The Rise (2022) provides an intimate account of the early years of Kobe Bryant’s career. It explores the influences that helped Bryant become so passionate about basketball and shows how his remarkable talent helped transform his suburban high school team into a state championship winner. It also reveals how Bryant carefully crafted his legacy from an early age, displaying an advanced media savvy he would employ throughout his career.
Introduction: Get an inside view on the making of a basketball legend.
In January 2020, the world of sports was shattered by the news that Kobe Bryant had died in a helicopter crash. And it wasn’t just the world of sports. Kobe’s talent, passion, and drive for greatness had touched many around him long before his career in the NBA.
This summary isn’t about Kobe’s professional basketball career or his distinct playing style.
Instead, it provides an insight into the formative years of one of the biggest sports icons of our time.
It reveals the courage, discipline, determination, and ruthlessness that led him to become the remarkable player that he was. It also shines a light on how, even as a teenager, Bryant had already begun shaping his legacy, masterfully crafting a public persona that will live on long after his death.
In fact, this summary shows that Kobe Bryant lived as if he were an NBA superstar decades before he actually became one.
So here are a few things you’ll take away:
- why Kobe’s career was so different from that of his father, who was just as talented;
- how growing up in Italy shaped him; and
- how Kobe’s remarkable talent helped transform his suburban high school team into a state championship winner.
Kobe Bryant lived and breathed basketball from a young age – and made it his own.
Picture the scene: a toddler cups a ball in his tiny hand and dashes forward, cheerfully slamming the ball into a miniature basketball hoop. He does it again and again, and each time, his face breaks into a huge grin.
That grinning child – you guessed it – was Kobe Bryant. The Kobe Bryant, who would grow up to be one of the best basketball players of all time.
So how does someone grow up to be a champion or, better yet, a basketball icon? Pure, raw talent is part of it, yes. But while icons are born, they’re also made.
Now, each icon has their own unique story. In Kobe’s case, it was his talent coupled with the favorable circumstances of his birth. Kobe Bryant was steeped in the world of basketball from the time he was a baby; his father made sure of that.
You see, Kobe wasn’t the first professional basketball player in the family. He actually followed in the footsteps of his father, Joe Bryant, who was a pretty talented player himself. Kobe grew up watching every home game his father played as part of their local NBA team, the Philadelphia 76ers – known to fans as the Sixers. Baby Kobe was as comfortable in the basketball arena as he was in his own home.
By carefully watching how his father played and lived the life of a professional basketball player, Kobe learned what to do. But more importantly, he learned what not to do. Because Joe’s basketball career was … rocky.
Although in college he was celebrated as one of the best players in the city, Joe’s career fizzled out once he hit the NBA. He started out playing with the Sixers, but was traded after a public scandal stained his name.
One night, police attempted to pull Joe over while he was driving. But instead of stopping, he sped away, resulting in a high-speed chase. When they finally caught up with him, they discovered two vials of cocaine in the car – along with a woman who was not his wife.
Along with his unpredictable performance on the court – mainly due to his whimsical play and lack of discipline – this scandal proved that Joe was too much of a burden for the Sixers. He was traded to a team in California, where he played for a short time before moving to a different team in Texas. But both were mediocre teams, and he wasn’t given a chance to shine. Finally, Joe’s contract ran out, and no NBA team wanted to sign him. At that stage, Joe had two choices: give up professional basketball altogether or move overseas, where his talents would be valued. And so he decided to move his family to Italy.
In Italy, Kobe learned the fundamentals of basketball and developed a discipline that later made him an icon.
At that time, Kobe was six years old. The family quickly embraced their new life in a foreign country, in a town in central Italy called Rieti. They were seen as celebrities there, attracting curiosity and friendly gestures; wherever they went, people would recognize them, offer them drinks, and ask for Joe’s autograph. The children, Sharia, Shaya, and Kobe, picked up the language more quickly than their parents, and they enjoyed eating Italian pizza and gelato – not to mention the sun. But most importantly, away from the tight schedules of the NBA, the Bryants became much more family-oriented.
Soon after Joe joined a team in the Italian league, Sebastiani Rieti, Kobe joined their youth league, playing with kids a couple of years older. At that point, his talent was already shining through – sometimes so much so that the other boys would start crying and the coach would have no choice but to send Kobe to the bench.
For Kobe, there was nothing quite like basketball. Joe encouraged this interest, and the two of them spent hours playing in their driveway. Whenever Kobe would play a game, his father would be there to see him, win or lose. And it didn’t stop there. After school, Kobe would join his father at afternoon practice, watching him and others play. And when the team was playing an away game, Joe would regularly take Kobe along on the team bus.
Even at this young age, Kobe didn’t mind being in the spotlight. At his father’s games, he’d mop the court at halftime and then take the opportunity to put on his own show, repeating the moves he’d just seen as the audience looked on in awe. He’d have to be chased off the court so the real game could continue.
In the evenings, the Bryants relaxed in front of the TV. But instead of watching sitcoms like an ordinary family, they watched basketball games. Kobe was especially obsessive. He would watch the same games on tape again and again like the avergage person might watch their favorite movie, learning all the lines by heart. He was entranced by the power of players like Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who seemed to effortlessly control the game. And as he watched, his father would provide live commentary and an analyze all the plays.
All those nights spent watching basketball games weren’t just about entertainment; in fact, Kobe was memorizing moves, mentally rehearsing for a time when he wouldn’t be just slamming balls into the hoop in his driveway. Then, it would be his name being screamed in arenas rather than Magic Johnson’s.
You could say that Kobe was born basketball royalty, inheriting a status and a name that opened the doors to success. But you can’t argue that his greatness was handed to him on a platter.
He had just as much talent as his father, but unlike his father, he combined that talent with a steely discipline. While Joe’s style was playful and unpredictable, Kobe’s was rehearsed and systematic. Kobe forged a career based on his own talent and determination, a career that would end up looking very different than his father’s.
But in order to get there, Kobe would have to experience a period of profound dislocation and loneliness. When his father retired in 1992, the Bryants left their comfortable Italian life and moved back to the United States.
Moving back to the United States, Kobe felt like a fish out of water.
The Kobe Bryant who moved back to the United States at 13 didn’t yet look like an intimidating pro basketball player. He was skinny, with legs like a twig. When he played basketball, he wore kneepads and goggles, copying some of his basketball idols, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. So he stuck out on the courts of Philadelphia.
In Italy, Kobe had lived a pampered, sheltered life in a small town. So when the family moved back to the US, it was a shock.
Kobe and his sisters were sent to the local high school, where they then again stood out as different, but for different reasons than they had in Italy. Here, they were a Black family in a wealthy, majority white school. They didn’t dress like regular American teens, and they didn’t understand the culture. Kobe spoke fluent Italian but didn’t know any American slang. And he didn’t share the pop culture that his classmates had absorbed through TV, either, not only because he’d grown up in Italy, but because even after moving back, he was so busy watching basketball games that he had no time for The Simpsons or MTV. And he certainly wasn’t prepared for the rough style of basketball that was played on the streets of Philadelphia.
In the summer of 1991, his father signed him up to play in a local league called the Sonny Hill League.
That was a bruising season for Kobe. He was playing with guys a couple years older than him, and he was no match for their experience. That summer, he played in 25 games without scoring a single point. It was humiliating. He felt like he’d let his father and the rest of the family down. He even briefly considered giving up basketball altogether and switching to soccer instead.
Everyone has those kinds of thoughts after failing, especially while growing up. But it’s persistence and a drive for excellence that distinguishes a future basketball icon from a future weekend warrior. So Kobe’s doubts didn’t last long. Instead of giving up, he started training even harder, practicing even more, and watching games even more obsessively. Because, apart from having talent, Kobe had a strong sense of resilience and discipline. And he had a deep, innate confidence. Perhaps it was because he had been born into basketball royalty, but Kobe’s confidence in himself was unshakeable. Some may have even called it arrogance. He just knew he was destined for success, and setbacks like a bad season couldn’t faze him for long.
That confidence didn’t win him many friends though. Much like his father, Kobe was never a team player. Once he had the ball, he would hang onto it until he scored, like back in Italy, when his self-sufficent game had made his teammates cry. And because he was so talented, most of his early coaches let him play however he wanted.
It would take years before Kobe learned that trusting others could actually improve his game and take him one step further. That basketball isn’t only about personal achievement. That working as part of a team shows another kind of confidence and grace.
In high school, Kobe became a champion and transformed his team.
Kobe’s family didn’t choose to send him to Lower Merion High School because of the strength of its basketball program. In fact, in Kobe’s first year playing on the team, the Aces, they suffered a season of crushing losses. As they lost eight games in a row, Kobe could barely contain his frustration.
His teammates just didn’t seem to take the game as seriously as he did. On tour, they’d be messing around while he would stay in his room, rehearsing his moves and brooding over everything that went wrong. It was a lonely first season with the Aces.
But the team did have one thing going for it: a young, ambitious coach, Gregg Downer, who immediately recognized Kobe’s talent. As soon as he saw Kobe playing, Downer knew that a change was coming for the Aces. And he was determined to do everything he could to help Kobe succeed.
So in spite of the grumbles of the rest of the team, Downer put Kobe in the starting lineup. He took every opportunity he could to put the ball in Kobe’s hands and give him opportunity to score. And he even hired Kobe’s father, Joe, to be part of the school’s coaching team, having the hunch that Joe might be able to coach Kobe where others couldn’t.
So to sum it up up until this point: the summer league had gone badly. Kobe’s first year of high school … also went badly.
To Kobe’s credit, he never let the frustration of that awful season discourage him. He kept training, kept practicing. He had an unyielding discipline that extended to every part of his life. He was a straight-A student. He excelled in his literature class. And he treated his body with unusual care for a teenager, especially a teenage boy. His teammates noticed that he never ate junk food and that he drank a gallon of milk with every meal. He was already eating like the NBA player he would become.
So even though that first season was frustrating, it gave Bryant many opportunities to improve his technique. Through every game, he was gaining valuable experience. But he couldn’t carry the team to a victory alone.
Luckily, he wouldn’t have to. The dynamic within the team was transformed by the arrival of another talented player: Jermaine Griffin. Griffin had grown up in Queens, in a poor community with few opportunities for a young athlete. His teacher had signed him up for a scholarship program for promising students that paid for him to attend Lower Merion. Griffin was six foot three, and just as serious about basketball as Kobe was. Unlike Kobe, he wasn’t a basketball prodigy. But he was a solid rebounder and played the tough game Kobe had gotten used to on the Philadelphia courts. He also provided the companionship that Kobe had been craving on the team. The two of them could spend hours practicing, and shared a love of rap music as well as basketball.
Once Griffin was on the team, Kobe’s strengths could really come to the fore. His second season with the Aces was very different than the first. For one, the team started winning, starting the season off with a four-game winning streak. They then lost to another high school, Williamsport, before rebounding with a seven-game winning streak. This was an unbelievable turnaround for a team that had lost almost every single game the year before.
In one game, Kobe scored 34 points in just 32 minutes of play, with five three-point shots. This was unheard of in high school basketball. His coach, Gregg Downer, couldn’t contain his excitement. For the first time, the Aces were becoming a force to be reckoned with.
But Gregg Downer knew that the real test of their strength would be to play other powerful teams in the state. And so he decided to schedule as many extra games as he could.
One Saturday, the Aces prepared themselves for a game in Coatesville against an especially intimidating team called the Red Raiders.
What made the game so daunting was that they’d be playing against Rip Hamilton, a young, cunning basketball player with a reputation for unpredictable, lightning-fast plays. And it was tough. But even Hamilton couldn’t get in the way of an Aces victory. In the last minute of the game, Kobe scored the shot that helped them win 78–77. The game proved that the team could stand up to even tough competition.
The Aces had transformed from being an obscure suburban team to one that schools across the state were watching closely.
The streak of wins had ignited a sense of pride within the team and in the broader community – it was infectuous.
For the first time in decades, teachers and students were coming to watch the games. Community members started bringing their kids to attend practices. And the team members were absorbing some of Kobe’s confidence, as if by osmosis. They were no longer fearful of playing in the big leagues.
The Aces achieved their dreams and Kobe was crowned the best high school player in America.
Kobe’s last season with the Aces couldn’t have been more different from his first. Before Kobe arrived at Lower Merion, his coach had spent sleepless nights worrying that the team wouldn’t even score a single point in the next game. With Kobe, he still had sleepless nights, but from worrying that they wouldn’t win the championship. Because it was clear to everyone that the Aces had a very real chance of winning. But the team would have to pull together and practice harder than ever before to beat some tough opposition.
Unfortunately, not all of Kobe’s teammates took the opportunity as seriously as he did. On the first day of practice that season, several arrived late. Kobe couldn’t believe their nonchalance. For his part, he continued practicing and training with furious intensity.
On the court, he played ruthlessly. In one practice game, he sent a teammate plunging into a concrete wall in order to gain control of the ball. In another, in response to a loss, he aimed the ball at a teammate’s head. He was intimidating, but his determination was widely respected.
In spite of a rocky start, the team fulfilled their dreams of reaching the Pennsylvania State Championship after beating their biggest rival – Chester – in the semifinals.
Now, in the past, this was a moment that the Aces couldn’t even have imagined. They were so close to victory.
But when the stakes are high, so is the pressure. Their most important game in the championship series started off very badly. The team was playing Erie Cathedral Prep for the 1996 state title – and Kobe’s school hadn’t won a state championship since 1943. That’s 53 years!
The Aces were off-kilter from the beginning. Their opponents started with a 7–0 lead, until the Aces finally scored a point with a free throw. Kobe hadn’t scored at all by the end of the first quarter, and the crowd started booing.
But if you’ve ever watched a basketball game, you know that a lot can change in a matter of minutes. Kobe’s team bounced back and took the lead in the third quarter. Kobe played well, although he scored only 17 points himself, almost his lowest total of the season.
