Basketball Short Stories - 6
Robert Parish's Road to the NBA - 1
The Big Three: Larry Bird, Kevin McBride, and Robert Parish:
The Best Frontcourt in the History of Basketball
, Peter May (1994)
Robert Parish went to an all-black school, Union in Shreve­port LA, which had both the junior and senior high classes in the same building. Parish ran some track, usually the 880. He played football and baseball. But basketball?
"I never liked it," he said. "I never had any interest in basket­ball whatsoever. I never even played it. If it wasn't for my junior high school coach, I would not be where I am. He lite­rally forced me to go out for the team."
That man is Coleman Kidd ... He was the basketball coach at Union Junior High School in the late 1960s and he kept wondering who this tall youngster was whom he saw walking by the school every day.

Robert Parish
"I figured he must be going to work," Kidd said. "He was exceptionally tall. I started asking around and I was told he was going to the Hollywood elementary school. He was in the sixth grade. I couldn't believe it. Sixth grade and I had to look up to him. The only thing I could get out of him was 'Yes, sir' or 'No, sir.' I asked him if he was coming to Union. 'Yes, sir.' Are you going to play basketball? 'No, sir.' Why not? 'Don't know how, sir.' Ever played? 'No, sir.' I told him, 'I'm Coach Kidd and I am going to look you up next year.'"
The next year, Parish arrived at Union and Kidd was there, ready for his new center. But his new center, now 6-4, still wasn't interested. Parish had told Kidd he would come to practice, but when the club gathered there was no sign of him. Kidd reminded Parish of his agreement and mildly admonished the youngster that he had better not continue to be a no-show. Parish continued to be a no-show.
Kidd then led Parish into the locker room and produced a small, half-inch-thick oak pad­dle, which the shop teacher had made for him. He made Parish bend over so he could get "better leverage." Then Kidd said, "I warmed his pants real good. He rubbed his backside when I was finished."
And the next time the junior high school basketball team gathered, Parish was there. Kidd was so pleased he even let Parish wear cutoff blue jeans instead of basketball shorts. There weren't any around that fit, anyway.
"He gave me a couple of good, strong whacks and said, 'I expect to see you here tomor­row,'" Parish said. "And then I decided to come out. Back then, you could do that stuff."
"We had our way with the students back then," Kidd said. "The parents expected you to do it and never complained or asked questions."
Now he had Parish. But he soon began to wonder if this was a case of "Be careful what you wish for because you might get it." Parish wasn't kidding about his utter lack of bas­ketball skills or knowledge. He may as well have spent his first twelve years in Antarctica.
"I really didn't have a clue about the game," Parish said. "They threw me the ball and I started to run with it. And that's only when I was able to catch it. A lot of times it would hit me in the face or go right through my hands. I mean, I was bad."
Kidd said Parish's skills were as bad as Parish described them. Maybe worse. He was forced to use Parish only in late-game, blowout situations. In his first year of organized basketball, Robert Parish, perennial NBA All-Star and future Hall of Famer, was strictly a garbage-time player.
"I was so disappointed," Kidd said. "I'm saying to myself, 'Here is a boy that could go places, but he just doesn't have the skills. Or the potential.' He couldn't catch it. He could­n't dribble it. He was clumsy. He had hard hands and no coordination and I almost gave up on him. I did everything I could. Jump-roping drills. Everything. I'd make him take a bas­ketball home. Then he started to show a little promise at the end of the seventh grade, and after playing all summer in the city he came back and was a totally different player. He was phenomenal."
So good, in fact, that Parish played for Kidd only one more year before he was promoted to the Union varsity in the ninth grade. As a freshman at Union, he led the school to the state semifinals. He did the same thing as a sophomore. But he did it while playing only with black teammates and only against all-black competition. The following year, a court order changed everything. In an attempt to integrate the schools, Union High was closed and turned into a career vocational center. Its student body was dispersed, mostly to Woodlawn.
