"Sure, we were in Italy, but he was around basketball all the time, playing against older guys," Joe says. "He was always wanting to play my teammates, and, you know, the older guys, they would pretend that they were falling down."
"I used to set them up," Kobe says. "I'd say, 'Come on, you're playing a little kid.' Then it would come to game point, and they'd start getting serious, and I knew I had them. My father would be on the sideline talking trash: 'You're gonna let a little 10-year-old bust you up?' "
"I've never seen somebody who can see a move that another guy does and learn it as quickly as he can," Robert Horry, a Lakers forward, says of Kobe. "Usually it takes so long to get a move down, to learn the footwork. Sometimes it takes all summer. But he'll work on it, and two days later you'll see it in his game."
The videotapes used to arrive in Italy every couple of days, like letters from home. Kobe's grandparents would tape the biggest NBA games, as well as TV shows and movies, and Joe would receive tapes of other games from a couple of NBA scouting services to which he subscribed. In all he and Kobe watched the Lakers about 40 times a year. Joe loved seeing the work of an NBA guard his own size. "He comes into the league with all that fancy stuff, and they call it Magic," Joe told reporters near the end of his NBA career. "I've been doing it for years, and they call it 'schoolyard.' "
In a closet in the house the Bryants still own near Philadelphia is the little Lakers jacket that Kobe wore as a baby. Later he graduated to a Lakers letter jacket with leather sleeves. In his room in Italy was a life-sized poster of Magic Johnson. The Lakers were based more than 6,000 miles away, but that only deepened Kobe's appreciation of the way they played. Because the games he saw were on videotape, he didn't see them just once. He memorized them. "He would watch those games like they were a movie, and he knew what the actors were going to say next," says Shaya Bryant, now 20.
The play-by-play analyst for these games was Kobe's father. As they watched tape together, Joe would predict where the ball was headed and why, which made him seem like a wizard to his little boy. Kobe would sit in front of the TV and study what a player did with his shoulders, his feet, his head, as if that were the whole point of watching, to decide how the man was balancing his weight without betraying his intentions. "Genius at first is little more than a great capacity for receiving discipline," wrote the English novelist George Eliot more than a century ago. It may seem as if Kobe was analyzing basketball technique. But as far as he knew, he was just getting to know his heroes.
After watching the tapes over and over, Kobe would go outside, alone, and try to beat the world's best players at their own game, more dependent on his imagination than any kid growing up in America. As a result he gives credit for his fallaway jump shot to Hakeem Olajuwon. "My baseline jumper, I got it from Oscar Robertson," he says. "Oscar liked to use his size against smaller players. That's what I try to do." From Earl (the Pearl) Monroe he realized how to "shake one way, then go back the other way." In Europe Kobe taught himself the fundamentals of basketball. Not until he returned to Philadelphia as an eighth-grader did he develop a crossover dribble and other street moves. "I learned all my dribbling moves from God Shammgod [at summer camps]," Bryant admits happily.
All he had needed, in retrospect, was the firsthand experience of his father, access to videotapes and a basketball court free of soccer players where he could do his homework. He could not have developed in this way 20 years ago. There would have been no videos in the mail. For the fundamentals he would have had to go to college. If today he plays with a sense of joy, a sincerity, then he learned it from watching Magic Johnson and from hearing the passion of the Italian crowds who sang for his father. "I was like a computer," Bryant says. "I retrieved information to benefit my game." He could have been raised just as success-fully in Australia. Iceland, South Africa—just so long as he remained within reach of his father's occasional loose elbow, which kept him from daydreaming too deeply.
"I didn't beat him one-on-one until I was 16," Kobe says. "He was real physical with me. When I was 14 or 15 he started cheating. He'd elbow me in the mouth, rip my lip open. Then my mother would walk out on the court, and the elbows would stop."
In November 1991, Joe and Pam were awakened by one of those dreadful 2 a.m. phone calls. Pam's parents wanted them to hear the shocking news from somebody they trusted. Magic Johnson had just retired from basketball after learning he was HIV positive. Pam and Joe talked it over, and in the morning, without mentioning Johnson's prognosis, they told their 13-year-old son that his idol had been forced into retirement.