.
That's why he has arrived early on this night and is methodically practicing jumpers, his businesslike expression never changing. Four hours later, when the Lakers are struggling in the fourth quarter, Bryant will catch the ball at the top of the key with just over a minute left and his team down by two to the lottery-bound Warriors. Dribbling left, Bryant will draw a double team, but instead of passing he will keep going, into the teeth of the defense. Then he will leap off two feet and fade away, launching a low-percentage, high-arcing jumper. It will go in. On the next possession he will do the same thing, from the same spot, with the same result, helping lead L.A. to a 104-101 victory.
And with that he will scowl his Kobe scowl, and the crowd will erupt, for Bryant has reached the stage in which people go to games just to say that they saw him in his prime, the way they did with Michael. They bring their kids and point out the graceful man with the purple armband and the egg-shaped head, and they hope that he will make a signature late-game shot -- one that is both irresponsible and iconic -- because that is the promise he has made to them, the one his father never could: He will win no matter the cost.
Posted: Friday May 11, 2012 10:34AM ; Updated: Friday May 11, 2012 2:21PM
In Bangkok it is nearing tip-off when Cobras starting forward Gentry Lewis is approached by Pam Bryant, Joe's wife. In her sixth decade, Pam remains striking: tall, with long black hair, high cheekbones and a regal bearing. She holds out a cell phone to Lewis. "It's Kobe," she says.
Lewis looks surprised. He puts the phone to his ear, and indeed, it is Kobe on the other end. He's heard that Lewis has been struggling. "Go out there and kick ass tonight," Kobe says. "Do what you do and have a good time, but remember: It's time to step up to the f------ plate."
Four hours later, after the Cobras have squeaked out a 79-74 win, Lewis recounts the phone call while sitting across the bar from Joe and Pam at the Roadhouse Barbecue bar and restaurant, a three-story haven for expats not far from Patpong, Bangkok's famous red-light district. Pam listens and nods, then joins the conversation. "It was 10 p.m. where Kobe was, and guess what he was doing?" she asks, incredulous. "Working out!" She shakes her head, unable to hide her pride.
Joe works on some nachos, pulls on a pint of Chang beer and smiles his gap-toothed smile. He is here because the team is having a postgame meet-and-greet with fans. There is only one problem: Even though the Cobras announced the Roadhouse event during the game, offered free appetizers and printed the info on the back of the (free) tickets, none of the few hundred fans at the game have shown up. In a corner sits the team's part-owner, a nervous Texan named Tom Griffin. Nearby, the president of Thailand's basketball association, Khun Surasak Chinawatana, a revered former Thai player and coach, sits quietly, looking disappointed.
Eventually the players wander over to a pool table. They coerce Jellybean into joining them. "Ain't played in 10 years," he protests. Playing against the Cobras' two guard, Martin Cruz, Bryant falls behind six balls to one. Then he embarks on an epic run. Finally he has only the 8 ball left, lined up for the corner pocket. He pauses, then raises his lanky frame from the table and shakes his head.
"No, sir!" he says with a laugh. "I can't do that to one of my players."
Then Bryant does something his son would never do, could not conceive of doing: He tosses his cue on the table and walks away from victory.
There is a common misconception that Kobe Bryant is just a younger, better version of his father: Tall professional basketball player sires same. Here is a chip off the old block. Ask those who know both men, though, and you hear something different. "If you'd told me that of all the guys I played with, it was Joe Bryant who would produce one of the greatest players of the next generation, I never would have believed you," says Steve Mix, the All-Star forward who started ahead of Bryant on the 76ers in the late 1970s. "Maybe Mo Cheeks, but never Joe."
Jerry West, who traded for Kobe and shepherded him during his formative years with the Lakers, is more emphatic. "They are two entirely different people," West says. "If your name is Jellybean, what does that say about you? It's not a bad thing, but what does it say? You're definitely not a warrior."
This is true. When Joe left La Salle after his junior year to enter the 1975 NBA draft, he landed with his hometown Sixers, who miscast him as a post player. Coming off the bench on a deep, talented team that included Darryl Dawkins, Lloyd B. Free, Julius Erving and Doug Collins, Bryant played limited minutes and became increasingly frustrated. In 1979, after his third and final child was born -- a boy he named Kobe after a type of beef from Japan -- Joe was traded to San Diego. There he enjoyed a brief renaissance before being shuttled off to the Rockets, who cut him at the end of the '82-83 season. He left the league bitter. "[Johnson] comes into the league with all that fancy stuff, and they call it magic," Joe said at the time. "I've been doing it all these years, and they call it schoolyard."