But he did something new … or, new for him, anyway. He trusted his teammates to support him and passed the ball to a teammate, who made the final momentous layup. After a grueling game, Lower Merion won 48–43 and took home the state title.
And so finished Kobe’s high school basketball career. He’d scored 2,883 points over his four years with the Aces, setting a state record.
And he’d created an almost mythical public persona by cleverly courting media attention. Throughout his time at Lower Merion, the coaches received hundreds of calls from the media, so many that they even had to hire a PR representative to handle them. Documentary crews followed Kobe down the hallways of his high school, trying to get an exclusive on America’s most talented high school basketball player. And everywhere he went, he was surrounded by crowds of people looking at him, pointing, whispering, and asking for his autograph.
Now, in today’s social media landscape, we’re very familiar with the idea of shaping your public image. But in the 1990s, that was unheard of. Perhaps because he’d grown up in the glare of the media his whole life, Kobe seemed to instinctively understand how to fuel intrigue and speculation.
Kobe finally reveals the plans for the next chapter of his career.
Take the question of his future career plans, for example. After high school, Kobe had two pathways in front of him. He could either go to college and play for a team there or he could go pro and join the NBA right away.
Understandably, colleges across the country were clamoring to have him on their teams. A local college, La Salle, was very hopeful that Kobe would attend. To entice Kobe to play in his home state, it even hired Joe as a coach and gave Kobe’s sister a place on the volleyball team.
But La Salle had to compete with some of the most distinguished college basketball teams in the United States. Kobe was offered full scholarships to be on teams like Villanova, Michigan, Arizona, and even North Carolina, the alma mater of Michael Jordan. On one occasion, Jordan himself even advised Kobe to go there.
But as it happened, Kobe wasn’t interested in any of them. In fact, he’d long decided that the only path for him was to join the NBA. This was a path that worried his coaches and friends. By turning professional right away, he’d be under enormous pressure to excel immediately. By going to college, he’d have had the chance to further develop his skills and enter the NBA from a stronger position.
But Kobe wouldn’t be dissuaded. He wanted people to underestimate him. He wanted them to think he was green and inexperienced. That way, he could attack them “like a shark” that they never saw coming.
So Kobe had a clear vision of where he wanted to go. But he wouldn’t give away his plans to anyone, not even his coaches and certainly not the press. In public, he just said that he was weighing his options. This fuelled lots of frenzied speculation, and only made reporters more interested in his story.
When he finally revealed his plans, Kobe chose to do it in a press conference at his high school. On that day, the gym was full of commotion. Crowds of reporters turned up for the announcement. Kobe looked relaxed, completely at ease in the glare of all the television cameras. Finally, the moment of revelation came. Kobe looked right at the cameras and told the world that he wouldn’t be joining any college team. He was going straight to the NBA.
And then, after a nerve-wracking draft full of speculation, Kobe got his first pick: he would join the Los Angeles Lakers, one of the most formidable teams in the league. He would spent his entire 20-year career there, going on to help the Lakers win five NBA championships and cementing his legacy as one of the best basketball players in the world.
Kobe’s career was cut short, but he achieved what he’d been yearning for since he was a young kid. Although he was born into basketball royalty, he forged his own path. Through steely discipline and determination combined with raw talent, he achieved greatness, transformed a community, and left a legacy that will live on long after his death.
The way he lived and breathed basketball his whole life turned him into an immortal icon, one that keeps on inspiring people around the world to dream big.
Motivation, Inspiration, Biography, Memoir, Community and Culture, Basketball Biographies, Basketball, Black and African American Biographies
About the author
MIKE SIELSKI is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer and author. The Associated Press Sports Editors voted him the country’s top sports columnist in 2015, and his previous book, Fading Echoes: A True Story of Rivalry and Brotherhood from the Football Field to the Fields of Honor, was published in 2009. Sielski lives in Bucks County, Pa., with his wife and two sons.
Table of Contents
PREFACE: THE SIGNS OF THINGS TO COME VII
1: AFTER THE FIRE 3
2: A SAFE HAVEN 19
3: GOD AND THE DEVIL IN THEM 27
4: CHILD OF THE WORLD 43
5: ANGELS AT SUNRISE 63
6: BATS AND MICE AND THE RIDE OF A LIFETIME 75
7: LOSING 93
8: SWAGGER 115
9: SE DIO VUOIF 121
10: OK, LET’S PLAY 139
11: THE PIT 163
12: MYTH AND REALITY 175
13: SECRETS AND SHARKS 205
14: THE CANCER OF ME 227
15: RELAX: I GOT THIS 247
16: THE TUNNEL 259
17: THE FINAL GAME 275
18: THE SPEED AT WHICH THINGS CHANGE 293
19: NOW FM A LAKER 311
20: OPEN GYM 325
AFTERWORD: HIS STORY, AND HIS VOICE 333
NOTES AND SOURCES 343
SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY 363
The inside look at one of the most captivating and consequential figures in our culture―with never-before-heard interviews.
Kobe Bryant’s death in January 2020 did more than rattle the worlds of sports and celebrity. The tragedy of that helicopter crash, which also took the life of his daughter Gianna, unveiled the full breadth and depth of his influence on our culture, and by tracing and telling the oft-forgotten and lesser-known story of his early life, The Rise promises to provide an insight into Kobe that no other analysis has.
In The Rise, readers will travel from the neighborhood streets of Southwest Philadelphia―where Kobe’s father, Joe, became a local basketball standout―to the Bryant family’s isolation in Italy, where Kobe spent his formative years, to the leafy suburbs of Lower Merion, where Kobe’s legend was born. The story will trace his career and life at Lower Merion―he led the Aces to the 1995-96 Pennsylvania state championship, a dramatic underdog run for a team with just one star player―and the run-up to the 1996 NBA draft, where Kobe’s dream of playing pro basketball culminated in his acquisition by the Los Angeles Lakers.
In researching and writing The Rise, Mike Sielski had a terrific advantage over other writers who have attempted to chronicle Kobe’s life: access to a series of never-before-released interviews with him during his senior season and early days in the NBA. For a quarter century, these tapes and transcripts preserved Kobe’s thoughts, dreams, and goals from his teenage years, and they contained insights into and told stories about him that have never been revealed before.
This is more than a basketball book. This is an exploration of the identity and making of an icon and the effect of his development on those around him―the essence of the man before he truly became a man.
Video and Podcast
“A compelling origin story of a time that really wasn’t so long ago but through the lens of tragedy feels like forever. Kobe-ologists will devour this book, reveling in the anecdotes about his intensity & the engaging game recaps.” – Associated Press
“Every superhero needs an origin story.” – Jeff Pearlman
“Sielski deftly uses the material to craft a fascinating look at the making of a complex man who, almost two years after his death, still resonates fiercely.” – Mark Bechtel for Sports Illustrated
“A compelling origin story of a time that really wasn’t so long ago but through the lens of tragedy feels like forever. Kobe-ologists will devour this book, reveling in the anecdotes about his intensity & the engaging game recaps.” – Associated Press
“Mike Sielski offers readers a detailed and nuanced backstory of the late basketball star’s life…a tale that is by turns a gripping sports story and a touching portrait of Bryant’s early life. Sielski has written a fitting tribute to a legend who was lost too soon.” – The Christian Science Monitor
“The NBA games have been dissected, and Bryant has been heralded in many volumes. This book, though, goes into granular details of high school games, influential coaches and paints a complete picture of a boy, teen, and young man….Sielski proves that Bryant was destined for greatness all along.” – New York Daily News
“Tell me things I don’t know. That’s a basic bar to get over in journalism, any form. A high bar to get over when you’re writing in this city about Kobe Bryant’s early years. So when Inquirer columnist Mike Sielski took on the task of writing this book that is now out, there was no question, the bar was high. The achievement: Masterful.” – Mike Jensen for The Philadelphia Inquirer
“It isn’t possible to enjoy a book more. … A wonderfully written tale of Kobe Bryant’s origin.” – New York Post
“Thorough reportage and insight … There are scores of books out there about Kobe Bryant, running the gamut from fawning to fault-finding. What The Rise does so elegantly is tell a part of the story that hasn’t received quite so much attention. … An in-depth look at a kid who believed himself destined for greatness―and was willing to do whatever it took to achieve it.” – The Maine Edge
“There’s no greater canvas for storytelling than the Philadelphia sports scene, and there’s no one who gets that better than Mike Sielski. Sielski tackles one of those yarns that everyone in Philly thinks they know ― the Lower Merion roots of the late basketball legend Kobe Bryant ― to find the real story you didn’t know. The Rise is Sielski’s deeply reported reminder that greatness is never an accident.” – Will Bunch for The Philadelphia Inquirer
“In the wake of a death the world still has trouble grasping, Philadelphia Inquirer sports columnist Sielski wisely tells not the story of L.A. Laker Kobe Bryant, the Black Mamba, owner of five championship rings, one of the greatest NBA players of all time, but rather Bryant’s origin story….how Kobe became Kobe.” – Booklist (starred review)
“A landmark account of Kobe Bryant’s early life, this is an essential purchase for sports collections in all public libraries. Sielski’s biography will stand as the most objective, definitive record of Kobe Bryant’s childhood and youth, and invites a sequel that will similarly cover his professional career and personal story beyond the 1996 NBA draft.” – Library Journal (starred review)
“[A] riveting chronicle… Sielski lends pathos to a celebrity player known for stoicism in the face of pain. Fans will relish this nuanced take on an oft-overlooked part of the legend’s remarkable story.” – Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“What incredible insight into the rise of Kobe Bryant. Sielski takes you back to Kobe’s father’s playing days and gives the reader new details from the start. This book gives you not only stories of Kobe Bryant but the real details from the people in Philly who knew him best. Captivating from start to finish. A must read ― and not just for the diehard basketball fan.” – Billy King, former general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets
“Richly detailed and beautifully written, The Rise is more than a sports biography; it’s an illuminating meditation on celebrity culture and how the pressures and vicissitudes of fame shaped the life of one of the most gifted―and complicated―athletes in American history. Even readers who have never watched a basketball game will be riveted by Mike Sielski’s page-turning portrait of a young Kobe Bryant.” – Abbott Kahler (aka Karen Abbott), New York Times bestselling author of The Ghosts of Eden Park and Sin in the Second City
“The Philly Phase of the Kobe Bryant Story was silt that settled at the bottom of a shimmering stream that dazzled the world for two decades … until Kobe’s shocking death sent Mike Sielski down with his big shovel, big heart, and big talent to dredge and divulge all its fertile richness in The Rise.” – Gary Smith, former Sports Illustrated senior writer, four-time National Magazine Award winner, author of Beyond the Game: The Collected Sportswriting of Gary Smith and Going Deep: 20 Classic Sports Stories
“Kobe Bryant shot to NBA stardom like an arrow from a strong bow. His notable skills and singular focus were clear from the beginning. In Mike Sielski’s sensitive reporting and crisp writing, we see the closest account you will ever read of a sure thing, from showing up as a child at a rec league tournament wearing goggles he didn’t need ― because they were worn by Lakers star Kareem Abdul Jabbar ― to startling teachers with his fluent Italian, to leading his Lower Merion high school team to a state championship while training with ― and dazzling ― the Philadelphia Sixers, there was never any doubt about Kobe Bryant, least of all in his own mind.” – Mark Bowden, bestselling author of Black Hawk Down, The Best Game Ever, Killing Pablo, Guests of the Ayatollah, and The Last Stone
“There may be similarities between Kobe Bryant’s game and that of a select few NBA greats. But Kobe’s path to the NBA and his tragically brief but meaningful post career life make his story unique. Mike Sielski presents that story informed by meticulous research and rendered with clear-eyed insights.” – Bob Costas
“Every superhero needs an origin story. Luke Skywalker. Clark Kent. Bruce Wayne. And now, thanks to Mike Sielski, the rise of Kobe Bryant can be fully understood and appreciated. A riveting, PhD-level study of a generational talent gone far too soon. Bravo.” – Jeff Pearlman, New York Times bestselling author of Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty
“As one of our greatest columnists and truth tellers, Mike Sielski is the perfect chronicler of one of the most triumphant and tragic sports stories ever told. Sielski uses never-before-published interviews to pry open windows on young Kobe Bryant’s competitive soul that had been forever sealed, making The Rise a titanic work worthy of its subject. Let the Philly author with the unmatched local knowledge show you why Kobe belonged to the world, and the ages, in life and in death.” – Ian O’Connor, New York Times bestselling author of Belichick, The Captain, and Arnie & Jack
“Everyone comes from somewhere. That’s often hard to remember in the face of today’s sports-celebrity complex. But it’s true. There are places in every past that explain a rise to the highest stages and brightest lights. Kobe Bryant might have made his name in Los Angeles, or become famous in every corner of the globe, but he was from Philadelphia. Enter Mike Sielski, who is the most definitive and important voice in that august and sports mad city. His story of Kobe Bryant tracks his rise, from Philly to the peak of his profession. He follows him from high school gyms to NBA Finals to a helicopter ride with his daughter when the things he loved the most came tumbling from the sky. This is a poignant, essential part of the Bryant canon.” – Wright Thompson, ESPN senior writer and author of the New York Times bestselling Pappyland: A Story of Family, Fine Bourbon, and the Things That Last and The Cost of These Dreams
“The Rise is terrific and provides ample evidence why Mike Sielski is the only sportswriter I routinely read outside my home region. Now I know how Kobe became Kobe.” – Chuck Hogan, author of The Town
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview
PREFACE: THE SIGNS OF THINGS TO COME
ON THE DAY AFTER KOBE Bryant died, a high school classmate and friend sent me an email that carried the force of a fist that I couldn’t see coming. “Thought you’d find this interesting,” Ben Relles wrote.
