If you want to get to the heart of the Kobe Bryant story, you have to start with the Joe Bryant story, and that means you have to start with Philadelphia. One of the pieces of Kobe’s story that tends to get glossed over is that his dad also played in the NBA. Joe Bryant spent eight years in the league. But throwing out that fact and then moving on doesn’t capture the full picture of Joe’s career. Because long before Kobe Bryant was a high school legend around Philadelphia, Joe Bryant was a high school legend in Philadelphia. And his legend was every bit as grand as his son’s.
When Joe Bryant was a kid, Earl the Pearl Monroe was his hero, his biggest basketball influence. Which made Joe different from just about every Philly high school star who had come before him. See, “The Pearl” was 6-foot-3, and Joe wanted to play just like him. Joe put the ball behind his back. He worked on his spin moves. He aspired to be as creative and flashy as The Pearl. There was one big difference, though: Joe wasn’t 6-foot-3. He was 6-foot-9. And 6-foot-9 players didn’t do the kinds of things that Joe could do. There was a difference between Joe and Kobe, between father and son. Joe ratcheted up his competitiveness, his will to win, only sometimes, when he absolutely had to. But, of course, this is the quality that Kobe is probably most well-known for—he was at that peak level all the time.
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Joe Bryant was arrested in 1976. Joe was charged with drug possession, reckless driving, and two counts of resisting arrest. The aftermath of Joe’s arrest wasn’t all that different from the aftermath of Kobe’s arrest for sexual assault all those years later. The charges and alleged crimes were different, of course, Kobe’s more severe than Joe’s. But just like with Kobe, there was public shock over Joe’s incident with the police, disbelief that he could do something so dumb, that he could put his career at risk. His actions had threatened his marriage — or seemed to, anyway — and led to speculation that the scandal would tarnish him forever. For some people, that’s certainly still the case with Kobe. The difference was, nothing much about Kobe’s career changed once the public interest in the scandal started to fade. The Lakers didn’t trade him. He didn’t decide to play somewhere else, though there were times he considered it. He was a Laker, and he remained a Laker. But even though Joe stayed out of legal trouble from then on, he was never able to establish a specific role with the Sixers — or with any other NBA team for the rest of his career.
Cover photo © Eileen Blass – USA TODAY NETWORK
“I Am Kobe” is a production of Diversion Podcasts, in association with iHeartRadio. This season is written and hosted by Mike Sielski. Produced by Jacob Bronstein and directed by Mark Francis. Consulting Producer: Andrew Kalb. Story editing by Jacob Bronstein with editorial direction from Scott Waxman. Editing, mixing, and sound design by Mark Francis. Production Assistant: Stephen Tompkins. Music Supervisor: Scott Velasquez, for Frisson Sync. Executive Producers: Mark Francis and Scott Waxman.
Thanks to Oren Rosenbaum, Susan Canavan, and Jeremy Treatman.
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