Few were happy with forced integration. For the previous two years, Shreveport had had a "freedom of choice" option that allowed blacks to attend the white schools. But few did. Before that, blacks went to one of three schools (Union, Bethune, or Booker T. Wash­ington) and whites attended one of four schools (Woodlawn, Fair Park, Captain Shreve, and Byrd). The school system consisted of two entire, separate, and insulated worlds whose paths rarely crossed. Cliff Roberts, the point guard at Woodlawn in the first year of integration, had never heard of Woodlawn until they played together at Wood­lawn.
Freedom of choice had, however, allowed a trailblazer named Woodlawn to becom one of the first blacks to play for a previously all-white school in Shreveport or anywhere in northern Louisiana. Russell had to a wait a year at Woodlawn before he could play, but when he did his team won the state title in 1968-69. He played with Parish in college and later coached Woodlawn to a state title.
"It could not have opened up without Melvin Russell," Woodlawn coach Ken Ivy re­called. "By the time Robert got there, we had been through all the stuff - people refusing to feed us, things like that. Melvin made it possible. And it was kids like Robert that came along after that that made it go."
Parish didn't want to leave Union. It was a short walk from home. He was comfortable there, but it was closing and Woodlawn was more than a mile away.
"None of us wanted to be there," Parish said. "It was a huge transition. I would have preferred to stay where I was. I didn't like being broken up and separated. I resented that." ...
"It was a very, very traumatic year for everyone, blacks and white," said Roberts. "The blacks didn't like it. The whites didn't like it. We had never been exposed to blacks and they had never been exposed to whites. There was some violence, but not too much. On the team, it was OK. But beyond that, there was no camaraderie whatsoever. Basketball was the only time we were together. And it was hard for me because none of my friends from Fair Park was there. I became a Woodlawn Knight. But I was still a Fair Park Indian at heart and always will be."
To be continued ...
Kobe Turns Pro - 1
Three Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty
Jeff Pearlman (2020)
On July 7, 1994, Kobe Bryant reported to the campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, New Jersey for a week of high-level basketball most presumed he would not be ready for. He was one of four high school juniors in attendance, and the majority of the buzz was directed toward a pair of New York City guards— Stephon Marbury of Lincoln High and Shammgod Wells from New York City's La Salle Academy. To be a lesser-known player at ABCD is to shuffle with one's head down, with eyes glued to one's sneakers. It's intimidating, it's jarring—"You're there with guys who can do amazing things," said Hollo­way. "You're the best where you're from. But going there is an eye-opener."
From day one, Bryant walked as if he belonged. He played hard, played fast, refused to kneel before Marbury or Wells or the fantastic Tim Thomas of Paterson, New Jersey. He wore three chips on his shoulders— the kid from Italy nobody worried about, the kid from suburbia nobody worried about, the son of an NBA alum. The star of the camp was Marbury, who at one point shook Holloway, rose from the free throw line, and carried his 6-foot-1 body toward a 6-foot-9, 240-pound shot blocker named Patrick Ngongba. With an audible grunt, Marbury dunked in the giant's face, landed, screamed "Wooooooo!," grinned from cheek to cheek, walked the full length of the court, out the gym, and onto the bus that ferried participants to and from the facility.
The other players hooted and hollered with glee.
Bryant
joined the audible circus, but inside, jealousy consumed the teen. That should have been him. That would be him. When the camp concluded and Marbury and Thomas were named most valuable players, Bryant approached (Sonny) Vaccaro (who ran Adidas's ABCD summer camp) and tapped him on the shoulder.
"Mr. Vaccaro," he said, "I want to apologize to you."
"What do you mean?" Vaccaro said.
"I'm just telling you, next year I'll be the MVP here. I'm sorry I let you down."
Vaccaro
was speechless. Kobe Bryant owed him no apology. But the integrity and intensity were unlike anything he'd seen in ABCD history. "I've never forgotten that," he said years later. "His mindset was not 'Hey, thanks for having me. I've enjoyed the opportunity and I look forward to returning.' It was 'Fuck that. I'm gonna be MVP.' Call it what it is— confi­dence, arrogance, self-assurance. He knew he'd be great, and at that moment I knew he'd be great. And at that moment— that very moment— I also knew Adidas would be in the market for Kobe Bryant."