Embedded in the message was a link to a thirty-six-second video. On the right side of the video’s split-screen shot was Kobe, wearing a charcoal, scoop-neck sweater, sitting at an expansive cherry desk, riveted to flickering images on a laptop. He was in the executive offices of YouTube, where Ben was working to find new content for the channel. Kobe had come to the company’s Southern California headquarters in January 2018 to pitch a show based on Wizenard, a series of children’s books he had created that combined the themes of sports, fantasy, and magic. As it turned out, YouTube wasn’t funding children’s programming at the time and didn’t buy the show, but “it was genuinely one of the most impressive pitches I’ve heard,” Ben said later. “He was incredibly passionate about the idea and clearly hands-on in every aspect of it.”
On the video’s left side were the images that had grabbed Kobe’s attention: footage of a basketball game between two suburban Philadelphia high schools—his alma mater, Lower Merion, and mine, Upper Dublin. Ben ; and I were seniors then. He was a backup forward on the team. I was an editor of the student newspaper and lacked the skills and athleticism to play organized ball beyond intramurals. Kobe Bryant was a freshman. It was the second game of his high school career.
On December 7, 1992, as part of its high school boys’ basketball preview package, The Philadelphia Inquirer had published a pair of brief articles, one about each team. Both squads were green and were expected to struggle, but according to Jeremy Treatman, the correspondent who had written about the Lower Merion Aces, one player represented a glimmer of hope for them: “Remember this name: Kobe Bryant.”
The following week, the teams squared off in the consolation game of a four-team tournament at Lower Merion. In that thirty-six seconds of footage from that game, the Upper Dublin player closest to the camera—a senior guard named Bobby McIlvaine, the number 24, also Kobe’s number, huge on the back of his red jersey—whipped a cross-court pass to a teammate, Ari Greis. After Greis caught the ball on the right wing, he used a left-handed dribble to surge past Kobe and bank in a floater from the lane. A family friend of Ben’s had filmed the game, and Ben, having kept the tape all these years and knowing he would be sitting down with Kobe, had converted the recording to a digital file. Then, once the YouTube meeting had ended, Ben had played the footage on the laptop, and one of his coworkers had taken care to capture Kobe’s reaction to it. There it all was, in cosmic juxtaposition. You could watch Kobe as a thirty-nine-year-old watch himself as a fourteen-year-old in real time.
“That is hilarious,” he said. “Great defense, Kobe.… That’s horrible defense.… You can replay that all fucking day.… Oh. My. God.… Nawwwww!… That’s funny.… We only won four games that year.”
* * *
SO WHERE were you when that helicopter slammed into that Calabasas hillside in January 2020? Fixing yourself a midday snack in the kitchen? Relaxing in your recliner? Cleaning the garage? Me, I was in my car, my two sons in the backseat, hustling home so my eight-year-old could change and get to his 3:45 basketball game. And when we got there—I didn’t notice it, but my son did, and he didn’t tell me about it until after the game—there was a player on the opposing team, his arms peeking out like sapling branches from underneath a white T-shirt and a green tank top, the word “KOBE” written in black marker on his sleeve. You don’t forget a day like that. You don’t forget a death that causes the global compass to tremble.
That was Kobe Bryant’s reach and power. We attach so much to our athletes. We see what they have done and can do. That’s their gravitational pull, the attraction they have to us. They give us a standard to aspire to, a bar against which the rest of us can measure ourselves, and with Kobe, that pull was even stronger, because he was not limiting himself to basketball. He had been the executive producer of a short animated film, Dear Basketball, that had won an Academy Award and was based on a poem he wrote when he retired. In his post-Lakers life, he was, by all appearances, a loving husband to his wife, Vanessa, and a doting and demanding father to his four daughters. With time, with a media and fan base willing and eager to forgive, with the purchase of a gigantic diamond ring for Vanessa, he rendered the scandal that once stained his reputation—a rape accusation and his arrest in Colorado in 2003—an afterthought to most, though not all, of the public. He had put aside his petty wars with Phil Jackson and Shaquille O’Neal. There seemed great things ahead for him, things beyond the five championships and the fifteen All-Star Games and the 33,643 points and the 2008 NBA Most Valuable Player Award and the self-certainty—a belief in himself so absolute and obvious that it practically glowed and radiated from him—required to take the final shot when everyone in the arena knows you’re going to take it. And now all that excellence and redemption and promise had been extinguished, and there was no sense of it to be made. It was barely worth trying. You sat there and it sank in and you gaped and shook your head.
Those great things had begun in and around Philadelphia. It might not feel that way any longer, because Kobe was so much a part of Los Angeles for so long—had gone from boyhood to manhood there, always under the spotlight’s glare—that it seemed as if he had sprouted as a fully formed seventeen-year-old, complete with exquisite jump-shooting form, out of one of Hollywood’s hills. But no. The great things had begun at Lower Merion, located on the Main Line, the posh suburb that hugged Philadelphia’s western border. They had begun on the courts of those neighborhoods and playgrounds and parks, in the stuffy gymnasiums of local high schools, and in the tournaments of the country’s AAU circuit. Sure, many Philadelphia natives still note that Kobe technically wasn’t from the city, wasn’t one of them, but ask yourself: Was there ever a player who better embodied what being a Philadelphia basketball player meant, what it looked like—the edginess, the kill-or-die-yourself competitiveness? “It taught me how to be tough, how to have thick skin,” he said in late 2015, before his final game in Philadelphia against the 76ers. “There’s not one playground around here where people just play basketball and don’t talk trash.”
Those great things had begun with his high school coach, Gregg Downer, who formed and was formed by Kobe, who won a championship with him, too, and would love and be loyal to him forevermore, who collapsed to his kitchen floor, disbelief accelerating into despair, when the news of Kobe’s death broke. Those great things had begun with Treatman, who went from covering Kobe to befriending him, from a freelance sportswriter to one of Kobe’s most trusted confidants and to a mover-and-shaker in the world of Philly hoops. His 1992 Inquirer story would be the first mention of Kobe in any major mainstream news outlet. Remember this name? Treatman did his best to make sure that no one would forget it. He became an assistant boys’ basketball coach at Lower Merion at Downer’s request, charged with handling the never-ending interview requests, keeping the media close but not so close that they became a burden and distraction, tracking the tail of Kobe’s comet. He told anyone who happened to ask an offhand, casual question about Joe Bryant’s son that Kobe was the next big thing, that we were all going to end up saying we knew him when, which we did. He grew so close to Kobe that the two of them collaborated on a series of interviews for a book that Treatman never got the chance to write, though he made sure to preserve the microcassette tapes and transcripts of several of those interviews—the fresh thoughts and memories of a Kobe who was not yet twenty years old—and has given me access to them for this book. And then on January 26, Treatman answered his cellphone from Jefferson University, in the East Falls section of Philadelphia, where he was overseeing a girls’ basketball tournament, and he could barely get the words out. “I can’t believe it,” he said.
Those great things had begun at a school whose boys’ basketball program had faded into irrelevance years earlier but became a traveling circus—and the best team in the state—because of Kobe. They had begun within a community that touted its racial and economic diversity and harmony but whose members were in reality hungry for a common point of pride to unite them. They had begun in summer-league and pickup games that instantaneously became the stuff of apocrypha and myth and remained so for decades thereafter, stories that didn’t need to be embellished because the reality was flabbergasting enough: that a kid who was just turning seventeen already was the equal of or had surpassed the best players on those courts, which meant that he already was the equal of or had surpassed some of the better players in the NBA. They had begun at practices and workouts that the Sixers would hold at St. Joseph’s University in the mid-1990s, when a teenaged Kobe would walk into the gym and upstage many of those NBA veterans and coach John Lucas could only wish that the team would have the good sense to draft the kid. As an undergrad at La Salle then, as an editor and sports columnist for the student newspaper, I had read and heard rumors about those workouts. Like everyone else on campus who wanted to see La Salle men’s basketball return to the success—the twenty-win seasons, the conference championships, the NCAA tournament berths—that had been common, and perhaps taken for granted, just a few years earlier, I hoped Kobe would choose to go to college and to play in the same program where his father had such strong ties. Joe Bryant is a La Salle alum and a La Salle coach! He and Kobe are so close! It’s meant to be, right? But how realistic was that scenario once Kobe saw that he stacked up pretty well against pros, that they could try their sly tricks and throw their elbows and he could not only take it but give it right back to them? The great things had begun with that realization. They had to have begun then.
They had begun at a moment in our cultural history when a traditional path to athletic stardom was seen as the only appropriate path to athletic stardom—a presumption that Kobe managed to follow and eschew at the very same time. They had begun with a youth who was in some ways completely typical and in others unlike anything a teenager could possibly experience, a youth that seems so far away now. They had begun in December 1992, when Kobe was just fourteen. And look where it all had led.
* * *
THE BRIEF snippet of film that Ben Relles preserved for nearly thirty years didn’t tell the game’s full story. Lower Merion beat Upper Dublin, 74–57, and Kobe’s moment of embarrassment, captured forever, as if in amber, by that camcorder, was hardly representative of his overall performance. He scored nineteen points, and in a five-minute excerpt of the game that Ben later discovered, Kobe is the most arresting figure in the action. He drives into the lane and scores. He pulls up for two. He frees himself on an inbounds play and rattles in an open jumper from the left baseline. For a while, the longer video seems a highlight reel of Kobe and Kobe alone, and to watch him is to wonder how the Aces would ever lose as long as he remained in the lineup. But lose they did. Kobe was right: The team won just three more times while he was a freshman, finishing 4–20.
More illuminating than his perfect recall of that season, though, was the look on his face as he watched the game: smiling, snickering, and cursing at himself for his lazy defense, chomping on a piece of gum, his eyes on the computer screen but his mind searching, groping backward for that moment and that time in his life, for the prodigy he used to be. The footage clearly had surprised him, had sent him hurtling deep into his past, and if he went back far enough, he could make out the shape and contours of the mold for the man he became. The template was already in place. So many traits that shaped and characterized him were already present at that point in his life—the cockiness, the competitiveness, the warmth and the coldness that would emerge depending on the circumstances and his own desires and aims, the boyish insecurities, the comfort with fame, the beyond-his-years commitment to basketball brilliance and the preternatural understanding of what it took to achieve it, the traits he had retained over time, the traits he had shed. Memory is a gift often hidden away within a box locked tight, and that game film was the gliding, turning key, allowing Kobe access to sights, sounds, places, and people made tactile and intimate again. He was seeing himself anew. What follows is an attempt to see him that way once again.
I’m sure it seems to you like I have the perfect life right now.
1 AFTER THE FIRE
A TOP THE GRAY CONCRETE WALKWAY outside the entrance to Kobe Bryant Gymnasium, a makeshift memorial garden was blooming with colors and remembrances: candles and wreaths and sneakers and jerseys, maroon and white for the Lower Merion High School Aces, purple and gold for the Los Angeles Lakers, orange and brown from the basketballs, yellow and red from the roses. It had been forty-eight hours since a Sikorsky S-76B helicopter, its body white and striped in royal blue and periwinkle, had lifted off from John Wayne–Orange County Airport in Southern California, hovered in circles above a golf course, tried to slice through a fog bank as thick and blinding as gauze, and crashed into a hilly ravine, killing the nine people aboard: Kobe; his thirteen-year-old daughter, Gianna; the pilot; and six people involved in Kobe’s AAU basketball program, including two of Gianna’s teammates—all of them bound for a tournament at his Mamba Sports Academy, forty-five miles northwest of Los Angeles. That was Sunday, January 26, 2020. Now it was Tuesday, a crystalline afternoon in the suburbs west of Philadelphia, the middle of the school day, breezy and chilly. Students, heading from one class to another, stopped to gaze at the items and whisper among themselves. Middle-aged men and women parked their cars blocks away, then walked to the site, as quietly as if they were entering a church. A sixty-four-year-old Lakers fan from central New Jersey, Mark Kerr, drove ninety minutes that day with his wife and nephew, just to visit the memorial, just to feel a connection to Kobe. Three members of the school’s 2006 boys’ basketball team, which had won a state championship ten years after Kobe had led the school to one, set a framed photo there; in the photo was Kobe, sitting on a bench with them. A WNBA player had written a letter to him in lavender ink, in curlicued Palmer method, on lined notepad paper: “I feel selfish for just missing out on what else you would have done with your time with us…”
For those two days, Gregg Downer had not watched TV, had avoided listening to any radio reports, and had not stopped once at the site. How many times had he kept his head down and kept striding past it and into the gym? How many times would he have to contemplate what he had lost, what the world had lost, in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains? He couldn’t say, but he knew he couldn’t bear to spend any time there yet. There was so much of him blanketing that ground, too. He was fifty-seven now, his face finely wrinkled and more weathered than it had been when he and Kobe were together, when he was in his early thirties and so boyish that the two of them could have been mistaken for college roommates. They were so close, knew each other so well, respected each other so much, that they might as well have been.
In his kitchen on the morning and early afternoon of that Sunday, Downer had been overseeing a playdate between his daughter Brynn, who was seven, and one of her friends. Whenever Kobe saw Brynn, towheaded and pigtailed, he scooped her up, nuzzled her face, and squeezed her tight as if she were his own, as if she were his fifth daughter. Downer had not become a father until he was fifty, until after Kobe and Vanessa had already had two girls, Natalia and Gianna. There was always a gleam in Brynn’s eyes, Downer noticed, whenever she saw Kobe and the gleam in his when he saw her. But now Brynn and her friend were padding past Downer and his wife, Colleen, and Downer’s phone was buzzing. A reporter. Downer guessed why he’d be getting such a call: The night before, in Philadelphia against the Sixers, LeBron James had moved into third place on the NBA’s career scoring list, leapfrogging Kobe. The sportswriter must be looking for a quote from Downer on the nugget of news. That’s what he told Colleen. He didn’t bother to pick up his phone. But then, for the next ninety seconds his phone didn’t stop, buzzing and jumping so much it seemed possessed by a poltergeist, and finally he went online and read a TMZ post on Twitter, the first report that Kobe was dead, and after Downer prayed for five minutes that the gossip site had gotten it wrong and that some sick internet troll was guilty of a cruel hoax, Brynn’s playdate was over and the Downers’ kitchen was a vale of tears.
