Though he walked away from the game this past April after giving the most Kobe performance imaginable, it was 20 years ago today that Kobe Bryant made his NBA debut for the Lakers. As fans of the team (or more broadly, the NBA) we all know how those 20 years went. The championships, league and Finals MVP’s, all-NBA nods, all-star games, scoring records, etc, etc.
We do not know it all, though.
What Roland Lazenby has done is attempt to fill in some of those gaps and give us more on Kobe than we have ever gotten before. And, while I am not yet finished with his latest book, I can tell you he’s done an excellent job with Showboat: The Life of Kobe Bryant. Below is an excerpt from the book which is now available for purchase here. The book does not begin with Kobe, but instead with the man who passed down the game (and the name Bean) to him — his father Joe “Jellybean” Bryant.
We have read lots of stories about the strained relationship between Kobe and his parents, but I, personally, know little about Joe’s life. This opening chapter from the book introduces us to Joe and gives us a glimpse into his world before Kobe…
May 5, 1976
THE WHITE SPORTS car rolled slowly, almost silently, out of the midnight haze, directly toward the officers in the police van. They, too, were moving along with no great sense of urgency, their radio crackling with the odd, discordant traffic of a Wednesday night in Philadelphia.
As the sports car passed, they saw a large black man hunched over the wheel.
It was early May 1976 in the city’s sprawling Fairmount Park, and the man in the car was Joe Bryant, a twenty-one-year-old rookie with the Philadelphia 76ers. Known as the fun-loving Jellybean, he was something of a hero to the local basketball scene.
By many accounts, it was a youthful friend of Bryant’s, Mo Howard, who was credited with giving him the nickname.
That wasn’t true, Howard would say many years later, explaining that the nickname grew out of the fluid, athletic way Bryant played basketball.
“I think the South Philly guys called him Jelly,” Howard recalled. “They called him Jelly because of the way he was shakin’ people on the court, you know what I mean? You know what they say, ‘Gotta be jelly ’cause jam don’t shake.’ And it doesn’t, right? And that was probably a great way to describe Joey’s play.”
Bryant also had a taste for the colorful beans themselves. “That was his thing, jelly beans,” Howard said with a laugh. “Back then you’d only see jelly beans around Easter time. But Joe always had ’em.”
Some would later claim that he got the nickname because fans gave him jelly beans on the sideline during a game one night.
Whatever the genesis, the nickname certainly suited Bryant’s style. Jellybean was an easygoing sort with an irrepressible gap-toothed grin. It was a face that made him an instant hit with just about everyone he met.
“He’s always been that way,” Mo Howard recalled. “Always got a smile on his face. Always laughing and joking. I think that’s what drew me to Joe.”
It didn’t hurt that he had a heart to match the grin. Years later, one of his eighth-grade classmates would recall Joe Bryant as someone who would readily come to the aid of a small Jewish kid being bullied in school.
“Joe was a happy-go-lucky guy,” Howard explained. “We’d have the most fun when we’d go into parties and dance. You had to see this guy, this six-nine guy, dancing. He was the smoothest guy there. He could dance like hell, and he was a really, really nice guy. I never ever got the impression that B was worried about anything.”
In retrospect, that carefree nature perhaps helps to explain why on this temperate night in early May 1976, as the cherry blossoms were just beginning to unfold, Jellybean Bryant found himself caught up in what seemed to be a mission to tempt fate.
In Bryant’s defense—and Lord knows he would need a defense for his actions this night—it had been a difficult, emotional day, beginning with the funeral for his close friend Gilbert Saunders’s mother. In a way, she had been a second mother to Bryant. He spent so much time in the Saunders household that it was like a second home. He loved being at her table for the big, sumptuous meals she turned out. His own family was of extremely limited means, and Mrs. Saunders was the one who would notice his need for shoes or a jacket and quietly provide them. Bryant had gone to the Saunders home after the funeral that day and pulled out his paycheck from the 76ers to show how well he was doing.
“Damn,” Mr. Saunders said, his eyes widening in surprise.
Bryant had gotten a rookie deal worth nearly $1 million with the team—an incredible sum at the time—and for the past few months had been awash in more cash than he could have ever dreamed of.