L-R: High schoolers Kobe Bryant and Stephon Marbury, Sonny Vaccaro
Over the next two years, Kobe Bryant went from here to HERE. As a junior at Lower Mer­ion High School in Ardmore PA, he averaged 31.1 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 5.2 assists and was named Pennsylvania's Player of the Year. Everything about Bryant was ferocious. He would arrive at the school gymnasium at 5 a.m. to shoot on his own, then stay two hours after practices in the evening. What he lacked in social skills he made up for with dogged­ness. Lots and lots and lots of dogged­ness. "People think his athleticism was the most impressive thing— and they're wrong," recalled Emory Dabney, the Lower Merion point guard. "It was the drive. He wasn't psychotic, but he bordered on psychotic." In particular, Dabney recalled one 95-degree summer day when he and his star teammate worked out on the track at nearby St. Joseph's University, then went across the street to Episcopal Academy to play pickup. "Kobe would get in the car after running and turn the heat up to 90 degrees because he didn't want his muscles to cool down," said Dabney. "You'd be like 'Wow, this is nuts.' But it separated him from everyone. He didn't just want it. He wanted it."
Bryant returned to ABCD for another summer and, as promised, was named the camp's MVP after averaging 21 points and 7 rebounds. This was perhaps the greatest collection of talent in ABCD history— not merely Bryant but also Thomas, Jermaine O'Neal of Eau Claire High (South Carolina), and Lester Earl of Glen Oaks (Louisiana). In a moment that, two decades later, Vaccaro still found uproarious, in one game Kobe soared toward the basket and slammed powerfully over an overwhelmed opponent. As the ball rattled through the rim, Bryant fell to his feet, smiled, and yelled at Vaccaro, "Was that better than Stephon's?"
"No," Vaccaro replied, "but it was damn good."
If Bryant's confidence was high off of his ABCD showing, a couple of closer-to-home exper­iences took it to another level. Even though he was but a high schooler, Bryant spent plenty of time playing pickup inside Temple University's Pearson Hall gymnasium. These weren't run-of-the-mill battles against Joe Frat Boy. No, his opponents included many of the Owls stars, including future NBA players Rick Brunson, Aaron McKie, and Eddie Jones. "God, he was so polished for a high school kid," recalled Jones. "Flat-out talented. Most impressive, he wasn't scared. We were All-Americans, big names in college basketball. And Kobe just brought it right at us. You knew this kid was NBA-bound. There was zero question."

L-R: John Lucas, Jerry Stackhouse, Rick Mahorn
Around this time, the Philadelphia 76ers were holding off-season workouts on the campus of St. Joseph's. Because he was a big local name and bodies were needed (and because Tarvia Lucas, the daughter of 76ers coach John Lucas, attended Lower Merion), Bryant, along with Dabney, was allowed to play. These were the 18-64 Sixers of Shawn Bradley and Sean Higgins; of Elmer Bennett and Greg Graham. But they were still an NBA team, and Kobe Bryant was still a soon-to-be high school senior.
What transpired is the stuff of myth. In large part because much of it is myth. According to the eternally repeated story of 10 million witnesses (there were no more than 30 people in the gym), Bryant lit up Jerry Stackhouse, Philadelphia's fantastic young shooting guard. He took Stackhouse left, he took Stackhouse right, he dunked over Stackhouse while eating a ham sandwich and humming Peter Cetera's entire musical catalog.
Truth be told, Bryant played extremely well against Stackhouse, as well as solid NBAers like Vernon Maxwell, Richard Dumas, and Sharone Wright. He wasn't the most polished player on the court, or even the 10th most polished on the court. He was undisciplined, sloppy, erratic. He took shots one shouldn't take and committed turnovers that, were this a regular game, would land him on the bench. But he was absolutely fearless— and that stuck. Plus, while he didn't destroy Stackhouse, he did get under his skin. "Stack had a very short fuse," said Dabney. "He didn't take well to a 17-year-old bringing it to him." John Nash, general manager of the Washington Bullets, caught up with Lucas.
"How's Stack doing in your workouts?" Nash asked.
"Fine," Lucas said, "but he's the second-best two guard in the gym."
Nash made a mental list of the Sixers' shooting guards. It wasn't a particularly impressive collection. "John," he finally said, "who's the best two guard?"
"Kobe," Lucas replied.