He walked upstairs, walked back down again, walked through his front door, and walked around the suburban development where he and Colleen had moved fifteen years earlier, past lawns gone brown and swimming pools shuttered for the winter, past the houses of friends, past all the people who had known for a long time that Kobe’s coach lived in their neighborhood. He could gain no mental and emotional traction. Had this really happened? Who else had been aboard the helicopter? Who already had heard? Would he have to tell people? The other men who had coached Kobe at Lower Merion—the long-ago players and teammates who had been Kobe’s closest friends when they were teens and now didn’t often hear from him once he became a star and Los Angeles became his home and they remained Guys Who Had Been Teammates And Friends With Kobe Bryant—Jeanne Mastriano, who had taught English at the school for thirty years, who had no formal connection to the basketball program but remained a mentor to Kobe nonetheless, who had coaxed and fanned the intellectual curiosity within him into a fire—who would tell them? Tears leaked from him in small, sporadic bursts. On a table in his house, his cell phone continued to hum with calls and texts, each one a thread in a web of horror and grief. He walked home, not knowing who he should reach out to first, or if he could pick up the phone at all.
* * *
THEIR FOUR children, all under age eleven, were bored, with pent-up energy to burn off, with nothing to do at home on a winter Sunday afternoon. So Phil and Allison Mellet took advantage of who they were and where they lived. The couple were Lower Merion alumni, members of the class of 1998—they had started dating as seniors and been together ever since—and Allison, who taught Spanish at the school and directed its world-languages department, could get access to the building even on a weekend. A quick bit of packing, a short ride to Bryant Gymnasium, and there they were—Allison on a treadmill in a room down the hall from the gym, Phil shooting a basketball or throwing a football with the kids. Mellet propped his phone against a wall in a corner of the gym, next to the lumpy mound of jackets and long-sleeved shirts that the children had stripped off once they felt the gym’s sticky warmth, granola bars and applesauce pouches stuffed in the pockets and piled nearby.
The gym—named for Kobe in 2010, after he donated $411,000 to the school district—was far bigger than the old one that he and Mellet had played in back when they were teammates in 1995–96, when Kobe was a senior supernova and Mellet, now a corporate attorney who hadn’t spoken to him in years, was a scrawny sophomore guard happy just to ride the bench. With the bleachers pushed in against the wall, as they were now, the place seemed even bigger. The kids’ voices echoed as if they were at the bottom of a canyon. The only other person in the school was a janitor. Still, Mellet managed to notice that his phone was droning and lighting up with text messages. They were from old friends bearing horrible news.
As he read them, he was filled with an odd emptiness. Though he had not maintained a relationship with Kobe—how many of those guys, even with those old friendships and a state championship binding them to him, really had?—Mellet had always considered himself lucky to have played with him, to have gotten to know him a bit. Whenever he met someone through his work, investors or stockholders or other attorneys, he had always found a way to loop his connection to Kobe into the conversation. It was a marvelous icebreaker, better than asking about kids or golf or the same-old, same-old. You were on the same team as Kobe? Well, tell me about THAT! They lit up, and to Mellet, there was a thrill, a tiny electric charge, in retelling and reliving the stories. Now that wire had been severed. Now a piece of his life, one that had significance, was gone.
Within twenty minutes, the janitor came by to tell him that he and Allison and the children would have to leave. The building was going to be locked down.
* * *
IN THE frozen-food aisle of an Acme in Narberth, Pennsylvania, a mile and a half from the high school, Amy Buckman perused the options behind the glass, bags of vegetables crackling and crunching in her hands as she took care of the grocery shopping for her and her husband, Terry. Before the Lower Merion School District had hired her, a 1982 alumna of the high school herself, in March 2018 to be its spokesperson, Buckman had worked for a quarter century as a producer and on-air reporter for Channel 6 Action News, Philadelphia’s ABC affiliate. Terry, home watching TV, texted her. They had been married thirty-two years. He knew what she needed to know.
They’re reporting that Kobe’s helicopter crashed.
He continued to funnel her updates, confirmations, and details as she rushed through the checkout line. She drove home, unpacked the groceries, sent texts to the school district’s superintendent, Robert Copeland; to the high school’s principal, Sean Hughes; and to the district’s facilities director, Jim Lill. I’m going to my office. We’re going to be the news. She called Downer, then Doug Young, who was one of Downer’s assistant coaches, one of Kobe’s former teammates, and her predecessor as the district’s spokesperson. From the somber, halting whisper that was Downer’s voice over the phone, she could tell that he wasn’t up to speaking publicly yet. He gave her one six-word sentence, which Buckman included in the 189-word statement that she wrote there at her desk. It was not merely that her job required her to write the statement. It was that she, unlike Downer or Young or any number of people still tethered to Kobe, possessed the distance and perspective to do it. She had never met him. In her television career, she had covered the O. J. Simpson trial, had interviewed Oprah Winfrey, had produced a morning talk show and spoken with dozens of Philadelphia newsmakers—that was the evergreen term in the business for any chef or senior citizen or nonprofit director who might fill six and a half minutes on an hour-long local TV program, “newsmaker”—and Kobe had become Polaris in the region’s constellation of celebrities, the newsmaker of newsmakers. Yet they’d never crossed paths. This was not a hindrance to her at this moment. This was an asset. Someone had to be clear-minded enough to speak for the community. Someone had to be the face of Kobe Bryant’s alma mater on the day of Kobe Bryant’s death.
Already the impromptu shrine was spreading, like holy kudzu, from the sidewalk in front of the school’s gymnasium entrance to the doors themselves, and reporters and camera crews were lingering there, interviewing those who had come to the site, waiting to see if they would be allowed inside the school to shoot footage for that night’s newscasts—the trophy case, the memorabilia therein, Kobe’s name on the gym’s walls, the obvious images. At 4:30 P.M., Buckman rooted herself just outside the doors and read the statement.
The Lower Merion School District community is deeply saddened to learn of the sudden passing of one of our most illustrious alumni, Kobe Bryant. Mr. Bryant’s connection to Lower Merion High School, where he played basketball prior to joining the NBA, has raised the profile of the high school and our district throughout the world.…
Gregg Downer coached Mr. Bryant from 1992 to 1996. Mr. Bryant led the team to the 1996 state championship. Downer said that he is completely shocked and devastated by this news, adding, “Aces Nation has lost its heartbeat.” The entire Lower Merion School District community sends its deepest condolences to Mr. Bryant’s family.
She told the media that they could enter the building and get their footage. They could get it then and only then. No one would let them back in for more on Monday. Monday was a school day. The reporters filed in and gathered their B-roll, pointing their cameras to the sparkling hardwood court and the championship banners hanging inside the gymnasium, to the kaleidoscopic mosaics of Kobe on the walls outside the gym, to the glass trophy case where the school displayed five of Kobe’s sneakers and four framed photographs of him and the 1996 state-championship trophy, the lustrous golden basketball that he held above his head that night in Hershey.
The reporters filed out. The mourners continued to arrive. The carpet of letters and flowers and basketballs—officials eventually collected more than four hundred basketballs, donating many to local boys’ and girls’ clubs, keeping some in boxes and black trash bags that would remain stacked on storage shelves until they could be displayed at the school—snaked all the way to the lip of the entrance, blocking the doors, creating a fire-code violation. Buckman, Hughes, and Lill roped off a nearby section of lawn and began picking up the sheets of paper and the lilies and the roses, carrying them with caution and care, as if they were handling fresh-blown glass, and setting them next to the doors, near withered bushes and a plot of mulch and dirt. It took them until the darkness of early Monday morning to move all the items and clear a path to enter and exit the school, Amy Buckman still in the tan corduroy leggings and black down coat she had worn to the Acme.
* * *
AT AROUND the same time that his old friend’s helicopter had lifted off that morning, Doug Young had folded himself into a coach seat for a short flight from Alabama to North Carolina. A communication strategist, he had spent the week in Mobile for the Senior Bowl, which was both a chance for NFL executives and coaches to scout college players and a networking opportunity for several of Young’s clients: trainers and up-and-coming coaches and aspiring quarterback gurus looking to build their brands and businesses. Six foot four and lean, Young had a stylish appearance and refined deportment that belied his earnest loyalty to and affection for his high school. No one knew more about the history of Lower Merion, and of its boys’ basketball program in particular, than he did, and with the exception of Downer, no one had done more to maintain the connection between Kobe and the school. When the team traveled to Los Angeles in 2018 to visit Kobe, for instance, Young handled the itinerary and accommodations, arranged a ninety-minute roundtable chat between Kobe and the players at Kobe’s office, and made sure every player got a signed copy of his book The Mamba Mentality. Whenever Downer wanted to inspire his players, Young went to the trouble of fitting a conference call / pep talk snugly into Kobe’s schedule. His junior and senior years had coincided with Kobe’s freshman and sophomore years. He had been there for the dawn.
For the hour and forty-five minutes that the plane was airborne, Young had kept his cell phone and laptop off. But once the plane landed, he looked around and noticed some of the passengers crying, all of them looking at their phones and freezing in place, person by person, row by row, a domino array of shock and sadness. He turned on his phone, then went numb.
Until he wandered toward the terminal for his flight to Philadelphia, the coincidence of his location didn’t occur to him: Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Charlotte, home of the Hornets. The team that had drafted Kobe.
* * *
OVER THE two days after the crash, Downer responded to just a few of the calls that he had received Sunday. He remained in the same half daze that he had lapsed into that afternoon, and Hughes had told him not to come in to try to teach. Stay home. Take what time you need. Downer had exchanged text messages with John Cox, Kobe’s cousin, but he had not heard from Kobe’s parents, Joe and Pam. No one had. They had said nothing publicly. Downer hoped he might reconnect with them soon, but until then, there were more immediate matters to which he had to attend. Hughes and Jason Stroup, the school’s athletic director, would be gathering Downer’s players before the team’s regularly scheduled practice to speak to them, and Lower Merion still had a game on Tuesday night. Several of the players had met Kobe during the team’s recent visit to Los Angeles, and Downer didn’t want to leave the task of calming and reassuring them, of speaking with authority about who Kobe was and what he might want them to do now, to Hughes and Stroup. He drove to school for the meeting.
He talked to his players about Kobe’s death in a manner that, he hoped, would resonate with teenage boys. There are a lot of circulating emotions here, guys, Downer told them. We have to get those ten or fifteen emotions down to three or four. When I try to think what Kobe would want to have happen in a situation like this, I think he would want to get back to the bouncing ball as soon as possible. We have an important game Tuesday. We should want to bounce the ball. We should want to squeak our sneakers. We should want to compete like crazy, and we will. Let’s respect that we have our health. Let’s respect that we have the ability to do this, to play basketball, and let’s try to have a heck of a lot of fun while we’re doing it.
He had said nothing publicly since Buckman had released the statement, but now he would have to. A wave of interview requests for Downer had flooded the school district’s offices. In response, Buckman arranged a midafternoon press conference at the administration building with Downer and Young. It was a strategy straight from the textbook of modern media relations, and given the power of Kobe’s fame, it was understandable. Buckman would give the local TV stations and newspapers and websites, and maybe a national outlet or two that might travel a couple of hours to suburban Philadelphia—The New York Times, The Washington Post—one fair and open opportunity to talk to Kobe’s coach in person. Then—and Buckman gathered the thirty reporters on hand and insisted upon this condition—the district wouldn’t allow reporters to ask Downer or anyone else at Lower Merion about Kobe for a good long while. Downer still had a basketball team to coach. He needed time to mourn. Everyone did. So here was your chance, journalists. Take it.
* * *
ONE BY one, twenty to twenty-five in all, the media members marched into a conference room to stake out their positions for Downer’s appearance. The room held a large, horseshoe-shaped table with thick wooden chairs, and the phalanx of tripods closed off the open end of the shoe. A maroon banner hung behind the table’s head. Set on an easel was a poster-size photo of Kobe that had been snapped during one of his high school games. He was clad in a white jersey and cradled a basketball in his right hand, his mouth open and his eyes turned upward toward a net as he prepared to flip the ball over his head for a reverse layup—a flawless, frozen coup d’oeil of his athleticism and grace on the court.
With Young behind him, Downer stepped into the conference room from a door behind the banner, his thinning, straw-gray buzz cut perfect for the archetype of his profession: He had been a physical-education teacher at the school for more than twenty years. Minutes before, he had dug through a closet in a storage room next to the gym and removed from it a precious artifact: Kobe’s white warm-up jacket from his junior and senior seasons, the number 33 on the sleeves. It had stayed in that closet for twenty-four years since Kobe last wore it—24, Kobe’s first jersey number at Lower Merion, his second jersey number with the Lakers. Was the coincidence odd? Fitting? Maybe both. Downer, as he prepared to meet with the press, had donned the warm-up himself, as if it were a protective cloak. He felt that he had to wear it, that he would be somehow safer and stronger if he did.
“He’s giving me strength in a moment like this,” he said later that afternoon. “Wasn’t sure I could get through yesterday. Wasn’t sure I could keep my emotions together. And I found … the ability to do that. It’s coming from him. It means the world to be in a jacket like this. If there’s some sort of small connection between him and me with his warm-up he wore…”
He sat at the table’s head; Young sat in the chair to the left, his body bowed toward Downer’s in deference to him. “I appreciate your patience,” Downer said to the assembled media. “The past few days have been poor sleep, poor nutrition, and lots of tears,” and the evidence was obvious—his face puffy, his eyes rimmed red. To his right, in a corner of the room, mingled a loose group of men with connections to the program: former players and coaches, alumni, friends of Downer’s. Jeremy Treatman stood there among them, his arms crossed against his chest, his head dangling below his shoulders as if he were hanging by his nape from a hook.
