He was Jelly’s kid. For many of us, that was always the unfathomable aspect of the Kobe Bryant saga. He was Jelly’s kid.
Kobe Bryant was the son of a professional basketball player, but not just any ol’ professional basketball player. Joe “Jellybean” Bryant was a perplexing player, at the very least a benchwarmer on the All-Squandered Talent Team. He was a technically skilled 6-foot-9-inch forward, a standout at La Salle who had an eight-year career in the NBA, followed by eight additional years in Italy.
Jelly should have been better. Simply put, he was a knucklehead. He was indeed very skilled, but in the end he was a Double A Antoine Walker, a player whose whole was nowhere near the sum of his parts. He just didn’t get it.
Exhibit A was his immortal line upon learning he had just been traded from the 76ers to the Clippers. Said Jelly, “I guess this means they don’t want a Magic Johnson-type around here.“
So, how did his offspring emerge as such a dedicated, intelligent, and precise player? We’ll never know. Perhaps Kobe figured, “I’ll just do as Dad didn’t do.”
Kobe Bryant’s precocity has been well-established. At 15, he could hold his own during summer scrimmages with established collegians and professionals in Philadelphia. When he entered the 1996 NBA Draft, he did so with extraordinary self-confidence.
With the exception of Bill Willoughby (488 NBA games, averaging 6 points back in the ’70s), it had been big men such as Moses Malone, Darryl Dawkins, and in 1995 Kevin Garnett who had jumped from high school to the NBA. Kobe was going to try it as a guard.
His predraft workouts are the stuff of NBA legend. Among those whose eyes were opened was new Nets coach John Calipari, in possession of the eighth overall pick in ’96. But when the proverbial push came to shove, Calipari did not have the guts to pull that trigger in what would have been his first big decision as Nets mentor. He went for a safe pick in Villanova’s Kerry Kittles.
Kittles wasn’t bad. He had an eight-year NBA career. But Kerry Kittles was not Kobe Bryant.
No one was more dazzled than Jerry West. The sagacious Lakers general manager happily traded Vlade Divac to Charlotte on that fateful draft night. Thus did Kobe Bryant, the 13th pick of the 1996 NBA Draft, become a Los Angeles Laker.
From that day forward, Kobe Bryant had no bigger fan than Jerry West. I am telling you that if a billion Kobe fans were lined up, the person at the head of that line would have to be Jerry West.
Now, I must admit I was totally unprepared for the astonishing outpouring of grief and shock over Kobe’s death. I didn’t realize to what extent Kobe Bryant had become the Star of Stars for a generation of worldwide sports fans.
I mean, Neymar scoring a goal for Paris Saint-Germain and holding up two fingers on one hand and four on the other in tribute to Kobe? The mercurial Nick Kyrgios sporting both 8 and 24 Kobe jerseys at the Australian Open, or a video tribute to Kobe at Rod Laver Stadium? Or the following headline on the Monday Arts section of the New York Times: “Grammys Tinged by Grief Over Kobe Bryant”?
I don’t know exactly who came up with the idea to start last Sunday’s NBA games with matching hold-the-ball 24-second violations, but let the record show that the first two to do it were Toronto’s Fred VanVleet and San Antonio’s Dejounte Murray. God love ’em. And Doc Rivers absolutely breaking down? Whoa.
What always struck me about Kobe Bryant was that he was completely different in sensibility than any American-born player. Kobe’s formative years were spent not in this country, but in Italy, where poppa Jellybean had established a career. He spoke fluent Italian, and if I’m not mistaken, even did a commercial along the way utilizing his fluency in that language.
I’m playing armchair psychologist here, but I believe Kobe always had a world view and often found it hard to relate to his American peers. He has been described as “aloof” and a “loner,” and I think his European upbringing helps explain it.
Actor and comic Robert Wuhl encountered the young, sophisticated Kobe Bryant early on.
“I first met Kobe in 1996 when he appeared on the HBO series ‘Arli$$,’ ” Wuhl explains. “It was only our fifth episode. Kobe had just signed a $3.5 million contract with the Lakers less than a week before shooting.
“I was aware he had spent years in Italy and thought this was a good, fun way to introduce him to a national audience. On the first take, he was flawless. Spoiler Alert: Most cameo athletes are not. Kobe was incredibly poised, friendly, and very funny. And 17.”
Another “problem” Kobe may have had getting along with his teammates was that he was, frankly, usually smarter than everyone else. Had he not entered that 1996 draft, he would have gone on to play for Coach K at Duke, and we are told he indeed had the grades to get into that school even if he couldn’t take it hard to the hoop or drill a 15-footer.
Some people have mistakenly referred to Staples Center as “The House That Kobe Built.” That is not true. Elgin, Jerry, Wilt, Gail, Kareem, Magic, James, and others got that place built. Kobe spent his first three years playing in the Fabulous Forum. What Kobe did was pay off the Staples Center mortgage (with, yes, a little help from Shaq). He took complete control of the household. An LA generation who never saw the Sports Arena or Forum associated Kobe with Staples Center. They cannot imagine an LA sports world without Kobe Bryant. Elgin, Jerry, Wilt, Gail, Kareem, Magic, and James were their grandfather’s, father’s, or big brother’s guys. Kobe was theirs. For anyone else to be known as the Greatest Laker is an unthinkable thought for this generation of Lakers fans.
You’ve seen all the numbers: Eleven first-team All-NBA. Nine first-team All-Defense. Four All-Star Game MVPs. And, of course, five championship rings. Etc., etc., etc. But my favorite factual tidbit about Kobe is that he is the all-time leader in but one category: most missed shots. He was, in fact, a volume scorer with a lifetime shooting percentage of .447. He was simply indefatigable. By the way, guess who’s No. 2 in this fascinating category . . . John Havlicek.
All the truly great ones leave a special memory. Larry was Larry. Magic was Magic. And Kobe was Kobe. In terms of style and competitiveness, he was the closest thing to Michael, yes. No doubt. But he wasn’t Michael, he was Kobe.
And how we got from Jelly to Kobe we’ll never know.
Hey, Kobe, thanks for everything. Ciao.
Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.