Gilbert Saunders—who at the time was playing basketball for John Chaney at Cheyney State—figured Bryant had brought out the check “as a gesture to cheer up my family. He was accepted in my family. We embraced him. The sneakers and coats, those were things my mother had helped him with. His gesture was a way of showing my father, ‘This is what I do now.’”
And so the events, the emotion of the day, perhaps helped to explain what had led Jellybean to nearby Fairmount Park hours later at midnight on that mission to tempt fate.
He had a taillight out and no driver’s license, only a long-expired learner’s permit. He had begun driving seriously only the previous fall, when he purchased two glistening new Datsun 280Zs—one for his wife, Pam, and one for him—after signing his rookie contract with the Sixers.
“Those Zs had a punch,” Gilbert Saunders remembered. “That’s what Joe and his wife settled on. That’s what she wanted, so that’s what they got. They got his and hers.”
Bryant had been raised right there in Southwest Philly in what he liked to tell people was the “ghetto,” a noisy world of screeching trolley lines, elevated trains, groaning city buses, and local gangs fighting for turf on every corner. He had gone from having no vehicle at all to driving the Z, a virtual land-bound rocket. Armed with 170 horsepower while weighing just 2,800 pounds, the fuel-injected two-seaters had the potential to alternately exhilarate and terrify anybody who got behind the wheel, especially Jellybean, who was already a little thin in driving experience.
He understandably loved his vehicle, though, loved bringing it back to his old Southwest Philly neighborhood, recalled Vontez Simpson, a friend. “He showed it to everybody. He wanted to show everybody that he’d made it. That was a hot car at the time.”
What’s more, Bryant was perhaps flying that night even when the car was stopped, as suggested by the two vials of cocaine and the small, stylish spoon in the vehicle with him.
In another complicating factor, he was out and about with Linda Salter, his former girlfriend, the sister of a teammate from his old school, Philly’s John Bartram High, despite the fact that he had a beautiful young wife and a month-old daughter at their lovely new home in the city’s wealthy suburbs.
From its first moments, his marriage had been ruled by his wife, Pam, a statuesque beauty with a bit of a mean streak. Old friends had noticed that anytime there was a decision to be made, Bryant immediately looked to his wife submissively. Even family members laughed that the mere thought of crossing her seemed to send Jelly into a panic.
But here he was, crossing her big-time and about to be caught red-handed.
If this had been a scene from a period-piece film, the soundtrack might well have been Johnnie Taylor’s “Disco Lady,” the number one song for much of that spring of ’76, which was perfectly smooth, the way Joe loved a song to be.
Shake it up, shake it down
Move it in, move it round, disco lady.
Whatever song was playing in the Z, whatever flight of fancy Bryant had taken that night, they all immediately crashed as soon as he realized the flashing lights were directed at him. Understandably, he quickly sensed a variety of dangers, not the least of which was that he was a black man in a fancy car in a park late at night in a city that was wracked by gang violence and all sorts of ugly racial issues.
The news of his signing with the Sixers months earlier had been front-page news in the Philadelphia Tribune, right next to a story about the dozens of African Americans shot by Philadelphia police in past months.
Over the preceding three years, Philadelphia police themselves had shot and killed 73 people and wounded 193 more. In those days, officers routinely fired “warning” shots at fleeing suspects.
Over the previous twelve months, five Philadelphia police officers had been shot to death, including one who was assassinated from the rooftop of a housing project by a fifteen-year-old, who jarred the city when he told authorities, “I just wanted to kill a cop.”
Bryant didn’t need a newspaper story to remind him of the circumstances. No black resident of the city did.
Perhaps it truly was a run-of-the-mill traffic stop about a taillight, as the officers would later report, but the context of the moment was strange and tense. And it would grow stranger still.
The officers got their first indication of that when long, tall Jellybean—just a shade under six ten—unfolded himself and stepped out of the car. He tried to be cool as the officer put the light on his face. He immediately identified himself and, having to think on the fly, quickly decided that confessing about the license and throwing himself on the mercy of the officers might be his best plan for avoiding a search of the car.
He handed over his registration, but the officer was confused by Bryant’s statement about the license. Something about the interaction triggered an intense and overwhelming sense of panic in Joe Bryant. Perhaps, as others would suggest later, it was the sudden realization that his wife would find him out. Perhaps it was the fear of the police themselves, although Bryant had already provided them his registration and his name.
