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The sides of a teenage Kobe Bryant that few got to see | Mike Sielski

In an excerpt from his book, "The Rise," Inquirer columnist Mike Sielski tells the story of a young Kobe through the prisms of race, dating, and one of Bryant's greatest fears.

Kobe Bryant led the Lower Merion Aces to a district championship and a state championship in 1996.
Kobe Bryant led the Lower Merion Aces to a district championship and a state championship in 1996.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

The following is an excerpt from “The Rise: Kobe Bryant and the Pursuit of Immortality” by Inquirer sports columnist Mike Sielski. The book will be released on Tuesday.

The peers of Kobe Bryant’s past don’t remember him as a Los Angeles Laker, as a five-time NBA champion, as a nonpareil of competitive nature who bestowed upon himself an audacious nickname — Mamba — that he built into an eponymous lifestyle brand. This was what his Lower Merion teammate Evan Monsky was insisting, the point he was driving home, one night over the phone. That Kobe was not their Kobe. That Kobe? Monsky couldn’t be sure what that Kobe had in common with their Kobe.

“People kissed this dude’s ass from the time he was 18 until his dying day,” he said, “and it’s a type of ass-kissing that’s bonkers. It’s not a normal life and not one that would be cherished by many. It seems absolutely horrible.”

And what did that life do to Kobe? How did it change him? Those who knew him when he was young remembered him a certain way. Was he still that person? There is a part of Monsky, and perhaps of everyone who encountered Kobe at Lower Merion, that doesn’t want the answers to those questions. The person whom Monsky remembered was a kid, a 16-year-old kid, who loved to talk hoops, who wasn’t the funniest guy in the room but could crack a decent joke now and again, who got nervous whenever the vehicle he was traveling in, whether his car or his parents’ car or a school bus full of basketball players, had to cross a bridge. Those memories aren’t precious to Monsky because they’re rare. They’re precious to him because they aren’t, because they’re memories of a 16-year-old kid and not of the most famous athlete in the world.

They’re memories of a kid who shared a seat with him on afternoon rides to games and nighttime rides from games, who would glance out the window and whose lungs would expand and contract out of terror at the silvery water below. There was no explanation for Kobe’s fear in those few seconds, none that he would admit to his teammates, anyway. But they would tease him about it as if he were just one of them, which in their minds he was and always would be, and he would white-knuckle it until the bus had safely reached the other side.


Anthony Gilbert’s friendship with Kobe Bryant was born of Gilbert’s gentle flirting with Sharia Bryant. There she was, a standout on Temple University’s women’s volleyball team, an outside hitter with that Bryant family leaping ability, thwacking one kill after another until she finished her career fifth on the Owls’ all-time list, 5-foot-10 with striking features but so approachable and down-to-earth off the court. There he was, a part-time freshman at Temple who was working in the university’s athletic department to pay his way through school, who didn’t know the first thing about volleyball when he started handling statistics and research for the team. He was 5-foot-8, which meant he not only looked up to Sharia, he looked up at Sharia. He was impressed with her, and he wanted to impress her.

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“Look,” he told her one day, “I’m from Philly. I play ball.”

“Dude,” she replied, “you couldn’t even beat my little brother.”

Gilbert had never heard of Kobe. He would soon. As with Kobe’s basketball games, every available member of the Bryant family attended Sharia’s volleyball matches. (The crowds at the matches were sparse, so the family’s presence stood out even more than at Kobe’s games.) Kobe sometimes didn’t accompany them; basketball was too great a demand on his time. But after Gilbert and Sharia’s tête-à-tête, Kobe showed up at his sister’s next match at McGonigle Hall, picked up a volleyball, dribbled it like a basketball, and introduced himself to Gilbert in his own inimitable way.

“We can do this right now,” he said.

What? Gilbert thought. You’re the younger brother? Who are you?

From those awkward introductions to Sharia and Kobe in the fall of 1994, Gilbert became a contributor to SLAM magazine and a friend to Kobe and the entire Bryant family, admiring them for their unity among and loyalty to one another, giving himself a window into the family’s dynamics and the disparate sides of Kobe’s personality that only so many people shared. There was Kobe within basketball: cutthroat and cunning and bulletproof. And there was Kobe away from basketball: courteous and naïve and sheltered. The split couldn’t have been cleaner.

“A lot of people don’t realize he was a big geek,” Kobe’s friend Dayna Tolbert said. “We never saw him as this big star. He was Kobe. We didn’t act differently around him, and he didn’t act any differently around us. The home videos that you can find him geeking around with his family, that was the real him. The Black Mamba that everyone sees on the court, that was competition. Those were two different things.”

That dichotomy was at its starkest in Kobe’s dating life, in that he didn’t really have one. There was a girl, Jocelyn Ebron, whom he met at a family barbecue, who found him quiet and mild-mannered and became the closest thing Kobe had to a girlfriend through most of his high school years. At that barbecue, he didn’t seem to have much game, didn’t appear to be prowling for the latest pretty thing to put on his arm, and Ebron, a student at an all-girls Catholic high school, liked that. They spent most of their time together at the Bryants’ house, where Ebron, who when she met him had hoped that Kobe wasn’t the typical American guy, learned just how atypical he was.