The gathering was a testament to Kobe, of course, but to Downer, as well. Kobe’s freshman season with the Aces had been Downer’s third as the school’s varsity head coach. The first time he had seen Kobe play, when Kobe was an eighth grader, Downer had joked, Well, I’m definitely going to be here for four years. Four years had stretched to thirty years. Lower Merion had won fifteen league championships over that time. It won the state title in 1996 with Kobe, then won two more thereafter. Downer had never experienced again a year like Kobe’s senior season—the autograph and ticket demands, the crowds, the media attention, games becoming rock concerts—but without that year, he believed, none of the success that followed would have been possible. “The pathway of our program would be very different had we not met him,” he was saying at the table. “He taught us how to win. He taught us how to work hard. He taught us how to not take shortcuts. The bar got very high.… I don’t think the momentum for any of this would have been there if we hadn’t been blessed enough to meet this amazing player and this amazing person.”
He was searching for his words, and the hunt became harder when someone asked him, “Have you talked to anyone from Kobe’s family?” The question cut him. Joe and Pam Bryant had practically been members of Downer’s family, too. Joe, in fact, even served as Downer’s junior-varsity coach during Kobe’s career there. But Kobe’s relationship with his parents had fractured during his years with the Lakers, both because of his decision to marry Vanessa when they were so young—he was twenty-one, and she was eighteen—and because of a dispute with Pam over the handling and sale of some of his personal items and memorabilia. You’re not ready to be married.… Yes, I am.… I’m going to sell some of your things.… No, you can’t. There had been fights and cold wars and temporary reconciliations and the tearing apart again and maybe, still, the faint but lingering possibility that there might yet be full healing … all of that conflict, in the end, over stuff—high school jerseys and Lakers jerseys and rings, just stuff, and what did that stuff matter now? The wounds had been deep, so deep, Downer knew, that they had to be the reason Joe and Pam had yet to issue any public comment about their son’s death. Downer had never met Vanessa, but he had maintained his relationship with Kobe. He had seen him three times in the previous eighteen months, had flown his team to L.A., had met up with him in Philadelphia at a book signing. Kobe had published a series of novels for elementary school students in March 2019, and he was giving the books away—not selling them at the signing, giving them away. That was the last time Downer had talked to him in person. He couldn’t remember the last time he had talked to Joe and Pam in person, or at all, and now here was this question, here were these cameras …
“I had a wonderful relationship with Pam and Joe.… I learned about coaching from Joe, and I think of him in the highest of regards.… If they’re out there, I badly want to be supportive of Vanessa and the other three girls. I badly want to be there for them in any small way that I can be. And I definitely … uh … want to get in touch with Joe and Pam.”
Now he was crying. Now the words stopped.
“Joe and Pam, we lost a great one. I love Kobe, and I love Joe and Pam also.”
He reached for a bottle of lemon-lime Gatorade that he had set on the table in front of him. He held it to his lips for a few heartbeats. He wiped his eyes with his right hand, then with his left. There was no sound in the room.
* * *
ONE MONTH later, at 8:00 A.M. on Tuesday, February 25, the day after the memorial ceremony for Kobe and Gianna Bryant at the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, Downer sat aboard a cross-country flight back to Philadelphia, racing home to coach in a district-playoff game at 7:30 P.M. that night. He had missed his team’s last four practices and not watched one second of film on the Aces’ opponent, Pennridge High School. His assistant coaches had been in contact with him, and he had no doubts that his players would be ready for the game. But in truth, his mind was elsewhere, dwelling on the day before.
Downer, Treatman, and Young had followed through on a tentative plan they had laid out not long after Kobe’s death. No matter when the Lakers might host a memorial for Kobe, the three of them would travel to the West Coast for it. Now Downer’s mind reached back. Obtaining tickets for the ceremony had been a chore, because so few were available and because the ceremony would be so NBA- and Los Angeles–centric, to align with Vanessa’s wishes. But Tim Harris, the Lakers’ senior vice president for business operations, had interceded on their behalf. Harris had done more than intercede, in fact; he had procured a couple of extra tickets, allowing Jeanne Mastriano and Downer’s younger brother, Brad, to attend, as well.
The group left their hotel early on the morning of the ceremony, Brad driving them to the Staples Center. To Gregg, ten minutes early was always ten minutes late anyway, and they had anticipated, correctly, delays beyond the normal Los Angeles rush-hour mess. Some streets were blocked off. Traffic choked the rest. Outside the arena, giant murals of Kobe painted on brick building walls in the days since his death, phantasmagorical in their colors, towered over the passersby, most of whom wore Lakers jerseys, some of whom wore Lower Merion jerseys. Lower Merion jerseys in California, in China … the reach … Kobe’s reach … even in this setting … Young marveled to himself at the community created by this one human being. Vendors sold Kobe T-shirts. People are buying them? Downer thought. He had trouble stomaching it … the inappropriateness. Kobe’s ghost was everywhere, and it could be yours, screen-printed on rayon, for fifteen bucks.
They shuffled past the security guards and X-ray screeners into Staples. At another time, in another context, the scene around Downer inside the arena would have been a dream: Gregg Downer, blue-collar kid from Media, Pennsylvania, surrounded by Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Shaquille O’Neal, Magic Johnson, Tim Duncan. He had always assumed that he would be sitting among these immortals during Kobe’s induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, except the purpose of this gathering was his worst nightmare. He was still struggling to process his new reality.
For two decades, he had kept West Coast time, learning to get by on five hours of sleep so he could track Kobe’s struggles and triumphs every night. He saw Kobe’s air balls in Utah during that humiliating playoff-series loss his rookie year, his eighty-one-point game, the five championship rings. Before he died, in the fall of 2018, Downer’s father, Robert, would record all of the Lakers’ late games and watch them the following morning, then begin every phone conversation with his son the same way—Did you see what Kobe did last night?—unless Kobe happened to have an off night, in which case Robert simply erased the game from the DVR. For Gregg, though, there were too many memories to erase. He shot free throws with Kobe at the old Forum before Lakers practices. He swam and ate meals with him at Kobe’s house overlooking the Pacific. He traveled to games all over the country, just to see him play. He worked Kobe’s basketball camps. They exchanged emails about strategy. In a private moment, in the halls of Lower Merion, Downer shared the news that he was going to be a father, and Kobe wrapped him in an embrace.
* * *
ANOTHER MEMORY, this one fresh: He had shared the same tight embrace with Joe and Pam Bryant, with Kobe’s sisters, Sharia and Shaya, seconds after the ceremony, Treatman and Young there, too, all of them crying, all of them together. The ceremony had been lovely but, from a Lower Merion perspective, perhaps incomplete. There was no mention of Kobe’s high school years, or even of Joe and Pam. Vanessa had handled the program’s agenda and themes, and of course she sought to honor and acknowledge her daughter as much as she did her husband, but the iciness between her and Kobe’s parents was still apparent. From what Treatman saw, they never interacted with or so much as glanced at each other before, during, or after the ceremony.
Rob Pelinka, Kobe’s former agent and the Lakers’ general manager, spoke. Connecticut women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma and one of his greatest players, Diana Taurasi, spoke. Vanessa herself spoke. Shaq spoke. Magic spoke. Michael spoke. That last speech, Jordan’s, had moved Downer so much, had reminded him of the conversations he’d had with Kobe during their years together, when Kobe was fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years old, so obviously mimicking Jordan’s moves and mannerisms on the court. The speech had moved Downer because Jordan, ever so stoic and prideful, had finally called Kobe his “little brother,” an amazing player, and imagine how Kobe, at any age, at any stage of his too-short life, would have reacted to hearing that! And once the ceremony ended, he and Treatman rushed down to Joe and Pam’s seats, near the stage, and when she saw Treatman, Pam had shouted, “It’s Jeremy! It’s Jeremy!” And when a security guard stopped the two of them, Downer said something he had never said before, played a card that he had never played before. He looked at the guard and said, “I’m Kobe Bryant’s high school coach. I have to see his parents now. That’s why I’m here.” And the guard let him pass, and Joe, who had been hugging Shaq, let go, grabbed Downer instead, pulled him close and smiled wide and began massaging Downer’s shoulders, as if to relieve the tension and the strain and the men’s shared misery, and repeated the same phrase again and again.
“We made a kid for the world,” Joe Bryant said. “We made a kid for the world.”
And now that the speeches had ended … now what? Downer had always viewed himself through four prisms: teacher, coach, father, and husband. Now what? He wasn’t sure. Memories and flashbacks were everywhere at Lower Merion. Ten months each year, six days each week, he coached in the gym that Kobe had funded, that Kobe had built, that bore Kobe’s name. Kobe might pop into his head at any moment for any reason. One morning weeks earlier, for no reason that he could explain, Downer spontaneously dropped to the floor of the school, flattened his chest against the tiles, and cranked out twenty-four push-ups.
He began to scribble down thoughts, random ideas and aphorisms. Kobe needs me to be strong. My current players need it. My students need it. I need to continue to affect players and students in a positive way, as I’ve been trying to do for thirty years. Kobe needs me to stand tall and sharpen my resolve.
He thought of Brynn, of the hashtag that had spread brushfire-like over social media in the days after the plane crash, after a clip of Kobe on a late-night talk show, referring to himself as a “girl dad,” had gone viral. The movement felt tangible to him now. Maybe this was the connection to Kobe he needed. Brynn always came to her dad’s basketball games. Brought her own clipboard. Sat in on all the film-study sessions and pregame pep talks. Soaked her dad with water during postgame victory parties in the locker room. Swam with her dad. Had sleepovers by the fireplace with her dad. Played soccer and baseball with her dad. Made her first basket on a ten-foot hoop not long ago. He kept writing.
She can be whatever she wants to be, and I want more than anything else to guide her through the good and bad. Kobe’s love for his girls, his legacy as a father, strengthens me. The bond we shared in raising our daughters is the greatest gift of our relationship. It’s what inspires me most. I am going to focus on three words for my own motivation and peace of mind: courage, resilience, and love.
Every coach, he believed, needed a game plan at all times. For the first time since January 26, nearly thirty years after he first met Kobe Bryant, he believed he had one. The plane cruised through the clouds, shepherding Gregg Downer home, back to where the journey had begun.
I know that the players who competed before me and who are still performing are the people who made the NBA what it is today. How could I not understand that after watching my dad play and knowing what he went through?
2 A SAFE HAVEN
THE DETAILS AND ANNOUNCEMENTS, PRIVATE and public, of Kobe Bean Bryant’s birth on August 23, 1978, at Lankenau Hospital were rife with ambiguity and errata. If Philadelphia never fully embraced him, if many of its sports fans maintained a resentful, tribal posture toward him for most of his life—He is not one of us—they could always cite a delicious truth that spiced their attitude: He was not, in fact, a native of the city. Lankenau was located within Philadelphia’s borders for its first ninety-three years before it was relocated in 1953 to Lower Merion Township in Montgomery County, to ninety-three acres of sprawling suburban land. So no: technically, Kobe was not from Philadelphia. But the occasional misidentification of his birthplace was a less egregious mistake than those made by the two newspapers that first heralded his arrival. The day after Kobe was born, The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News—the former an austere broadsheet, the latter a gritty tabloid—announced his birth in the same erroneous manner: by spelling his first name “Cobie.”
No matter the explanation, one could understand the blunder. It was an unusual name with an unusual genesis. As August 1978 was nearing its end and the start of Sixers training camp was approaching, Joe Bryant was about to begin his fourth season with the team, and over those years he had developed a fondness for a particular restaurant: Kobe Japanese Steak House in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. The restaurant—attached to a Hilton hotel and a stone’s throw from the suburb’s primary attraction, the King of Prussia Mall—had opened in the early 1970s, and its owner, Christ Dhimitri, touted it as an exotic alternative to the tried, true, and staid American steakhouse, though not too exotic. It served teppanyaki-style food—broiled, grilled, pan-fried—which meant that there was no sushi or sashimi on the menu, and ironically, there was no Kobe, either: An outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease in Japan had made it illegal for anyone in the United States to import the succulent beef.
During Joe’s years with them, the Sixers held their annual September training camp first at Ursinus College and later at Franklin & Marshall College, each of which was a lengthy drive west from Philadelphia or Wynnewood that could include, if someone so desired, a stop along the way at the Kobe Japanese Steak House. The restaurant became a hangout of sorts for Sixers players—several of whom Dhimitri befriended, Julius “Dr. J” Erving and Maurice Cheeks among them—as they commuted to and from camp. The Bryants patronized it frequently.
“At that time,” Dhimitri said later, “Japanese food was really unique. That’s why they came. All the food was fresh. It was kind of fun.”
When he told Sports Illustrated in 1998 why he and Pam had given Kobe his name, Joe admitted, “I don’t know if I should say [why], because they might want the rights.” But Joe had no cause to worry. Dhimitri never bothered trying to collect any royalties from the Bryants. The chance to tell the tale, to link his Kobe to the Kobe, satisfied him, even if it might make someone wonder about the kind of man who would enjoy a restaurant so much that he would insist on naming his only son after it.
