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Kobe's dad running WNBA show in L.A.

5/19/2006

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.