Their “dates,” such as they were, consisted largely of Ebron doing exactly what Kobe’s Lower Merion friends and teammates — Guy Stewart, Matt Matkov, Jermaine Griffin, Evan Monsky, others — would do when they were hanging out with him. She would take a seat on the couch next to Kobe as he watched videos of Magic and Michael and Kobe himself, from his games and workouts in Italy. Whatever moves he had, romantic or otherwise, were confined mostly to the court. Pam, Ebron noticed, did all of Kobe’s laundry, made him his breakfast every morning, and made him the same breakfast every morning: bacon, eggs, and Cream of Wheat.

“Everything sort of focused on him and around him,” Ebron said in a 2003 interview with Newsweek. “His two sisters just seemed to accept that. He was the only son and the king of it all.”

Sharia and Shaya were protective of Kobe, sizing up and fending off any teenage girls who wished to get to know their brother more intimately. There were many with that wish. One could understand why, especially when Kobe, as was his habit whenever he was uncertain of himself or searching for words, flicked his tongue out of his mouth to lick his lips, adding a touch of vulnerability and soulfulness to his rich brown eyes and disarming smile. But even Ebron, a beautiful girl with an interest in Kobe, was regarded by the Bryants as an outsider, even though she was permitted, at times, within their circle. Sharia told Gilbert once that she didn’t consider Ebron to be Kobe’s official girlfriend, which suggests that Kobe didn’t, either. Because she lived on Temple’s campus, Sharia also took it upon herself to counsel him on how to negotiate the world outside leafy Wynnewood and the nearest basketball court.

“She has this maternal instinct,” Gilbert said, “and she learned a lot about the city and how it moved, how we talked and spoke and dressed. She passed it on and translated it to Kobe, who was still kind of green on a lot of things, just in terms of being a young Black kid around the city. You say certain things, and he’s just kind of quiet. But on the basketball court, OK, this guy does talk.”

As their friendship deepened, Gilbert, by Kobe’s design, would talk at him nearly as much as he talked to him. Hey, Gilbert might ask, wanna go hang out on South Street? Let’s go meet some girls. He knew the answer already: No chance. Gilbert was from West Philadelphia, so he was familiar with Kobe’s real haunts, the places where Kobe enjoyed himself most: Remington Park, Ardmore Park, Tustin Playground. Drive to South Philly? Why do that when Kobe had the keys to the Jewish Community Center? For Kobe, experiencing the city didn’t mean taking in the tattoo parlors and the record stores and the social scene along the main drags in town. It meant having Gilbert join him at the JCC or those playgrounds. It meant having Gilbert rebound each of Kobe’s shots and snap chest passes to him. And it meant having Gilbert, while Kobe was shooting and driving and refining his footwork, mimic the insults that Kobe heard either to his face or behind his back.

» READ MORE: Kobe Bryant’s excellence on behalf of his country is a big part of his Hall of Fame legacy | Mike Sielski

You’re good, but you don’t play in the Public League.

Dribble ... dribble ...

You live in the suburbs.

Spin ...

You go to a white school.


There’s no competition there.

Hard dribble ... hard dribble ...

You’re not one of us.


This was Kobe’s emotional chain mail, his defense against the criticism he heard that he wasn’t hard enough, wasn’t Black enough, wasn’t worthy of respect from the players who shared his skin color but assumed they had little else in common with him.

“His family was loved wherever they went,” Gilbert said. “They didn’t have an air about them. They were loved and respected because they embraced everybody. Kobe never really had that ‘Black experience’ like my friends and I had, but the disrespect that he got from the city had more to do with his zip code than his basketball skill set. Kids his age in the city playing in the Public League, playing in the summer leagues, they were like, ‘Listen, Kobe, you’re good. People write about you. But you don’t play in the Public League. You go to a white high school. You live in the suburbs. I don’t care what anybody says, you’re not one of us.’ Basketball was his way of getting vindication: ‘You know what? Y’all are right. I’m none of those things. But once this ball goes up in the air, I’m going to show y’all who’s Black and who’s not.’

“He knew he wasn’t like anybody else, but he used that to his advantage. If somebody was mouthing off, he was quiet, and it was like, ‘OK, are you done? Because we’re about to play now.’ And that would throw anybody off. Most guys would be ready to fight, but Kobe was like, ‘Is that it? OK. Let’s play.’”

More, it was his way of honoring and defending the reputation of the person who had introduced him to basketball and fostered his obsession with the sport: his father. Joe Bryant had bounced from team to team because those teams didn’t believe they could trust him. Joe had never established any staying power in the NBA. Joe had to go to Europe, go into exile, to reach his highest heights. Kobe was determined to equip himself with the right skills and attitude and ethic to avoid the same fate. They’re not going to have a question about who I am, what they should do with me, and where I belong. I’m going to work so hard that they never forget the Bryant name. “He wanted to be like his dad and to redeem his dad,” Gilbert said. “It was an homage to Joe.”

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And there was no time to waste in following this road map to a father’s redemption and a son’s greatness. Once, Kobe told Gilbert that he had certain benchmarks that he wanted to reach, things he wanted to do in his life, and he wanted to do them all while he was young. He wanted to get to the NBA while he was young. He wanted to marry while he was young. He wanted to have children while he was young. He didn’t want to wait to be a man, on his terms alone. “That was his mantra,” Gilbert said, “and that’s how he attacked things. He was on a different page from everybody else.” He wanted to do everything early, but first, he had to do something else, for his high school and its burgeoning basketball program: win a championship.