It was a night when a son could have used a father.
Kobe Bryant missed nearly two-thirds of his shots, missed a free throw that could have won the game, failed to save the Lakers in Thursday’s playoff loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Somewhere at Staples Center, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant was there.
But he wasn’t.
He didn’t wave or call out. He didn’t visit the locker room. He didn’t speak to the son from whom he has been quietly estranged for nearly two years.
“My mom asked me to leave him a ticket, so of course I did,” Kobe said, his voice dropping. “But I knew he wouldn’t come down and see me. He never does.”
The postseason is Bryant’s favorite time of year, his spotlight, his moment. Yet the NBA’s most spectacular one-on-one player is more alone than anyone would imagine.
Bryant is trying to make history while performing the far more extraordinary feat of surviving family.
His father, a former NBA star who lived with his son during Kobe’s early Laker years, has severed contact with Kobe because of his unhappiness over his son’s marriage to wife Vanessa.
While declining to offer details of a rift made public by his father, Kobe quietly confirmed this week that Joe is uncomfortable that Vanessa, a Latina, is not African American, and he is uneasy with Bryant’s selfless devotion to her.
Said Kobe: “Sure, I miss my father. Who wouldn’t miss his father?”
Said Joe: “Once he decided to get married, it’s his life now.”
Bryant acknowledged that from the moment he became engaged to 18-year-old Vanessa Laine two years ago, it caused a family division that has tested his strength like no defender ever could.
His parents did not come to Kobe and Vanessa’s wedding two summers ago. Joe has not seen the couple’s new house in Orange County. Joe has never met the couple’s first child, his granddaughter Natalia, who was born in January.
When Kobe’s Philadelphia-area high school retired his number last season, his parents sat in one section of the bleachers, while Vanessa sat in another section.
Bryant, whose court toughness masks his sweetness and sense of values, stands firmly behind his new family while leaving the door open for his old one.
He has since renewed ties with his mother, Pam. When a Philadelphia magazine asked him to pose in one of his father’s old jerseys, he gladly agreed.
His parents have his direct phone number and an open invitation.
Yet his father never calls.
His father hasn’t seen him in a championship series since the first one against Indiana. On Thursday night, Joe Bryant attended his first Laker game this season.
“It’s not about basketball,” Kobe said. “It’s about having somebody to go to a ballgame with. It’s about having somebody to hang out with. That’s what I miss.”
Out of respect for his family even as they were snubbing him, Bryant has refused to discuss the issue even as it became the worst-kept secret in Lakerland.
It would have remained private but for a decision by his father to move back to Los Angeles this spring and become a coach in a made-for-television sport called SlamBall.
Publicists for the game, which is essentially basketball on trampolines, sent out a news release promoting Joe Bryant and offering the former eight-year NBA center for interviews.
During a session with The Times earlier this week, in an old warehouse in a cluttered corner of the San Fernando Valley, Joe mentioned Kobe before any questions were even asked.
He bragged about his ability, talked about his maturity, then openly acknowledged the particulars of their estrangement.
“Twenty years from now, when his own child grows up, he’ll understand what I’m doing,” Joe said.
He would not give specific reasons for the separation.
“When Kobe made a decision to be with someone he cared about, Pam and I decided it was time to back off, that’s all it was,” he said.
He would not acknowledge any racial animosity toward his daughter-in-law.
“I’m cool with Vanessa, put that on the record,” he said.
When asked why he doesn’t see his son, he sighed.
“It’s his life, we’ve got nothing to do with it,” he said. “We’ve done our job.”
A day after the interview, Joe sent word that he planned to finally meet his grandchild this weekend, although Kobe was unaware of the plans.
Yet, hearing the quotes, hoping that perhaps his father was finally reaching out, Bryant agreed to publicly reach back.
“Sure I hope we can get back together,” Kobe said at the Laker practice facility Friday. “When the time is right, if he wants to come and sit down and discuss things, we can do that.”
As with any player, particularly a sensitive 24-year-old, Bryant’s issues with his father can be seen in everything from his dribble to his glare.
This is a big reason why his focus has increased this season to the point where he is often basketball’s most unstoppable player.
“The court has become my psychologist,” he said. “It’s my time to get away from all the hassles and problems. It’s my moment.”
And this is why, two years ago after they won their second championship in Philadelphia, he was spotted holding the trophy in the shower and crying.
Everyone thought it was because he was weary after a long year of fighting with Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson.
“Yeah, that was about my dad,” Bryant said.
Earlier in that postseason, he had gotten married and his family did not attend.
Then, to survive the boos and pressure in your Philadelphia hometown, to win a championship right down the road from your father’s house ... and your father doesn’t even come to any of the games?
No failure had ever broken his heart like this triumph.
“It had been such an awful year for me, so hard,” Kobe said. “I want a father. I want my father.”
The story begins when Kobe Bryant moved west as a 17-year-old in 1996.
It begins then, because he moved with his family.
When he joined the Lakers out of high school, so did his family, parents Joe and Pam, sisters Sharia and Shaya.
“We weren’t just going to let him come out here by himself,” said Joe. “That wasn’t how we worked.”
For three years the family lived together in a house in the Pacific Palisades, with Bryant the ever-doting son, inviting his family to share in his newfound wealth.
“Don’t write that he lived with us,” Joe acknowledged. “It was his house. We lived with him.”
Bryant bought cars for everyone, including a BMW for his father.
When the family decided to let Kobe live by himself, they moved to a nearby lot only a quarter-mile away, and Kobe talked about building a gym between the two homes.
“My family was always there for me, I love them for that,” Kobe said.
But he was growing up, and increasingly making his own decisions. And after dating a young woman he had met at a video shoot, he made the decision to marry Vanessa.
That is where the problems started.
“I think a lot of it is just natural,” Kobe said. “I’m sure it’s tough on any parent when their child grows up and starts stepping into their own.”
Like his teammates, his family wondered if he was stepping too quickly into a springtime of 2000 engagement with Laine. He was 21, she was 18. They were married less than a year later.
“As a parent, I’d like him to slow down and smell the roses,” Joe said. “But then, I’m a parent.”
But, as usual, everyone underestimated Bryant’s maturity. By all accounts, he treats marriage as if he wrote the manual.
He supports his wife such that he once rushed home from the road during the playoffs for an overnight visit because she was ill.
He is so supportive, in fact, that many folks figured that Indiana’s Reggie Miller must have criticized her when Bryant suddenly and strangely punched Miller in a game last spring.
“Nah,” Bryant said with a smile. “Reggie doesn’t know anything about this. He was cracking on me, and I was just cracking back.”
He protects his wife such that he provides security for her during games and rarely discusses her in public.
He tells his family the same thing, again and again.
“It’s right there in the Bible,” he said. “When you get married, your mother and father and sisters are no longer the priority. Your wife and daughter are the priority. That’s the way it has to be.”
He wishes everyone would understand that this is forever.
“I am so happy,” he said. “My wife and daughter give me such strength. All this has just brought us closer.”
Close enough, he said, to be able to look at his baby daughter and understand what must be done.
“We will prepare her for life, teach her everything we know, give her everything we can,” he said. “But when it comes time for her to stand on her own two feet, we will let her do it. We will stand behind her no matter what.”
Bill Plaschke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.