What happened next would astound the officers, indeed the entire Philadelphia community as well as the insular culture of the 1970s National Basketball Association.
Bryant abruptly turned and got back in his car, leaving the officers to assume that he might be attempting to retrieve his license from the glove box. Instead Bryant fired up the ignition, jammed the Z into gear, and sped off, filling their headlight beams with a spray of gravel and dust and disbelief.
The officers needed an instant to comprehend that Joe Bryant had deserted them at high speed. They then piled back in the van and gave chase while calling in an all-points bulletin on the radio. It took them only a few moments to realize that trying to keep up with the Z was too dangerous. Joe Bryant had zoomed off, covering the distance ahead at an insane speed—well over a hundred miles an hour, according to their estimates—like some bizarre vessel knifing through the night.
In an instant, he was out of the park and flying blind down the streets of the city. With his lights off.
It wasn’t until twelve minutes later that another police unit spotted Bryant.
Officer Raymond Dunne would report that he was heading west on Cedar Avenue when he looked in his rearview and saw a sports car with no lights on zooming up on his cruiser from behind. The driver was honking his horn furiously for the police unit to get out of his way.
It was quite a moment. There was Jellybean Bryant, on the highway to hell and blowing for a passing lane.
At the last instant, Bryant swerved around the police car, and Officer Dunne immediately gave chase, only to back off when the speeds again grew very high. Dunne later reported that he was going so fast trying to keep up with Jellybean that he feared he might lose control of the patrol car.
Minutes later, Bryant barreled straight on into a busy intersection on Baltimore Avenue, where a vehicle was blocking the way.
As he attempted to veer around the vehicle at high speed, Jellybean lost whatever grip he still had on the car. First the Z struck a stop sign; then it careened across Farragut Street to take out a No Parking sign before ping-ponging back and forth down the block, destroying a parked car on one side, then bouncing to the other to smash into two more vehicles, then back across the roadway before mercifully jumping the curb and slamming into a wall.
With enough wreckage in his wake to qualify as a small tornado, Bryant and his old girlfriend were left sitting dazed in his smashed and ruined car. It was perhaps then he realized that at no time during his speeding escape had he sought to ditch the coke. Officers would later find it upon searching the Z.
In that instant Bryant made his final terrible decision and took off running into the night.
“He just jumped out of the car and left her sitting there,” said one of Bryant’s old friends. “Joe panicked and jumped out. There was no need to run. If you were a police officer in the community and you saw a guy that big running off, you knew who it was. Everybody knew Joe. There wasn’t no reason for him to run.”
It is here at this juncture where the strange calculus of the evening finally breaks down completely, where monumentally bad decisions mingle somehow with good fortune on the far edge of temporary insanity.
Mercifully, the police did not fire the proverbial “warning shot” at the fleeing Jellybean.
In addition to being a fine hoopster, Bryant had been a track star in high school. Yet somehow one of the officers, Robert Lombardi, managed to run him down in a matter of a few yards. When he did, Bryant turned to lash out.
“I grabbed him,” Lombardi recalled. “He raised his fist, and I struck him. I subdued and handcuffed him.”
Bryant suffered a head injury that would require six stitches to close. Decades later, Gene Shue, who was then Bryant’s coach with the Sixers, recalled that police apparently issued a pretty severe beating to Bryant, a beating that would mark him with a profound sense of humiliation, one of many things that later troubled him for a long, long time. Immediately, though, there were the handcuffs, jail, and the horrific anxiety of having to face his wife.
In a little less than a half hour, the ample good fortune of Joe Bryant’s young existence had morphed into a world of shit. Many in Philadelphia had done far less yet had wound up in a cadaver drawer down at the morgue. For Joe Bryant, over the coming months and years, it would become increasingly apparent that the incident had done him and his career tremendous harm.
Jellybean’s anguished time in custody that night brought the slightest inkling of a revelation. Years earlier his grandmother had prophesied that someone in the family was going to be fabulously rich and famous. This night in May 1976 was Joe Bryant’s first hint that the person in the prophecy might not be him.
From the book Showboat: The Life of Kobe Bryant by Roland Lazenby. Copyright © 2016 by Roland Lazenby. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.
Excellent read. I am ordering the book TODAY!
Wow… seems like Jellybean was no day at the beach! I’ll be buying this book for sure.