Kobe’s Connection to the SouthCoast
It’s something that’s forgotten in SouthCoast sports lore, but at one time in the early part of this century, UMass Dartmouth was home to semi-professional basketball franchise.
The Boston Frenzy of the fledgling American Basketball Association played its home games of the 2004-05 season at UMD’s Tripp Athletic Center. Now, most ABA teams popped up in towns and cities with very little fanfare; outside of giving a few local guys a chance to play semi-pro ball, ABA basketball of the early 2000s just didn’t move the needle except for the hoopiest of hoops-heads.
The frenzy was a little bit different because that team had the closest thing the ABA had to a household name superstar: Bryant.
Not Kobe, no. By that point, the Black Mamba was already racking up championships playing alongside Shaquille O’Neal with the Lakers. The Frenzy instead had Kobe’s dad, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, as head coach.
Joe Bryant was a former No. 14 overall pick in the 1975 NBA Draft, selected by the Golden State Warriors. He was traded to his hometown Philadelphia 76ers before the start of his rookie season, and he played for the Sixers, San Diego Clippers and Houston Rockets before heading to play overseas for the remainder of his career.
Bryant was undoubtedly the draw for many when the Frenzy played its first game at UMD to about 2,000 spectators. Bryant, then in his 50s, even got into some of the action himself. But as the frenzy over having Kobe’s dad on the SouthCoast died down, the Frenzy lost attendance and didn’t stick around very long.
The sudden passing of Kobe Bryant today in a helicopter crash at the age of 41, along with his 13-year-old Gianna, has me thinking about how fortunate I was to get to see such a phenomenal player on the court, and such an important figure off the court.
Before I became the Digital Managing Editor here at WBSM and Fun 107, I spent about a decade covering the Boston Celtics for The Standard-Times. It was a dream come true for a lifelong Celtics fan, getting the opportunity to sit courtside, covering the glory days of Paul Pierce, Antoine Walker, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, and rubbing elbows with legends on a nightly basis. It might be running into Larry Bird in the then-Fleet Center hallway, or perhaps interviewing Red Auerbach after a game – every night, a new personal highlight, topped of course by being in the TD Garden the night the Celtics won Banner 17, and being in the locker room as the players celebrated. I still have some confetti I picked up from the parquet, and the champagne cork I snagged from the floor of the locker room (if you’re reading this, Jeff Twiss, I apologize for breaking the rules).
And of course, I got to see all the NBA legends that came through to play against the Celtics, too. Getting the opportunity to interview Michael Jordan, Shaq, Steph Curry, LeBron James and so many others was a special thing, even if the inner Celtics fan in me was always rooting against them when they played in Boston.
But it was hard to root against Kobe. As the first supposed “heir apparent” to his His Airness, everyone expected him to be the next Jordan, but he was instead the first Kobe. He always took our post-game questioning with a serious, intrinsic approach, but still occasionally flashed that mega-watt smile, reminding us without having to say a word about it that we were, after all, just talking about a game. Especially when Kobe’s Lakers were a championship team and the Celtics were just trying to figure out how to stay in the playoffs year to year.
Then, the Celtics got really good over the course of one off-season, as Danny Ainge built the new Big Three by bringing in Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to play alongside Paul Pierce. Games against Kobe’s Lakers were no longer a measuring stick to see how far the Celtics had to go to be contenders. They were now playing each other in the NBA Finals. I’ll never forget seeing Kobe deflated on the court as the Celtics blew out the Lakers in Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals, winning the championship, solidifying that Celtics-Lakers was once again the league’s premier rivalry and that the Celtics were back on top as the NBA’s all-time greatest franchise. But they would do battle against two years later, and Kobe would get his revenge with 23 points in a Game 7 win for L.A.
I was never the kind of sportswriter that would go into a locker room and try to use some kind of “connection” to spark up a conversation with a professional athlete. It always felt forced, and I am sure the player didn’t appreciate having to make awkward conversation with somebody they don’t know just because they might have gone to high school with the writer’s second cousin’s stepdaughter. But I did ask Kobe once if his dad ever mentioned anything to him about coaching the Frenzy at UMass Dartmouth.
“I remember him saying was that the team was called 'Boston', but was nowhere near Boston,” he said.
And then he flashed that mega-watt smile.
A smile we’ll never see again.
Rest in peace, Kobe.
Tim Weisberg is the Digital Managing Editor for WBSM and Fun 107. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @TimWeisberg. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.