* * *
TODAY, THE street on which Joe Bryant lived for most of his childhood, the 5800 block of Willows Avenue in West Philadelphia, is 530 feet of zigzag sidewalk with starburst patches of weeds bursting forth from splits in the concrete, of seven decayed row houses with jury-rigged plywood doors and rust-tinged screen doors that swing and creak in the breeze, of curbside cars parked front to back as closely as a jigsaw puzzle’s edge pieces. Step out of one of those row houses, turn the corner, cross the Cobbs Creek Parkway, and head north, and there is an oasis: a gleaming verdant park, with the full basketball court that Joe himself played on as a boy, the two hoops outfitted now with fresh white nylon netting. But the block itself retains little of the aspirational gleam, the promise of a purer form of freedom, that drew Joe Bryant Sr.—Kobe’s grandfather—there from Dooly County, Georgia, one of hundreds of thousands of Black people who trekked from the South to Philadelphia during the Great Migration. They settled primarily in Philadelphia’s northern, southern, and western neighborhoods, seizing on the city’s industrialization during the twentieth century’s first two decades, abutting and sometimes mingling with the ethnic enclaves already carved out nearby—Russian Jews in the west, Italians in the south, colonies of row homes amid ironworks shops, carpet and clothing manufacturers, apartments stacked atop convenience stores, windowless tan-brick warehouses with trolley cars trundling past. At one point, more Black people owned houses in Philadelphia than in any other city north of the Mason-Dixon Line, and the men who owned them were construction workers and steelmen and truck drivers, their hard work earning them the license and satisfaction to sit on the porches and stoops of their own homes on cool evenings, to look around at their children playing on the capillary streets of their sliver of the city, to know that they had gotten out of hell and forged something good and solid for themselves. They were not rich, and they did not have to be rich, because the money they made was theirs, which made it priceless. By the time Joe Sr. had turned twenty-five, he had become one of those men: a husband, a father, well over six feet tall, a body like a gigantic barrel, a deep and guttural voice, a presence. He had made that same journey and bought two of those houses—the first at 42nd and Leidy in West Philadelphia, the second at 58th and Willows, three miles south—and secured one of those jobs, spending sixteen years with a uniform-rental company as a plant manager. He built a family—a wife, two sons and a daughter, his oldest child his namesake, his eye’s apple.
* * *
PICTURE THE sight, the strange, strange sight: a sixteen-year-old kid, six feet nine inches tall, a gap between his front teeth that made his smile appear wider and brighter, skinny as string, running, running, running. Joe Bryant would do that, just take off and go whenever he and his father were butting heads, whenever Joe Sr. let him know in no uncertain terms that there would be no excuses for violating the rules of the Bryant home. One of those rules: Never bring daylight to this house. It meant that under no circumstances was Joe to come home too late, and if he did, the cost for him, the reckoning at his father’s iron fist, would be steep.
Big Joe was a natural disciplinarian, as fathers of that era tended to be. But there was cause for him to be concerned whenever Joe wasn’t home. Philadelphia throughout the 1960s was a haven for street gangs, their numbers growing over the decade until, in 1969, the Philadelphia Crime Commission estimated there were three thousand members of seventy-five gangs responsible for forty-five murders and 267 injuries that year. As a ten- and eleven-year-old, Joe was involved in his share of skirmishes: the schoolyard, near the public pool in Fairmount Park. Once, he and several friends went at it with a gang called 39th and Poplar, named for the corner its members guarded as if the intersection were their castle. Joe was the youngest in his group, and when the fighting began, he felt a sensation in his left hip like a pin pricking him. He looked down and saw blood penciling down his leg and pooling near his foot. He’d been sliced by a knife, the wound leaving a scar that remained visible for years.
Basketball was his safe haven. The sport had hooked him long ago. Standing six foot six by the end of ninth grade, as a basketball star and track athlete at Bartram High School, he could play ball just about anytime, anywhere he wanted in the city. He had a backboard and hoop that had been bolted to a utility pole right there at 58th and Willows. He had Cobbs Creek Park. After his family attended Sunday services at New Bethlehem Baptist Church, around the corner from his grandmother’s house, Joe could get a game at the court next door. There was Bartram, where Joe played for coach Jack Farrell, muttonchopped and cheery- faced but tough on his team, and there were the summer leagues in Philadelphia and its suburbs. Joe started out at the Narberth League—in Lower Merion Township—then moved up to the premier summer basketball institution in the city: the Sonny Hill League. It was the place for players and prospects to see and be seen by high school coaches and college recruiters, from Philadelphia and around the country, and it was where Joe, regarded as the best player in the Philadelphia Public League, met and befriended Mo Howard, who as a senior point guard at St. Joseph’s Prep was regarded as the best player in the Philadelphia Catholic League.
So Joe ran to those games, wherever they might be, or he ran to Howard’s house in North Philadelphia, winding through some six miles of city blocks, seeking out Howard for support in the streets and on the court, tempting fate to a degree that only a young athlete of his stature could. The culture of the gangs came with a code, a single saving grace: If you were a good athlete, you were more likely to get a pass. Sonny Hill, a former union organizer with the magnetism and salesmanship of a carnival barker, used his negotiating skills to broker truces between gangs, to earn dispensation for the kids who played in his league and peace of mind for their parents, and word trickled through the neighborhoods: If you were involved with the Sonny Hill League like Joe was, if you excelled for your high school team like Joe did, people recognized that you were trying to achieve, and were capable of achieving, something bigger, better, more. People admired you. People shielded you from the violence. It would have been a valuable lesson for Joe Bryant, one that he could appreciate fully only after he himself became a father of a son: that he could make himself untouchable through basketball, that he could survive the unpleasant and uncomfortable aspects of inner-city existence and use them to his advantage. Understand where your opponents come from and how they will size you up, the tactics they will use to gain a mental and physical edge on you. You didn’t have to live in the city to learn those things, but you did have to play in the city to learn them.
* * *
THE BEAUTY of Joe as a ballplayer and an athlete was that his speed wasn’t his only elite trait. He could do whatever his coaches asked him to do, be whatever his teams needed him to be. His playground model was Earl Monroe, a Bartram alumnus who went on to a Hall of Fame NBA career with the Baltimore Bullets and New York Knicks, and though he grew to be six inches taller than the six-foot-three Monroe, Joe strived to match the Pearl’s style and skill set. As his skinny body grew corded with muscle, he retained the showy hand-eye coordination he’d always possessed, dribbling the basketball between his legs, swirling it behind his back, spinning to the hoop as if he were smaller, as if he were a guard.
Which, at times, he was. Joe had gifts that other kids his height didn’t or, if they did, weren’t permitted to utilize then. A coach who happened to have a player six foot nine or taller stuck that player in the post, in the center of the team’s offense and defense. Stay close to the basket, son. Shoot layups, maybe a hook shot. Protect the rim. But Joe … mercy. Joe averaged 27.4 points, seventeen rebounds, six assists, and six blocked shots during his senior season. Joe scored fifty-seven points in a game against one Public League team, Bok, and had forty points and twenty-one rebounds against another Public League team, Overbrook, in his final home game for Bartram. Joe ran the mile in four minutes, forty-five seconds and the 880 meters in two minutes, one second, long-jumped nineteen feet, and triple-jumped thirty-nine feet, nine inches for Bartram’s track team. Joe was so damned athletic and looked so good being so damned athletic—liquid, no jagged edges to his game, always playing at his own pace, a zoot-suit dance slowed down until it was ballet—that the other guys at the playgrounds gave him a nickname born of the old Glenn Miller tune, a big-band song title shortened to slang. Gotta be jelly ’cause jam don’t shake! Joe’s game didn’t shake. Joe’s game swished and flowed. Now Joe wasn’t just Joe. Joe was Jellybean. Perfect. “I eat about four pounds of jellybeans a day,” he said in high school, and even if he was exaggerating, it was a righteous exaggeration, because it reaffirmed what everyone already knew: Even for a kid, Joe was a kid.
Jack Farrell told a reporter that Joe was “the best in the city,” the top player in a basketball-mad town, and Joe didn’t let a sense of humility or graciousness stop him from letting all his friends and peers know that, deep down, he thought the same thing, too—that he was the best. When Bartram won a game, he called them all for some good-natured gloating, to remind them who the true prince of the city was. But when Bartram lost? Well … somehow Joe was never home after a Bartram loss. Funny how it worked out that way every time.
I was lucky to grow up in a loving, nourishing family.… Some people don’t have families like mine.
3 GOD AND THE DEVIL IN THEM
THE CHURCH WAS THE CENTER of the Cox family’s lives. Founded in 1893, its walls castle-gray brick, St. Ignatius of Loyola remains, according to the city archdiocese, “the oldest Black parish in Philadelphia.” One of its earliest congregants was John A. Cox, Kobe Bryant’s great-grandfather, who lived a half mile from the church, who joined the Knights of Columbus and for more than forty years managed St. Ignatius’s thrift shop, and whose only son, John Cox Jr.… well, you could find worse antecedents for the man Kobe Bryant would become than his maternal grandfather.
Both sides of Kobe’s extended family fed basketball into his blood, and John Cox Jr. was a primary source—a standout who, when he was sixteen, set a single-season scoring record in his local boys’-club league, then set the sport aside so he could sprint into adulthood. He enlisted in the Army in February 1953 and married Mildred Williams when he was twenty and she just seventeen. The couple had two children, Pam and John III, and John Jr. joined the Philadelphia Fire Department, which had begun to integrate its companies only in 1949. He finished his career as a lieutenant, his rank an indication of how hard he had worked, how well he had performed, and how resilient he had to be to rise so high. His personality, tough and stern, had an edge to it, a necessary edge.
John III, whose family took to calling him “Chubby” because he was such a pudgy toddler, inherited his father’s tenacity and his love of basketball. Within Pam, John Jr.’s toughness and Mildred’s sweetness commingled, and though she played her share of pickup basketball—“I hear she has a mean jump shot,” Kobe once said—she had other, stronger interests than sports. At Overbrook High School, she was one of two female students selected to serve on the John Wanamaker Teen Board, arranging youth events at the famous department store in the center of Philadelphia. A panel of Wanamaker’s employees had based its choice of Pam, according to one news report, “on scholarship, personality, poise, and physical attributes.” Five foot ten, possessing high cheekbones and a shock of lustrous dark hair, Pam resembled, as she aged and matured, the singer Diana Ross, and indeed one of the spoils of her selection to the board was the opportunity to model in several fashion shows at the store.
That she would cross paths with Joe Bryant seems, in retrospect, only a matter of time and course. Her grandparents lived on the same street as his. One day, Joe was sitting on row house steps with friends when Pam walked by. The whispers and whistles and catcalls commenced. Look at Pam! She looks good! Joe was the only one on the steps who said, “I’m going to marry her one day.”
* * *
YOU WOULDN’T have known that the campus, without a suitable arena—or any arena at all—for its men’s basketball team, its academic buildings hidden within a dense urban trapezoid of duplexes, storefronts, and small-rise apartment buildings in the Olney section of North Philadelphia, was the home of one of the better programs in college basketball. La Salle College was a commuter school, mostly, affordable for the city’s blue-collar Catholic families, accessible by bus or car or train or trolley, and its students had to use those modes of transportation to attend one of the school’s home basketball games. They couldn’t just walk. The Explorers played their home games at either the Palestra or the Philadelphia Civic Center, each in West Philadelphia, each a fifteen-minute drive from campus.
The city was so flush with basketball talent, though, that La Salle and the four other Division I programs that made up the Big Five—Villanova, Temple, St. Joseph’s, and Penn—had an always-available pool to replenish themselves. La Salle had won the National Invitational Championship in 1952 and the NCAA tournament championship in 1954, featuring the biggest star in the sport at the time, Tom Gola, a six-foot-six guard/forward and a local hero for being born and raised in Olney. After a scandal in the mid-1960s landed La Salle on probation for two years—its coach had paid certain players and withdrawn scholarships from others—the school hired Gola as head coach in an attempt to restore its respectability and esteem. In Gola’s first season, the 1968–69 Explorers, though banned from postseason play, went 23–1 and were ranked as the No. 2 in the nation, behind coach John Wooden, star center Lew Alcindor (as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was known at the time), and the UCLA Bruins. The team is still, more than a half century later, regarded as the finest in Big Five history.
The afterglow of that 1968–69 season shone warm and bright three years later, as the best high school basketball player in Philadelphia weighed his college choices. Joe Bryant had spent much of the spring of 1972 showcasing himself at various all-star games and tournaments to more Division I coaches. He had particularly grabbed their attention when he was named the most valuable player at the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic in Pittsburgh, which pitted the state’s top players against high school stars from the rest of the country and was organized and put on by a businessman and promoter from western Pennsylvania: Sonny Vaccaro.
* * *
AS HE winnowed his list to La Salle, Temple, Oregon, and Cincinnati, Joe and his parents grew confused over the recruiting process. They were overloaded with information and weren’t certain whom to trust. To simplify things, to maintain a sense of comfort, Joe made staying close to his mother and father one of his highest priorities. “I might get homesick,” he once said. “All I have to do is put forty cents in the toll box and come home or walk down the hill to my grandmother’s.” And La Salle offered him a dimension that the other programs did not: Gola had stepped down after two seasons, and his successor, Paul Westhead, coached a free-flowing, offense-oriented style of play that appeared a match for Joe’s array of skills. Westhead’s pitch to Joe was direct and without artifice: Stay home and play in front of your friends and family. You were so successful at Bartram, and you can continue that success at La Salle. It’s a natural segue. Joe agreed.
“This was before the national recruiting kind of set in,” Westhead said. “Local players wanted to stay local. For a player in Joe Bryant’s era to say, ‘I could go to Arizona’ or ‘I could go to Cal Berkeley,’ it wouldn’t really be a possibility.”
Westhead’s analysis of Philadelphia’s recruiting scene was generally true over time, but there were exceptions to it. Wilt Chamberlain had been so dominant at Overbrook High School, averaging more than thirty-seven points a game and setting the city career scoring record, that he could have gone to any school in the country. In 1955, he picked Kansas. Gene Banks of West Philadelphia High headed to Duke in 1977. Rasheed Wallace left Simon Gratz in 1993 for the Southern environs of Chapel Hill, the genius of Dean Smith, and the University of North Carolina. Contrary to Westhead’s assertion, not everyone wanted to stay local. Every now and then, a transcendent player from Philadelphia or from its penumbra of suburbs decided that the Big Five was not for him, and yearned for something else somewhere else, and went for it.