Whoa.
Shaun Powell, a Newsday reporter who covered a lot of NBA, was walking through the New Jersey Nets' locker room one day when he was stopped by Rick Mahorn, journeyman power forward. "You know who you need to write about?" Mahorn said. "Jellybean's kid."
"Jellybean's kid?" Powell replied.
"Yeah," said Mahorn. "His name is Kobe. And in the summer when we all played pickup ball, he ran with us. And he wasn't the last one picked . . ."

Continued below...

Kobe Turns Pro - 2
Three Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty
Jeff Pearlman (2020)
Around this time, Bryant began working daily with Joe Carbone, a personal trainer and re­tired professional weight lifter hired by the family to transform the kid from sapling to oak. The goal was to build someone described as "wiry" into a machine capable of enduring an 82-game season against large men. Before long, Bryant was a weight room regular, benching, squatting, curling. "We put about 20 pounds on him," Carbone said. "He's not a heavy gain­er, so the weight came on as he got stronger."
By the time he returned to Lower Merion for his senior year of high school, Bryant knew he would not be attending college. "He told me that summer," said Dabney. "I'm going to the NBA next year." If Bryant knew, it was something of a secret to those hoping otherwise. The college recruiting letters arrived by the boatload— from Duke and North Carolina, from UCLA and USC, from Delaware and Drexel and Villanova and Temple. This was the fall of 1995, and at the time Joe Bryant was in his second year as an assistant at nearby LaSalle University, his alma mater. He had been hired in 1993 by Speedy Morris, the head coach, and while the official reasoning was that the program needed a replacement for the recently departed Randy Monroe, the reality was different. "Did I think it'd help us get Kobe?" Mor­ris said decades later. "Yes. Of course. Joe was not a good assistant coach. He didn't work hard, he didn't actually know that much. Nice guy. But he was there so we'd get his son."
Kobe Bryant basked in the attention, took a handful of campus visits, pretended he was genuinely torn over what to do next. He liked to show off all the recruiting letters he re­ceived, and proudly stiffed Kentucky coach Rick Pitino, failing to show up for a scheduled visit to campus. He acted as if college were a legitimate option. Only it really wasn't. Because he had never signed with an agent, or accepted so much as a dime from a sneaker company, he remained eligible should he change his mind. But he wasn't changing his mind. The re­cruiting letters ultimately found themselves at rest alongside half-eaten burgers and empty yogurt containers in the Bryant family trash bins.
That June he had competed in the War in the Woods, an outdoor tournament held in Penns Grove, New Jersey. As Kobe lit up the court, his father watched alongside Gary Charles, veteran AAU coach and Sonny Vaccaro's confidant. With each Kobe three-pointer, Joe turned to Charles to say, "See that?" With each dunk, "Amazing, right?" When the game ended, Joe went serious. "Gary," he said, "I think my kid wants to come right out from high school. But we, as a family, would be worried because there are no guarantees."
Charles grinned. "What if I can help you get a guarantee?" he said.
Joe Bryant was confused.
"What," Charles said, "if I can help Kobe get a shoe deal?"
"Wait, you can do that?" Bryant replied.
"You know," Charles said, "I believe I can."

L-R: Kobe Bryant as high school senior, Michael Jordan Nike ad
That evening, Charles placed a call to Vaccaro.
"Sonny," he said, "Kobe Bryant can be the kid."
By the kid, he meant The One. Ever since joining Adidas in the early 1990s, Vaccaro had been seeking out the next Michael Jordan, jock marketing goliath. At the time, the shoe company was known for being dull and unimaginative and a pimple on Nike's back. Bryant's ABCD showings had opened Vaccaro's eyes, and there was a lot to like. Bryant was mature, Bryant was savvy, Bryant was handsome, Bryant could flat-out play, Bryant had NBA blood. "And the name— 'Kobe Bryant,'" Vaccaro said. "There's something about it. 'Kobe Bryant from Italy'— it's intriguing, it's a little mysterious."
