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Copyright © 2001 by Matt Christopher Royalties, Inc.
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Jellybean Goes to Italy
If you look in the 1983-1984 edition of the Official National Basketball Association Register, you can find the complete career statistics of Joe "Jellybean" Bryant.
Nothing in the record of the six-foot-nine-and-one-half-inch, 215-pound center-forward really stands out. It states that he graduated from John Bartram High School in Philadelphia and attended LaSalle College for three years, averaging just over 20 points per game in two seasons of basketball. In 1976 he left school and was selected in the first round of the NBA draft.
From 1976 to 1983, Jellybean, who earned his nickname after some young fans gave him jellybeans following a game, played with the Philadelphia 76ers, San Diego Clippers, and Houston Rockets. He had a solid career in the NBA, averaging eight points a game and earning a reputation as a fine passer and a defensive specialist. But Bryant wasn't quite big enough to play center full-time and didn't shoot quite well enough to play forward. He was wonderfully athletic, but in some ways was ahead of his time, for his flashy style of play wasn't much appreciated in the NBA two decades ago. He was a role player who left the spotlight to teammates like future Hall-of-Famers Elvin Hayes and Julius Erving. None of his teams ever won an NBA championship, and Bryant never made an All-Star team.
Yet none of that begins to measure Joe Bryant's contribution to the NBA. For in the long run, Joe Bryant may have left a greater legacy to the NBA than many of its better-known stars.
That's because Joe Bryant is the father of the Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant, one of the youngest and brightest stars in the NBA, a player who joined the NBA directly out of high school. The son's career has already eclipsed that of the father. Kobe Bryant has already been an All-Star, won the NBA Slam Dunk Contest, and won an NBA championship. His story began when his father's NBA career came to an end.
After the 1982-83 NBA season, Joe Bryant's career was at a crossroads. After eight seasons in the NBA, including three years as a starter for the Houston Rockets, Bryant had become a second-string player. He had settled into a backup role on the Rockets, who had finished with a record of 14-68, the worst in the league.
That finish gave them the right to select seven-foot four-inch center Ralph Sampson, the best player in college basketball, in the NBA draft. That may have been good news for Rocket fans, but it wasn't very good news for Joe Bryant. Now that they had Sampson, the Rockets didn't really need Bryant. So, at the end of the season, the Rockets released him.
No other team in the NBA expressed much interest in signing the veteran, preferring to stock their rosters with younger and cheaper players. At age twenty-eight, it appeared as if Joe's career as a professional basketball player had come to an end.
The popular Bryant probably could have gone into business in Houston, but he and his wife, Pam, also a Philadelphia native, decided to return home.
Bryant quickly discovered that he missed the game of basketball. But he didn't want to coach or anything like that. He still wanted to play.
Fortunately, Bryant was a good friend of a man named Sonny Hill. Hill ran a well-known summer league in Philadelphia and had contacts throughout the basketball world. He told Bryant about a unique opportunity to keep playing the game he loved.
Although basketball had been invented in the United States, the game had spread all over the globe and was probably the world's second most popular sport, after soccer. Several European countries even supported their own professional leagues.
Like all pro sports leagues, they were always on the lookout for talent. And the United States was still the home of the best basketball players in the world. Representatives of the Italian professional league had contacted Hill and told him they were in the market for some talented American players. They paid well and played a much shorter, easier schedule than the NBA, usually with only one game a week. Hill told Bryant he should consider playing in Italy. When Bryant said he was interested, Hill put him in touch with the Italians.
Bryant was precisely the kind of player the Italians wanted. His NBA background, size, and skills were guaranteed to make him a star in the Italian league. Moreover, his effervescent personality was certain to make him a crowd favorite. Bryant was intrigued, and not just because it meant he could keep playing basketball.
When Joe had played in the NBA, he'd spent a lot of time on the road. He sometimes went a week or more without seeing his family. Joe and Pam were the parents of three young children. Their oldest daughter, Sharia, was seven years old, sister Shaya was six, and Kobe, named after a special type of steak and born on August 23, 1978, was five. While Bryant still held out some hope of returning to the NBA, he worried about the effect such continued absences would have on his family.
The more Joe and Pam discussed the possibility of moving to Italy, the better it sounded. The money was good and the lighter schedule meant he'd be able to spend a great deal of time with his family. In addition, they thought that living in Italy and traveling around Europe would be a wonderful opportunity for their children to experience a different culture. They decided to accept the offer and move to Italy.
Kobe Bryant's basketball education was ready to begin.
His Father's Son
The Bryants packed up their belongings and moved to Rieti, Italy, in 1984. While Joe Bryant was learning the ins and outs of Italian basketball and Pam Bryant was finding her way around a new city, Sharia, Shaya, and Kobe, who had just turned six, started attending an Italian school.
Surprisingly, the Bryants' three children had a relatively easy time adjusting to their new culture. Children are adept at learning new languages. Although they didn't understand a word of Italian when they began school, as Kobe later explained, "My two sisters and I got together after school to teach each other the words we had learned. I was able to speak Italian pretty well within a few months."
Joe Bryant experienced a similarly quick transition to basketball Italian-style. On his Italian team, he was the "go-to" guy, the player who was supposed to score points and entertain the fans. He thrived in the some what less-competitive league. Few players could match his blend of size and quickness. He averaged over 30 points per game and wowed the crowd with dunks, long jumpers, and no-look passes. In a matter of weeks, he became one of the league's best-known and most popular stars. The fans even made up songs about him claiming he was a better player than NBA stars like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The family loved their new life. They enjoyed traveling around Europe to see such sights as the Roman Collosseum in Italy and the Eiffel Tower in Paris. They also enjoyed the opportunity to experience new cultures. In much of Europe, for example, people don't buy all their food at grocery stores. Instead, they often shop at outdoor markets full of fresh fruits and vegetables. But for the Bryants, the best part of living in Europe was the fact that the entire family got to spend so much time together.