Everyone knew Jellybean had the talent -- "If the 25-year-old Joe played the 25-year-old Kobe in a game of one-on-one, I don't think it's a foregone conclusion that Kobe would win," Westhead says -- but it was his will that was in question. Del Harris (who coached Joe on the Rockets and Kobe on the Lakers) and Paul Silas (who coached Joe on the Clippers) have publicly suggested that Joe made too many fancy passes for his own good. A Lakers official quoted in Roland Lazenby's 2000 book, Mad Game, goes one step further: "[Joe] was a goofball. He threw away his NBA career."
Not so his international career. In 1984, Bryant moved his family to Italy on the advice of Philly hoops guru Sonny Hill and became an instant star, averaging more than 30 points and twice scoring 53. The same traits that U.S. coaches hated in Bryant -- flashy play and irrepressible enthusiasm -- thrilled the Italian fans. He went on to play for three other teams there. By 1991, in his final overseas campaign, with the French team Mulhouse, Bryant had been a pro for 16 years.
Despite his experience, Bryant was not an obvious choice to be a coach. He'd never been a student of the game. Yet there he was, after moving back to the States with his family in the fall of '91, taking the most unlikely coaching job imaginable: with the girls' basketball team at Akiba Hebrew Academy, a tiny school near Philadelphia.
When the players heard who'd been hired as their new coach, they couldn't believe it. But Bryant didn't act like a big-time pro; he was more like the players' favorite uncle. He ran sprints with them and roared in delight when they made good plays. He taught them Italian, and they taught him how to yell out plays in Hebrew to confound their Catholic-school opponents. So there Bryant was, a year removed from pro ball, standing on the sideline of a small gym on the Main Line hollering, "M'shulash! [Triangle!]" at teenage girls.
On Sundays he brought 14-year-old Kobe to practice. The girls remember him as being skinny, quiet and intense. While Joe coached, Kobe stood on the side of the court bouncing a basketball off the wall for 20 minutes at a time, one hand behind his back and then the other. When the court was open, he'd practice dunking. Kobe never flirted or talked with the Akiba players. In scrimmages, though, when the Bryants would take on the girls two-on-five, Kobe came alive, sprinting and scrapping. "They'd absolutely kill us," says Amy Malissa, the center on the team. Already, Kobe was both serious and devoted.
Joe was devoted but not serious. Before the last road game of the season, star senior forward Rebecca Zacher realized she'd forgotten to pack her sports bra. Making matters worse, she was, in her words, "highly developed in the chest region." Frantic, she called her father, who began driving home to pick up the bra. Then she quietly broke the news to Bryant. The next thing she knew, he was running around the hallway and locker room, shouting, "Tape, right now! Anything you got!" When Rebecca informed him that you couldn't just wrap her in athletic tape like a mummy, Bryant mulled other possibilities. "Well," he said, "can you just hold them in one arm and play with the other?" Even mortified, Rebecca couldn't help laughing.
At the end of the season, Bryant left for an assistant coaching job at La Salle, but the girls never forgot him (especially Rebecca, whose father arrived at halftime with the bra). The Akiba players still talk about how special that year was, how it made them care about the game, how Bryant gave them confidence as they embarked on their adult lives. More than one of them uses the word nurture, which comes up often when players discuss Joe. "We pushed ourselves because we wanted him to be proud," says Amy. "With Joe, it wasn't about the competition. It was about bettering yourself."
Posted: Friday May 11, 2012 10:34AM ; Updated: Friday May 11, 2012 2:21PM
Twenty years later, Joe's coaching style hasn't changed much. At a Tuesday practice, only nine Cobras are present. With a big game the following day, Bryant looks around the gym and, spotting a visiting reporter, calls him over. "Hey, we need a guinea pig," he says. "Play down low in the 2-3 zone."