Vaccaro loved what he was hearing. He reached out to Joe Bryant to make sure there was legitimate interest. Then he kicked back and watched Kobe piece together one of the best seasons in local high school basketball history, leading Lower Merion to its first state championship since 1943. He concluded his high school career as southeastern Pennsyl­vania's all-time leading scorer, with 2,883 points, and was named the Naismith High School Player of the Year, Gatorade Men's National Basketball Player of the Year, and a McDonald's All-American. "The most amazing thing was he never lost a drill," said Jeremy Treatman, an assistant coach with the Aces. "Four years, and Kobe never lost a game of one-on-one, a scrimmage, a sprint. He just didn't allow losing." By early in the season, word had gotten out that Bryant was thinking NBA, and the league's scouts (the ones who took him seriously— many did not) began to dot the Lower Merion bleachers during home games. Pete Bab­cock, general manager of the Atlanta Hawks, flew in and saw a kid "do whatever he want­ed to without anyone knowing how to stop him." Larry Harris, a Milwaukee Bucks scout, came three times, often wondering if what he was witnessing was, in fact, real. "He wore number 33, and that immediately made me think of Scottie Pippen," Harris said. "He had this Pippen-like length, and also this comfort with his own athleticism. Once the game started, there was no messing around, no settling for jumpers. It was business. That jumped out to me."
Vaccaro was now more determined than ever to make Bryant the face of Adidas. Midway through the high school season, he convinced the company to spend $ 75,000 to move him from Southern California to New York City in order to be closer to the high school supernova. He never attended Lower Merion games, for fear that Nike or another rival apparel company would learn of his plans, but had Charles show up as his go-between. The two sides talked about fame and glory and talent. But mostly they talked about sneakers. The Bryant family wanted a financial guarantee, and Vaccaro and Adidas were willing to offer one. They would pay Kobe Bryant $48 million, provide another $150,000 to Joe Bryant, and make Kobe the face of Adidas. The sell, in a sense, was Michael Jordan. Bryant was told he would be the new Jordan— beginning with a signature shoe and a glitzy marketing campaign based around the concept "Feet You Wear." It played to both his ego and his love of basketball history. College? Who needed college. Kobe Bryant had decided to take his talents to the NBA.
When one is aligned with a sneaker company, and when said sneaker company is paying one millions of dollars to promote the brand, things can get complicated. In the aftermath of Kobe Bryant's going-to-the-NBA announcement, a slew of franchises asked him to come to their facilities for workouts. This is how things work in professional basketball, and a young player would have to be either dumb, uninformed, or supremely confident (nay, arrogant) to turn down an invitation. Especially a young player with no Division I college experience.
Kobe Bryant turned down plenty of invitations. For the not-yet-18-year-old guard, this was never about preferring the sun over the ski, or Pacific time over Eastern time. Nope, this was about selling sneakers. As soon as Vaccaro convinced Adidas to spend millions on the kid, it brought forth an immediate two-way loyalty. When Bryant (and his parents) went about finding an agent, he selected Arn Tellem, the Los Angeles–based power broker whose clo­sest friends included Vaccaro and Lakers vice president Jerry West. Tellem, like Vaccaro, knew the importance of a big city for Kobe the basketball player and Kobe the apparel salesman. The Toronto Raptors, talentless, anonymous, and gifted with the second overall pick in the 1996 draft, asked Bryant to come for a visit. No. The Vancouver Grizzlies, talentless, anonymous, and gifted with the third overall pick in the 1996 draft, asked Bryant to come for a visit. No. The Milwaukee Bucks, talentless, anonymous, and gifted with the fourth overall pick in the 1996 draft, asked Bryant to come for a visit. No. One after another, Bryant offered a sincere thanks-but-no-thanks to the majority of organizations that wanted to see him in a controlled setting. On June 24, he was scheduled to fly to Charlotte and per­form for the Hornets, owners of the 13th overall selection. That morning, without warning, he canceled. A day later, he did the same to the Sacramento Kings. No heads-up. No advance notice.