* * *
JOE HAD not qualified academically to play as a freshman, so he sat on the bench for every game of that 1972–73 season, the delay only increasing the anticipation surrounding his debut. In his first game for La Salle, with his mother and father on hand, he lived up to the billing: nineteen points, fifteen rebounds, one blocked shot, and three behind-the-back passes in a fifty-point win over Lehigh. But his performance on the court was hardly the highlight of the evening for him.
La Salle–Lehigh was the first game of a doubleheader at the Palestra; the second was Villanova–Richmond. The Wildcats would have four freshmen contribute to their 71–58 victory, among them point guard John “Chubby” Cox. Pam, an undergraduate at Clarion State in Pittsburgh, was home from college and attending her brother’s game with John Jr. and Mildred. Across the packed Palestra, Joe saw Pam’s parents, and Pam saw Joe’s parents. He walked around the gym to say hello to Mr. and Mrs. Cox. She was already on her way to say hello to Mr. and Mrs. Bryant.
“It was kind of a Miss Piggy and Froggy thing,” Joe once said. “‘Hey, how you doing?’ That type of thing. That night, we went on our first date.”
They were married before the following summer, neither of them old enough to drink legally, both of them entering their junior year of college. Pam transferred to Villanova so that she and Joe didn’t have three hundred miles of Pennsylvania land separating them, so she could be at his side while he was at La Salle, pointing himself toward a career in pro basketball.
For Joe and those who knew him well, his shift personally and socially was seismic. Playboyish? A partier? You might have said that. Joe was charming. Joe had had a girlfriend, Linda Salter, throughout high school, but Joe couldn’t help who he was. If you were a young man, he could make you feel like you’d been friends forever, even though you’d just looked each other in the eye and pumped each other’s hand for the first time. If you were a young woman, he could make you feel like you were the center of his world, even though he’d just noticed and smiled at you seconds earlier. One writer pegged Joe best: He had two minutes for everyone and two hours for no one.
Pam was the exception. Pam expanded his vision for what his life could and should be. “I’ll say this to my dying day: Pam was really good for Joe,” Mo Howard said. “All of us wanted to have equal to or better than the kind of family we grew up in. Pam put Joe in a place that made him a little more focused and responsible. He was a free spirit. Because of his relationship with Pam and her upbringing, it solidified who he would become as a father. He was finally settling in.”
* * *
THAT STARTLING first game, against Lehigh, soon became the norm for Joe at La Salle. It had everything that would define his playing career in college: the gaudy statistics, the showmanship, the breathtaking fullness of his game. As a sophomore, he averaged 18.7 points and 10.8 rebounds a game, and the Explorers went 18–10, won the Middle Atlantic Conference Eastern Division, and advanced to the conference’s championship game. The following fall, letters from agents wanting to represent Joe started flooding into Westhead’s office, even though Joe still had two years of eligibility left. To enter the NBA draft after finishing his junior season, Joe would have to apply for hardship status—ostensibly an official acknowledgment from the league that the player was turning professional out of financial necessity, in reality a rubber stamp.
Initially, Joe wasn’t certain that he wanted to leave; he and Pam were receiving financial help from his father while they were in school. But then, in the winter, Joe Sr. fell, broke a bone in his back, and couldn’t work, and Joe began to reconsider his future. “He wants to maintain a certain lifestyle, and it’s a scuffle now,” Joe Sr. said then. “He does not like being dependent on anybody. I guess everything depends on what they’re going to offer him.”
Westhead viewed Joe’s situation with the usual divided loyalties and conflict of interest that any college coach would. Of course, it was Joe’s decision to make, and he had to do what was best for himself and his family, and Westhead, who would go on to coach six years in the NBA but hadn’t worked in the league yet, pleaded ignorance when asked if Joe was ready for it: “I don’t know the pro game.” He felt on much firmer ground, though, when it came to evaluating Joe against other collegiate players: “I’ll say this: If he gets another year of experience, he could be the best basketball player in the country.”
Except, more and more, Joe believed he didn’t have to wait. He was itching to go, and given the season he was having, it would have been hard to persuade him otherwise. He was leading the Big Five in scoring, at more than twenty-one points a game, and his hunger to test himself against the best players on the planet, to find out whether the tricks and flash that made him so distinctive would translate to the NBA, was growing more apparent by the game. Westhead had allowed Joe to play with the same style that Joe had wowed everyone with at Bartram. The coach was an agnostic about it, neither encouraging it nor discouraging it. He regarded it simply as part of the package with Joe—that sometimes Joe would bring the ball up court like a point guard, that sometimes he would shoot a twenty-footer from the wing like a two-guard, that he would rebound like a center, that he would put the ball between his legs, shake, bake, shimmy, double-pump, and take a contested shot just because the spirit had so moved him. Late in his sophomore season, for instance, he torched Rider for thirty-seven points, the most he scored in any college game, hitting seventeen of his twenty-seven shots, dropping all the theatrics and just dominating the game with layups and strong drives to the basket. His performance was a case study in how he ought to have played all the time, yet he seemed to have done it on a whim. After the game, he told a reporter, casually, “I should do a little more rebounding tomorrow.” Oh, OK, Joe. There was no keeping his head out of the clouds. The exception to all that freedom from structure was a single set play that Westhead relied on whenever the Explorers had to have a basket: He’d have Joe post up six to ten feet from the basket, tell La Salle’s guards to get him the ball, and have Joe shoot a feathery little turnaround jumper. Otherwise, there was no point, and little benefit to the team, in trying to limit Joe’s options on offense. “He did not comply with the way big men were supposed to play,” Westhead said later. “Back then, everyone had a slot. Every coach had a scheme, and everybody respected everybody’s scheme. It was a ritual, and Joe was breaking the ritual, for sure.”
La Salle was 21–6 entering the 1975 East Coast Conference Tournament championship game, against Lafayette at the Kirby Center in Easton, Pennsylvania, with a berth in the NCAA tournament on the line. And that night, Joe broke something else, too. At the time—and the concept sounds so antiquated today that it’s humorous—dunking was prohibited in college basketball. The NCAA had banned the dunk in 1967. (The ostensible reason was that the association wanted to limit the influence of big men, particularly Alcindor. The actual reason likely had more to do with players’ race than their height: that the NCAA was trying to squelch the quintessential expression of Black dominance of the sport.) Whatever the intention of the transparently absurd rule, it was still a rule. If a player dunked during a game, the referees were to assess him a technical foul and give the opposing team two free throws and possession of the ball.
Everyone, including Joe, knew the rule. He would finish with twenty-eight points in a 92–85 La Salle victory, one that both won the Explorers the conference title and catapulted them into the NCAA tournament. But with seven seconds left and La Salle ahead by eight points, Joe stole the ball at half-court, sized up the Lafayette basket as he dribbled toward it, and couldn’t resist. You could almost see the thought bubble floating above his head: We have this game wrapped up. I’ve been compliant the entire season. I haven’t dunked a ball once. I have to do it at least once!
Two seasons’ worth of pent-up dunking desire exploded forth, as if Joe were a just-jiggled bottle of seltzer. He threw down, without apology, a thunderous slam.
The Kirby Center stopped. Westhead couldn’t believe it. Joe walked toward him and the La Salle sideline, a smile stretched across his face.
“Coach,” Joe said, “I had to. I had to. I’ve been waiting all year to do this.”
That’s Joe, Westhead thought. All instinct, no calculation. It would surprise Westhead years later to see the stark difference between Joe and Kobe in their approaches on the court. Whatever happened to flit through Joe’s brain, that’s what he would do in a game. No-look pass? Why not? Off-balance leaner? Hell, yes. Kobe was the opposite. Kobe was all calculation. I’m going to go three steps to the left. Then, I’m going to spin back to the right. Everything for Kobe, from what Westhead saw, was precise and planned. Joe was all flow. Joe could just let go. Joe could treat the most important game of his college career, La Salle’s East Regional semifinal game of the 1975 NCAA tournament, against Syracuse at the Palestra, as another afternoon on the courts at Cobbs Creek Park.
And he could make even that game look like an ordinary summertime playground pickup run—twenty-five points through the first thirty-nine minutes, Syracuse with no answer for him. Of course he could. This was the Palestra. This was the gym he knew best, where his best personal moments and basketball moments had taken place: meeting Pam, all those spectacular scoring nights. This was going to be one more. Now the score was tied at seventy-one with sixty seconds left in regulation, and Westhead had the Explorers bleed the clock down to the final ten seconds before going to their most reliable play: Joe in the post. They got the ball to him six feet from the basket, just like they were supposed to, and with his back to his man, with no chance of the shot being blocked, Joe turned and took that soft fadeaway …
… and the ball hit the front of the rim …
… and rolled around the rim …
… and the buzzer sounded …
… and the ball fell off the rim.
The game went to overtime, and overtime was awful for Joe. He fouled out with one minute, forty-two seconds left. Syracuse scored on a backdoor layup to take a late lead. The Orangemen won 87–83. La Salle’s season was over.
So was Joe’s career. One by one, he withdrew from his roster of classes, or just stopped showing up to them. He didn’t quit school outright. No, that would have required Joe to look someone in the eye—his professors, the college’s registrar, Westhead—and declare his intentions and actions and open himself up to confrontation, to direct disapproval. Joe preferred to avoid that awkwardness if he could. “I backed down some,” he said. “Everybody cuts classes. It’s natural.” In early April, with the NBA draft a month and a half away, he filed for hardship status, and the league approved his request. Was he ready? The numbers said he was: 21.8 points and 11.8 rebounds a game, a shooting percentage of 51.7, the consensus best player in the consensus best college basketball city in America.
Pam still had her doubts. She and Joe were a newly married couple, both still college-aged. What if no team drafted him? What if the team that drafted him cut him? What if he ended up playing in Philadelphia for his hometown team, the Sixers? Being the wife of a Philadelphia college basketball star was difficult enough. She was defensive about the manner in which the city’s newspapers covered Joe. “When he’s playing good, which is most of the time,” she said, “nobody hardly mentions him except to say, ‘Well, he made this mistake.’ And when he’s playing really good, people say, ‘Well, he ought to play better.’” Surely the criticism would be harsher and sharper if he were a full-fledged professional, and what if it didn’t work out for him in the NBA one way or another? It didn’t even have to be his fault. Suppose he ended up with the wrong team—too many veterans, not enough talent. Suppose he ended up with the wrong coach, one who couldn’t make the most of his skills, who wouldn’t tolerate a six-nine player who didn’t have a fixed position on the floor and didn’t particularly want to have one, who thought that Joe was still too skinny compared to the average NBA player and would get pushed around in the post. Suppose Joe became just another local hero who didn’t live up to expectations; a kid who wasn’t ready, who wasn’t mature enough to thrive at basketball’s highest level; a ballyhooed prodigy who turned out to be a bust.
Joe was courting that naysaying by bolting early for the NBA. He didn’t care. “I know where I’m at,” he said. “I know where I’m going. Everything’s cool.” Come the night of the draft, everything was. The Golden State Warriors, who had won their first NBA championship just four days earlier, selected Joe in the first round, with the fourteenth overall pick. The only thing preventing Joe from starting his career with the Warriors was an obscure league edict: Once a team drafted a player, it had to tender him a contract by September 1 to retain his rights. Otherwise, the player would become a free agent. But the rule was a formality, met by a simple form letter from Golden State management to Joe’s agent, Richie Phillips. Easy enough, one would think. Then Joe and Pam would be on their way to the West Coast.
* * *
AS FAR as Pat Williams, the Sixers’ general manager, was concerned, September 1 passed without anything of note transpiring in the NBA. He assumed that the team he had assembled was complete and ready for training camp, and he assumed it right up to the moment, a few days after the contract-tender deadline, that Richie Phillips, Joe Bryant’s agent and attorney, called him.
“We haven’t gotten a contract from the Warriors,” Phillips told Williams. “Does that mean Joe is free to sign anywhere?”
“Richie,” Williams said, “that is my understanding.”
“Well,” Phillips said, “they still haven’t given him a contract. If he’s a free agent, would you be interested in signing him?”
Williams advised Phillips to wait another day or two to see if the contract arrived. It never did. The Warriors had simply neglected to mail it. Because of that clerical error, they had lost Joe’s rights. He could sign with any team he wished, and he wished to stay in Philadelphia, and Williams was sold. He signed Joe to a long-term contract. Williams once wrote that the deal was for five years and worth $140,000 per year. Some media reports at the time said it was far more exorbitant: as much as six years and $1.4 million. The newspapers never did nail down the details. Regardless of the specifics, it was a magical sum of money for Joe, who used it to buy himself a sports car: a white Datsun 280Z. “It’s unbelievable,” Joe Sr. said. “How many people can see a son play in junior high, high school, college, and the NBA all in the same city?”
And what they saw for a while … wasn’t very good. Joe missed thirty of his first thirty-six shots as a pro. When he finally scored ten points in a game for the first time, in an early-December victory over the Kansas City Kings, he savored the attention of the writers so much that some of his teammates started laughing at him. “Just talking jive,” Joe said. “I can’t talk jive like I used to.”
The Sixers made the playoffs for the first time in five years, then were eliminated in the first round by the Buffalo Braves. Joe had settled into a bench role, playing sixteen minutes a night, scoring seven or eight points a game, instant offense when he was fully engaged and his shot was true, inconsistent otherwise. Now it was mid-April. He and Pam had become parents just a month earlier, when Sharia was born. He had the summer ahead of him to settle into the home that he and Pam had purchased for $82,000 on Christmas Eve, a five-bedroom colonial at 1224 Remington Road in Wynnewood. Joe was a husband. Joe was a father. Joe had security and wealth and, if he wanted, better days ahead as a promising professional basketball player. Joe Sr. had said it: Joe wanted a certain lifestyle. Now he had it. But Joe was still young, twenty-one years old, and Joe couldn’t yet help who he was.