For the next 20 minutes the Cobras practice attacking a zone. Then the reporter becomes a two guard, and the team works on defending against a high pick-and-roll offense. Bryant directs the action, occasionally stopping to ask the players' opinions. "What do we want to do with this screen when they go horns?" he says, looking at Cruz and point guard Jai Reyes. Should they "X" the play, switching the two defenders on the high screen? Should they try to get through the screen? The idea of showing and recovering is broached. "That's how we do in the league, but you guys aren't in good enough shape," Bryant says with a chuckle. Still, Joe coaches by committee, and in the end the committee decides to hedge on the screen.
After practice Bryant sits courtside, long arms draped over plastic chairs. He says coaches make the mistake of trying to impose a system on their players, rather than adjusting the system to them. He says he tries "to give players the freedom to think, the freedom to play, not tell them what to do." Occasionally he mentions his son, speaking proudly of Kobe's work ethic and of how he plays better when angry. As Joe speaks, you can see flashes of his son. Not so much in his face -- Kobe looks more like his mother, with the high cheekbones and thin nose -- but in his mannerisms. Occasionally Joe's eyes narrow, and that's when you can sense it: that Bryant wariness. Just like Kobe, Joe takes everything in, appraising the world and adjusting to it.
Indeed, the whole Bryant family is guarded. Pam doesn't speak to the media, nor do Kobe's older sisters, Sharia and Shaya. Kobe long ago honed his unrevealing public persona: pursed lips, wry smile, soft voice, gritted teeth. While many star athletes write autobiographies by the time they are 25, Kobe hasn't, just as he doesn't tweet or open up in interviews. Such self-reflection might allow an opponent to uncover a weakness or, worse yet, force him to recognize one in himself.
Perhaps he got this from Joe, who has two minutes for everybody but an hour for no one. When asked after a few days to do a longer interview about his life, he hesitates. "I don't know," he says, eyes narrowing. "People have offered me a lot of money for my stories. I might write a book one day, once Kobe retires." By the following evening he has reconsidered. Just call in the morning, he says. Only, come the next day, Joe does not answer his phone. Not in the morning, not in the afternoon, not at night. Not when Griffin calls, or Joe's assistant coach, or even when it is pointed out that the reporter has traveled across nine time zones just to talk to him, and that exposure in a national magazine might benefit a man who says he wants to get a job in the NBA one day. Says Griffin, with a sigh, "Joe can be that way."
The falling out occurred in 2000, though neither Joe nor Kobe talks about it publicly anymore. At 21, Kobe got engaged to 18-year-old Vanessa Laine, whom he had met on the set of a video shoot when she was a high school senior. Joe did not approve. The problem, according to the Los Angeles Times, was that Joe was "uncomfortable that Vanessa, a Latina, is not African-American, and he is uneasy with [Kobe's] selfless devotion to her." When Kobe and Vanessa got married the following year, Joe and Pam didn't attend the wedding. When the Lakers played three games in Philadelphia during the 2001 NBA Finals, Joe was nowhere to be found. When, at the end of that series, the Lakers triumphed and Kobe was spotted holding the trophy in the shower and crying, everyone assumed it was out of joy, or relief. But he later told the Times, "That was about my dad."
The chill persisted for years. Some sons might have lashed out, especially those as famous and powerful as Kobe. After all, it was in Kobe's house that Joe and Pam had lived for three years after Kobe signed with the Lakers in 1996. It was Kobe who bought Joe a BMW, Kobe who in December 1999 purchased 50 percent of Olimpia Milano of the Italian League, at a reported cost of just under $2 million, so his father could be a team executive. Yet Kobe never said a bad word in public about his father. Joe, for his part, told the Times, "It's his life, we've got nothing to do with it. We've done our job." In 2003, when Kobe was charged with sexual assault and much of the country pilloried him (the case was later dismissed, while a civil case was settled out of court), Joe stayed quiet.
Not long after that, however, they got back on good terms. When Joe was named head coach of the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks late in the 2005 season, Kobe eventually came around to see his father, hugging him in public and bringing his two young daughters to games. "Dads and kids fight," Joe told his assistant, Michael Abraham, by way of explaining the rift now mended. "It just so happens that he's Kobe."
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.
Posted: Friday May 11, 2012 10:34AM ; Updated: Friday May 11, 2012 2:21PM
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."
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.
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