Early Kobe Bryant Adidas Ad
Bryant worried about his reputation, and whether organizations would hold it against him come draft day. Tellem promised all would work itself out. "We have to be selective," he told him. Indeed, the teams that had seen Bryant in person were blown away. Barry Hecker, the Los Angeles Clippers' assistant coach, wanted nothing to do with a high school kid when his bosses said Bryant would be arriving for a workout. "I was very skeptical," Hecker said. "I didn't think our organization would be a good spot for someone that young, and I also assumed he wouldn't be ready for a man's game. Well, that was misguided." Standing alongside Bill Fitch, the head coach, and assistant Jim Brewer, Hecker steeled himself to see the worst. Then— WHOOSH! Bryant was instructed to do the old Mikan Drill, which involves a rapid-fire series of close-to-the-basket hook shots. But instead of hooks, Bryant dunked. Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! "Ten times in a row— left, right, left, right," said Hecker. "Jesus Christ."
Hecker
was impressed. As were the New Jersey Nets, owners of the eighth overall pick. Officially, they had Bryant come to the team facility for three different workouts. Unofficially, that number was actually four. Or, ahem, maybe five. "Which is probably against NBA rules," said Bobby Marks, the Nets' basketball operations assistant. "But that's okay." Marks was in charge of scheduling Bryant's arrival via train or plane. He would pick him up from the station or airport, drive him to the facility, arrange for a series of challenges. At the time, the Nets were simultaneously awful and young, and it wasn't hard to rope in a green player or two to square off against a prospect. So one day Marks requested that guard Khalid Reeves and forward Ed O'Bannon come in early and rough up the high schooler. Kobe Bryant waxed them. "It was always some sort of two-on-two or three-on-three, and Kobe had his way," recalled Marks. "He was the best player on the court every single time, and it was against established NBA players." Word quickly spread that New Jersey was a likely destination for Bryant. That's why Jerry West considered Bryant worth little thought. The Lakers were picking 24th overall. The kid would be long gone. Plus, he was a high schooler, and Los Angeles was looking for help-now talent. "I didn't know much about him," West later said. "We weren't focused on getting Kobe Bryant."
Tellem, though, loved the idea of Los Angeles— the big market, the historic franchise. He called West and asked that the Lakers bring his client in for a workout. So they did. Bryant was in town for a commercial shoot, and he arrived at the Inglewood YMCA at the same time as Dontae' Jones, the Mississippi State forward who had recently led the Bulldogs to the Final Four. Over the next 45 minutes, Bryant reduced the 6-foot-8 Jones to a bowl of melted ice cream. With Larry Drew, a Lakers assistant coach, monitoring the workout, Bryant and Jones played a series of one-on-one games that left the college senior gasping for breath. "You don't realize," Jones said later, "a 17-year-old could do all the things he was even attempting to do." In his three and a half decades in professional basketball, West had seen everything. Elgin Baylor, Kareem, Magic, Bird, Jordan, Yinka Dare. This, though, was different. "Oh my God," West recalled. "You have to be kidding me. No disrespect to anyone, but as soon as I saw him it was clear this was a complete no-brainer. I swear to God, I would have taken him with the No. 1 pick in the draft over Allen Iverson. He was that good."
A couple of days later, the Lakers asked Bryant to attend one final workout. He was to play one-on-one against Michael Cooper, the former Laker star now working as an assistant coach with the club. Though five years retired, the 40-year-old Cooper looked a lot like the 30-year-old Cooper. He was sinewy, muscled, very much in shape. West asked his former player to give Kobe Bryant a beating. "Make him work," West said. Cooper nodded. "No problem." For 30 minutes, Bryant plowed through Cooper just as he had plowed through Jones. Slicing left, twirling right, dunking, gliding. West cut the one-on-one session short and turned to John Black and Raymond Ridder, two of the team's media relations heads. "Okay, I've seen enough," he said. "Let's go. He's better than anyone we have on our team right now."
He concluded: "Best workout I've ever seen."
Later that day, West reached out to Tellem. "Kobe Bryant," he told him, "just played like I'd never seen a kid play before. Obviously we'd love to have him as a Laker. Not sure how that happens, but  .  .  ."
The rest is history of course. West arranged a trade with the Hornets. Charlotte would take Bryant at #3, then swap him to the Lakers for Vlade Divac. Amazingly, the first 12 teams passed on Kobe and the deal came to fruition.

L-R: Jerry West, Kobe Bryant, and Lakers Coach Del Harris on Draft Night