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Jellybean Bryant is still sweet on basketball

Kobe's father, no ordinary Joe, loves working with young players and would like a job in the NBA one day.

July 05, 2011|By Baxter Holmes
  • Joe Bryant, shown coaching the Sparks in 2006, has been in the game for almost 40 years but never can seem to escape the shadow of his son, Kobe.
Joe Bryant, shown coaching the Sparks in 2006, has been in the game for almost… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

Joe Bryant is going to drag his spry 6-foot-9 frame out of a one-bedroom apartment he shares with his wife near downtown Los Angeles, head down the stairs to the full-length basketball court on the second floor and start shooting.

He has to make 120 shots, 60 on each end: 20 from the left side, 20 from the right, 20 down the middle.

This few-times-a-week workout keeps the jovial Bryant fresh. It proves to him that he can still play this game at 56.

But after 120 made he's gone, because he doesn't want you to spot him, notice he's tall, ask if he played ball, then find out who he really is.

Kobe Bryant's father.

If he's recognized at a market, movie theater or restaurant, he could be bumped to the front of the line, or promptly seated at a corner table.

He doesn't want special service. "I want people to know me for me," he says.

Sometimes his conversations with strangers are brief. They'll say they know him from somewhere and, in turn, he'll wish them well and walk away.

If he did anything outside of basketball it wouldn't matter.

But he has been in the game almost 40 years. First, as a player — eight seasons in the NBA with the 76ers, Clippers and Rockets — then as a coach, with the WNBA's Sparks and in Japan. Now, Bryant is back with the Sparks as an assistant.

For all his travels, Bryant has never escaped his son's shadow. Is he OK with that?

"Yeah, because he's my son," he says.

Bryant was estranged from Kobe after his son's marriage to Vanessa, but Joe says they are now on pretty good terms.

One day, Bryant would like an NBA job, not as a coach, but perhaps in a player development role where he could work with young players.

But to get there, he might have to deal with a double-edged sword: his lineage. That alone can give him instant credibility.

"Absolutely, hell yeah it should, because the first thing I wanted to know was, what drills did you do with Kobe?" says former Sparks center Lisa Leslie, who was the 2005-06 WNBA most valuable player when Bryant was her head coach.

But it may lead some to question his credibility.

"They're probably thinking, 'Just because your son is good doesn't make you a great coach,'" Sparks General Manager Penny Toler says.

Bryant hopes his abilities and experience speak for themselves. .

Growing up in Philadelphia, a high school teammate nicknamed him "Jellybean" for his variety of moves despite being so big. "It must be jelly because jam don't shake like that," Bryant recalls hearing, quoting the hit Glenn Miller song.

As a 6-9 point forward, Bryant believes he was ahead of his time.

His college coach at La Salle, Paul Westhead, agrees. "He had a lot of moves," Westhead says. "He'd cut you up any which way."

After being drafted in the first round in 1975, Bryant averaged 8.7 points in his NBA career. He might have played longer or been more prominent, but Bryant was a backup for the 76ers in the late 1970s on teams featuring Julius Erving and George McGinnis.

"He couldn't understand why he wasn't playing, but Dr. J was in front of him," says Henry Bibby, a 76ers teammate who later hired Bryant as an assistant when Bibby coached the Sparks.

After the NBA, Bryant moved to Italy — where Kobe largely grew up — and played eight seasons abroad.

In some of his coaching jobs, Bryant suited up in practice, which he does with the Sparks now. "He's in incredible shape," Sparks forward Tina Thompson says.

At 235 pounds, Bryant has shed 35 pounds in six years, cutting sugar and junk food from his diet.

But he has maintained his coaching style, one that favors humor over stern instruction.

When a player makes a mistake, instead of telling them what they did wrong, he'll ask them, with a smirk, just what they were thinking.

"Exactly. You don't know," he'll say, flashing a wide grin.

Says Sparks Coach Jennifer Gillom: "They listen to him."

If Bryant sees a young player in a gym, he'll come over and say that when Kobe was at that age, he'd make as many as 40 shots every day on every basket he saw, in a park or a gym.

As for his nomadic coaching career, Bryant says he has bounced around because of the location or money, and says he might coach in Japan or China this fall.

Many who know him say he's good enough to coach in the NBA.

"Jellybean's an ex-pro, he knows what he's doing," says former Lakers star Michael Cooper, who replaced Bryant as the Sparks coach in 2007 after the Buss family sold the team.

Bryant says he hopes for a chance in the NBA but doesn't believe he has anything left to prove.

"The people in basketball know Kobe's good for a reason," he says. "It had to come from his dad."

What makes the elder Bryant happy? Making his 120 shots. His son. And what else?

"Watching players improve after I spend time with them," he says.

So says the self-proclaimed "Philly guy" whose black SUV still has Pennsylvania plates.

"That's part of my roots," Bryant says. "I won't let it go."

Nor will he let go of basketball.

baxter.holmes@latimes.com

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