* * *
AT 11:37 P.M. on Wednesday, May 5, 1976, two officers of the Philadelphia Police Department’s Eighteenth District, responsible for patrolling the Fairmount Park West area of Philadelphia, noticed a white Datsun 280Z ease past their van, then park at an intersection. One of its taillights was out. Inside were Joe Bryant and a twenty-one-year-old woman, Linda Salter, his former girlfriend.
The officers approached the Datsun and asked Joe for his license and registration. Joe stepped out and handed over the registration, then turned around to reenter the car, presumably to retrieve his license. He did not retrieve anything. He slipped behind the wheel, turned the key, and, without bothering to turn his headlights on, sped off, heading south.
One of the officers, John Pierce, radioed in a call for backup before following Joe in the van, commencing a high-speed chase that Officer Robert Lombardi, in an unmarked police car, joined. The chase lasted three miles, and it culminated on the 900 block of South Farragut Street in a sequence fit for a Steve McQueen film. The Datsun hit a stop sign, careened across the street and slammed into a no-parking sign, swerved back and plowed over another street sign, bounced off the left front end of one parked car to the rear of another to the front end of a third. Finally, it jumped a curb and crashed into a wall.
Joe leaped out and tried to run, but he got only about five feet away from the Datsun. “I grabbed him,” Lombardi said later, under oath in a courtroom. “He raised his fist, and I struck him. I subdued and handcuffed him.” “Struck” and “subdued” likely were euphemisms for actions that were far more specific and violent: Joe received six stitches later that night at Philadelphia General Hospital.
He told police that he had no driver’s license, only an expired learner’s permit. When they searched the Datsun, police found, on the front seat, two plastic bags, each of which contained a vial of cocaine.
Joe was charged with drug possession, reckless driving, and two counts of resisting arrest. At Joe’s trial, Richie Phillips paraded twenty character witnesses into City Hall’s courtroom 285 to testify on Joe’s behalf. Pam, Sharia, and Joe Sr. appeared alongside Joe, completing the united front of family and team and community in support of him, and a photograph in the next day’s Philadelphia Daily News, taken and distributed by United Press International, captured the couple as they entered the courtroom: Joe in a dark suit, his tie knotted in a long and bulky triangle, his mouth half open; Pam to his right, in a light-toned dress, a scarf around her forehead, her right finger touching her chin, a look that hinted she had just heard something that had at once surprised and disconcerted her.
The witnesses’ pleas for leniency persuaded the presiding judge, J. Earl Simmons. He wiped Joe’s slate clean—legally, anyway—ruling the search that uncovered the cocaine vials to be illegal, calling it “a bad reaction to what essentially was nothing more than a traffic violation.” He found Joe not guilty of the remaining charges.
Joe returned to Phillips’s law office, where the two of them granted an interview to Phil Jasner, a sportswriter for the Daily News. Joe would play harder, concentrate more, he told Jasner. Already, he had learned more about how he should carry himself. People would keep bringing up the incident for the rest of his life, and he would have to overlook that criticism and hope that it made him a better man. It was the classic media-relations move, the establishing of a narrative of redemption for public consumption: Young athlete does wrong, heeds difficult lesson, changes ways, and thrives. But what about the days and nights away from the court and the cameras, the moments when it was just Joe and Pam and his betrayal and carelessness likely hung heavy in the air between them?
That was the aspect of their relationship that only those closest to Joe and Pam could understand then and now. Pam would always put Joe and her family first—preserve them, support them, even coddle them. To her, Till death do us part wasn’t a throwaway line. Why did she stay? No one who knew her well had to ask such a question. She was a strong, Black, Catholic woman, and a married couple stayed together. End of explanation. No matter what, a wife was supposed to stand by her husband; a mother was supposed to stand by her children. There would always be hard times in any marriage, and it just so happened that the Bryants’ hard times had played out in a manner for the world to see, just as their son’s would.
* * *
KOBE BRYANT’S immersion in basketball began in the earliest days of his life, as one would expect. The Bryants attended so many Sixers home games that the Spectrum itself might as well have been an extension of their living room. Joe’s parents sat in Section H, and the Bryants became such fixtures that Pat Williams grew accustomed at each game to saying hello to Joe Sr., now walking with a cane in the wake of his back injury, and to Pam as she pushed Kobe in a stroller. “He grew up at the Spectrum,” Williams said.
The baby was happier to be there than his father was. On the surface, he was Good Time Joe—audacious silk shirts, platform shoes, a beret capping his head, that quick and easy grin—and since his arrest, he had caused no off-the-court problems, had handled his business. But he regarded his place on the team’s hierarchy, as a backup forward, as an eighth or ninth man, as a slap in his face. What had the Sixers done in the aftermath of Joe’s incident, instead of trusting that he could and would continue to improve? They had spent $6 million to acquire and sign Julius Erving from the ABA’s New York Nets, burying Joe deeper on the bench. One night in September 1979, outside a motel bar in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where the Sixers were holding training camp, Joe was chatting with two beat reporters when the name of another player came up in their conversation. The player was a rookie on the Lakers: Earvin “Magic” Johnson. The bitterness in Joe’s words was still palpable four decades after he uttered them.
“He comes into the league with all that stuff, and they call it magic,” Joe said. “I’ve been doing it all these years, and they call it ‘schoolyard.’”
One month after Joe bemoaned his station in the NBA, fourteen months after Kobe was born, the Sixers traded Joe to the San Diego Clippers for a first-round draft pick. He welcomed the change of scenery, vowing that “the Sixers will look bad in the deal. I mean, I can play defense, I can play offense, and there are not too many players who go both ways, and I have the ability and capability of doing that.… That’s the confidence I have in myself. Remember this: I’m gone, but I will not be forgotten.”
While keeping the house in Wynnewood, he, Pam, and the children relocated to Southern California, the first clean break they had made from Philadelphia and their family. Without Joe on the Sixers anymore, there were now, for the first time in years, a couple of empty seats in Section H of the Spectrum, just six seats to the left from a boy whose dad and brothers had season tickets themselves. Just six seats to the left from a kid named Gregg Downer.
By growing up in Italy, I learned how to play basketball the right way through a teaching of fundamentals first. I’ll always be grateful for the teaching I received from my coaches there.…
I knew it was going to be different, that the culture was different. I actually do remember the first time we went in our house and turned on the TV. There was an Italian cartoon, and me and my sisters were rolling. We were dying. “Oh, my God. This cartoon.” It was on in Italian, but they had the same cartoon in America. It was the same exact cartoon, but it just had Italian words. It was weird, man. We were tripping, man.
4 CHILD OF THE WORLD
LOOK AT THE CHILD, THREE years old, the precocious little child, standing in a hallway of his family’s temporary home in San Diego. Look at him pick up his mini basketball with his mini-mini hands. The ball is the moon in them, too large for him to grip with just one. This would seem an impediment to his developing into a wondrous basketball player. In fact, the opposite will turn out to be true. Because, throughout his adolescence, he will be unable to palm a basketball, and because even once he develops into the most wondrous basketball player in the world, each of his hands will grow to just nine inches long—neither big nor small by NBA standards, forcing him to cup the ball against his wrist whenever he rises to dunk—he will labor to make his fundamentals absolutely flawless, to knead any glitch or imperfection out of his footwork, his shooting technique, any of his technical skills. But those often-solitary praxes are still years away. For now, he merely holds the mini basketball in his hands, and he can see, at the other end of the hallway, a tiny trampoline in front of a miniature basketball hoop, and he does something that brings him joy and that always will. He runs down the hallway and hops onto the trampoline, and the trampoline catapults him into the air, and he slams the ball down through the hoop. His mother warns him, Don’t dunk, sweetheart. You’ll break the basket. He picks up the ball again. He dunks again. He is three.
* * *
BEFORE THE Sixers traded Joe Bryant to the Clippers, his teammates in Philadelphia already had coined a couple of nicknames for Kobe. Those late-1970s Sixers teams featured an unusual number of players who had sons who went on to become elite basketball players themselves. Henry Bibby had Mike, who was the No. 2 pick in the 1998 NBA draft and spent fourteen years in the league. Mike Dunleavy had Mike Jr., who was the No. 3 pick in the 2002 NBA draft and spent fifteen years in the league, and Baker, who played college ball at Villanova. But Joe had Kobe, and Kobe was the only one whom the players and their families—and his own parents—called “the Chosen One” and “the Golden Child.”
Now the Golden Child would spend some time growing up in the Golden State, and Joe, at first, hated that idea. He had wanted to be traded, right up to the instant he was traded. Then the realization that his hometown team really did regard him as expendable, and treated him as such, wounded him. The Sixers, Joe said, had “hurt me right in the heart.” He was two weeks away from his twenty-fifth birthday when the trade went down, entering his physical prime, and the Clippers did afford him some obvious advantages and benefits: more playing time, a clean and fresh start.
Joe played twice as much as he had for the Sixers, but the results were no different. He had no green light to shoot, to display his wizardry with the ball, to be himself, and the Clippers were such a mess that he didn’t even experience the same meager satisfaction that he had in Philadelphia: that at least he was, in some small way, helping his team win more games than it lost. The Clippers improved only marginally from Joe’s first year with them to his second, from a 35–47 record to 36–46. In 1981, he had surgery on each of his big toes, and if any doubt remained about how much Joe missed the Philadelphia area, he erased it every summer, when he and the family returned to Wynnewood so he could play in the Baker League. Plus, he phoned his dad after every game, and Big Joe in turn fed the local papers, The Bulletin and The Tribune in particular, a steady stream of newsy tidbits from their conversations.
The advantage of San Diego, perhaps the only one, was the city itself—the weather, the people, everything sunny and charming and relaxing. Joe and Pam took the children to Disneyland and SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo, and he was so approachable, just another dad wearing an orca T-shirt or a hat with mouse ears, that fans felt at ease waving hello to him or shaking his hand. Sharia, Shaya, and Kobe were enrolled in school, and Kobe grew fond of giving his teacher updates on Joe, as if the toddler were a sportscaster narrating highlights on the 11:00 P.M. news. My daddy’s team won last night, and my daddy slam-dunked. At night, when he watched his daddy’s games on TV, he’d sling a towel over his shoulder, like the grown-up players did. Mom, I’m sweating.
* * *
THE CLIPPERS nose-dived in ’81–’82, winning seventeen games, finishing dead last in the Pacific Division, and Joe all but dared them to trade him at the end of that season, when he took exception to a cost-cutting move by the franchise’s notoriously parsimonious owner, Donald Sterling. To save on expenses, Sterling demanded that the Clippers’ coaches and players fly coach instead of first class. “The younger guys would have flown with the cargo,” Joe said, “but as a veteran, I stood up for the players’ rights.” Given that, in 2015, NBA commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling for life after the revelation of racist comments to his mistress, Joe’s objection probably should have been regarded as an early warning of what the league would be in for with Sterling for the next thirty-three years. When the Clippers arranged a trade with the Houston Rockets in June 1982, Joe considered it a favor.
He was also considering something else: becoming a college basketball coach. Not only did he play in the Baker League during his summers in Philadelphia, he coached in the college division of the Sonny Hill League. He enjoyed the experience and thought he could serve a Big Five team well as an assistant and especially as a recruiter, putting that gregarious personality of his to good use. “I believe I could persuade the best players to stay home,” he said. “Then I would work very hard to help those players reach their full potential.”
* * *
LOOK AT the child, four years old, the precocious little child, wearing a white karate gi, standing in a dojo in southeastern Texas. He is, as his age suggests, a neophyte in the martial arts, but the sensei sees something within him. He decides to test him. There is an older, physically stronger, more experienced boy in the dojo, a brown belt, and the sensei tells the child to fight the bigger opponent. Tears pour down the child’s face.
He’s so much better than I am, he says.
The plaintive words anger the sensei. You fight him!
A head guard covering his skull, sheened red combat gloves on his hands, the child shuffles onto the fighting mat. The other children in the class encircle him and the bigger boy, all the better to bear witness to the beating. The child is overmatched. The child is scared. The bigger boy hammers him with a punch, a kick, another punch, but the child stops crying, stays in the ring, takes the punches, punches back. Lo and behold, he lands a few good shots. He loses the bout, but he has stood up for himself, and when the fight is finished, he comes to a liberating conclusion. He had envisioned the worst possible outcome, but the outcome and the consequences of the battle were not as bad as he thought they would be. It is a kind of instinctual recognition, an awakening that shapes him forever. He is four.
* * *
IN HOUSTON, with another bad team bound for nowhere, Joe provided a clearer answer to the question that had defined his spotty NBA career: Was it that circumstances had never been favorable to him, or was he the cause of his own exasperation and resentment? In Kansas City, he was two minutes late for the team bus to a morning shootaround, and when the bus left without him, he couldn’t get a cab to the practice because he had been cleaned out of cash during a poker game the previous night. So he went back to his hotel room and went to sleep. Pam joked within the family that she would slide a five-dollar bill into one of Joe’s socks before he left on the team’s next road trip. It never seemed to occur to Joe that if he were more diligent in his habits, more professional, he might have earned the benefit of the doubt from his coaches, and his teams and his career might have been better for it. It didn’t seem to occur to him at that time, anyway.
As bad as Joe’s final season in San Diego had been, his only season in Houston was somehow worse. Under coach Del Harris, the Rockets went 14–68, the worst record in the league. The franchise was rebuilding. It had no need for Joe anymore, not on the court. His contract expired, and neither Houston nor any other NBA team bothered to sign him. But Charlie Thomas, the Rockets’ managing partner, liked Joe enough to offer him another job, one that Joe accepted. Thomas had an ownership interest in some fifty car franchises, many of them Ford dealerships. Joe was twenty-eight. Joe was no longer an NBA player. Joe was married with three kids to provide for, and Joe was now a car salesman.
Forget that night full of bad decisions in Fairmount Park years earlier. At least Joe was still a basketball star then. At least the Sixers stuck with him, gave him a second chance. This was his nadir now. No one saw any value in him an