LOS ANGELES -- The man who answers to the well-known monikers of Jellybean and Kobe Bryant's dad has another title. The Los Angeles Sparks call Joe Bryant coach.
Bryant was an assistant for the WNBA team last season before taking over from the fired Henry Bibby with five games left. The Sparks went 4-1 under him, finished at .500 and made the playoffs.
Now, an entire season stretches out before the man who earned his nickname by shaking off defenders with a shimmy of his shoulders during eight years in the NBA.
"I keep the players nice and loose. I'm not a hollerer and a screamer,'' Bryant said. "I like to think of myself not as a coach, but as a teacher. I tell them to enjoy the game and have fun. Things could be gone before you know it.''
Bryant's easygoing personality is in stark contrast to Bibby, his former NBA teammate on the Philadelphia 76ers. Bryant also played for Golden State, the Clippers (in San Diego) and Houston.
Bibby's businesslike approach meant the players were no longer allowed to laugh and crack jokes at practice like they did under his predecessor, Michael Cooper.
"The team is a lot more loose than last year,'' said star center Lisa Leslie, who, like the WNBA itself, is beginning her 10th season. "Jellybean has a really relaxed personality. We can have a little bit more fun. It's really positive around here and I like that.''
The Sparks won championships in 2001 and '02, lost to Detroit in the '03 finals and were bounced from the first round by Sacramento last year.
Watching the Sparks play last season, Bryant compared them to robots. Under Bibby, whom Bryant didn't mention by name, the team ran "almost 350 plays,'' he said.
"Now, to have just a handful with many different options off it, they really accept that and really appreciate that,'' Bryant said. "The game is going to be fun again. That's what I'm trying to do for them.''
Another change involves the team's conditioning.
"We don't do any silly drills, trying to prove your toughness,'' he said. "I give them more freedom. They're able to think and use their experience.''
Bryant's playing experience includes eight post-NBA years in Italy, where his only son Kobe grew up.
While the younger Bryant has starred for the Los Angeles Lakers, his father's itinerant travels have included coaching gigs in Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Boston and most recently, Japan.
Bryant expects Kobe to attend some Sparks' home games, as he did last season.
Away from the court, the elder Bryant enjoys spoiling his four granddaughters, including Kobe's newest, Gianna, born three weeks ago.
"I love it,'' Bryant said. "Our house is like the Kool-Aid house. The kids come and hang out. Then they send us the dentist bill.''
That same relaxed attitude is why Bryant said he has long resisted offers to become an NBA assistant because it usually doesn't fit teams' corporate structure.
"I'm kind of a rebel, a little different, a free thinker, so I've always shied away from that,'' he said.
Things changed when Sparks general manager Penny Toler, herself a former Sparks player, gave Bryant the freedom he craved to run the team the way he sees fit.
"I'm enjoying it,'' he said. "It's fun.''
Retaining Bryant in the third coaching change in two years is among several offseason moves made by the Sparks, who open the season with a six-game road trip beginning Sunday at Seattle.
Leslie and guard Mwadi Mabika _ also entering her 10th season _ are back, along with Chamique Holdsclaw, Doneeka Hodges, Christi Thomas and Raffaella Masciadri.
Leslie and Holdsclaw figure to benefit the most under Bryant's freewheeling style, uptempo style because they can create their own shots.
"If we can learn to move without the ball, then Jellybean's system will definitely work for us,'' Leslie said.
Mabika was limited to a career-low 17 games last season after undergoing right knee surgery. Like Leslie, she's upbeat about playing for Bryant.
"He's a player's coach,'' she said. "He actually gives you that freedom to do whatever you want to do on the court and he actually asks you what you want to do.''
Veterans Tamecka Dixon, Nikki Teasley, Tamika Whitmore and Laura Macchi are gone as part of an effort to add youth and quickness.
The newcomers include Temeka Johnson, the league's 2005 rookie of the year; Murriel Page; and first-round draft pick Lisa Willis out of UCLA.
"We have the team that can possibly break 100 on some nights,'' Bryant said.
The scoring load, as always, will fall on Leslie, who was plagued by a groin injury throughout last season. Her scoring average of 15.2 points was her lowest since 1999 and her 7.3 rebounds were a career low.
"It was just such a damper,'' she said. "I could either box out or rebound, but I couldn't do both. I couldn't jump as well. I didn't feel good.''
Bryant has often tutored individual players and he's helping Leslie's game, too.
"He's very crafty,'' she said. "He's always teaching me different tricks of the game, how to improve my passing when I'm double-teamed and different ways to get out of it.''
Bryant credits Leslie for raising her teammates' standards to her own high level.
"I like to think it's because of me,'' he said, laughing.
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press
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