Although they faced little prejudice in Europe because of their African-American heritage, it was still difficult, particularly at first, for them to make friends. So they turned to each other for strength and company.
Kobe loved being around his father. He went to many of his games and loved seeing the way the crowd reacted to his father's spectacular play. He often played basketball with his father and his sisters, and at six years old could already dribble and shoot.
Kobe's grandparents were always sending the family packages filled with videotapes of American television and movies that were impossible to see in Italy. Usually, they included a large number of tapes of the NBA, which at that time was only rarely broadcast in Europe.
Kobe loved sitting with his father and watching the tapes of games. As they watched, Joe analyzed the play and explained what was happening on the court to Kobe. It was as if Kobe was attending his own private basketball school.
Of all the players Kobe watched on the tapes, his absolute favorite was guard Earvin "Magic" Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers. The six-foot-nine Johnson led the champion Lakers, and his unique combination of skills took the game into a new era. For despite his size, Johnson played point guard and proved that skilled taller players can be just as adept at guard play as smaller men. Kobe watched the tapes of Johnson over and over again, and put pictures of the Lakers' star all over his room.
Kobe's fascination with Johnson continued even when he was playing. But although there was a basketball court at Kobe's school, he had a hard time finding other kids who wanted to play. Unfortunately for Kobe, most Italian children preferred to play soccer.
While Kobe learned to play soccer and enjoyed the game, basketball was his favorite sport. So when he couldn't talk other children into playing basketball, he played by himself.
He invented a game he called "shadow basketball," telling people later that he "played against [his] shadow." What Kobe meant was that while playing alone he learned to imagine a court full of players and played entire games against imaginary opponents. Sometimes he'd pretend he was Magic Johnson leading the Lakers' fast break, and other times he'd pretend he was his father. His ability to visualize basketball situations and then react to them would later prove invaluable to his development as a player. In fact, Kobe still plays shadow basketball today.
But shadow basketball still wasn't like playing on a team. So Joe had Kobe join a club team.
In most of Europe, organized sports are run by clubs. A single basketball club, for instance, sponsors a number of teams ranging from youth teams to teams of adults. Since basketball isn't a sport most Italians play while growing up, the focus is on fundamentals.
As a result, when Kobe was learning the game he spent untold hours doing drills, learning the correct way to dribble, shoot, and guard his opponent. In contrast, most American youngsters learn the game on the playground, where it is easy to pick up bad habits.
But since Kobe learned how to play the right way from the very beginning, he didn't have any bad habits. Playing club basketball, combined with watching his father and tapes of the NBA, gave him a sound foundation in the sport. Kobe never developed any bad habits that he had to break. From the time he was a child, his game was fundamentally sound.
Meanwhile, Joe Bryant was in an enviable position. He was one of the best and most popular players in Europe. Every time his contract was up, a number of teams would clamor for his services.
He switched teams several times, causing his family to move. But they didn't mind. Being together was all that mattered.
Every year they went back to Philadelphia to visit with family. Kobe loved going back to see his grandparents, and he also enjoyed the opportunity to play pickup basketball with neighborhood kids. And even though they would be in America only a few weeks, his father would sign him up for the local youth basketball league, the Sonny Hill League, so he could continue to improve and be exposed to a different style of play.
When Kobe was eleven years old, he began to grow taller. Over the course of the next two years he grew more than a foot, to over six feet tall. He towered above most of the other kids in school.
For many children, growing so fast can lead to a period of awkwardness as they adapt to their growing body. But Kobe was playing so much basketball that his coordination was able to keep pace with his growth. His game improved exponentially.
He was soon one of the best players on his club, regardless of age. He learned to dunk the basketball and could imitate many of the moves he had learned from watching the tapes and his father, and from playing shadow basketball. His friends would tease him, however, saying that while he was becoming a good European player, he "wouldn't be so good in America." Kobe tried to laugh it off, but he was beginning to suspect the same thing. He wanted to play in the NBA someday, just like his father had. But would he be good enough?
Joe Bryant had been paying close attention to how well Kobe was playing basketball. He was aware of his son's worries. He himself had now been playing professional basketball for sixteen seasons and he was beginning to slow down. In fact, when Kobe and Joe played one-on-one, Joe had to play hard in order to beat his son. While still a valuable player, he wasn't a big star anymore. Although he probably could have held on and kept playing for another year or two, he was financially secure. So, when Kobe was thirteen, Joe retired.
The Bryants decided that it was time to return to the United States. In the United States, Joe knew that Kobe could continue to work on his game, maybe earn a college scholarship, and, perhaps, play in the NBA. Those opportunities simply weren't available in Europe. His son needed better competition, and the entire family was ready to move on to another stage in their lives.
It was time for Kobe Bryant to go home.
Back to America
Moving back to the United States after being away for eight years was far more difficult for Kobe than moving to Europe had been. He was older and was leaving all his friends behind. He had become comfortable living in Europe. Now, America was almost a foreign land to him.
Kobe had lived abroad for so long that he no longer spoke English very well. And many things that were familiar to most American kids, like the most popular TV shows and musical groups, were almost unknown to him. Kobe didn't have much in common with other American teenagers.
The Bryants moved to a suburb of Philadelphia, just outside the city limits. They enrolled Kobe in eighth grade at the local middle school.
- On Sale
- Oct 1, 2001
- Page Count
- 128 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers