Norman’s blue suede shoes
SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - February 27, 2020 - 12:00am

Meralco coach Norman Black will never forget what the late Kobe Bryant’s father Joe did for him after playing against each other in the Baker Summer Basketball League finals in Philadelphia in 1979.

Black had just graduated from St. Joseph’s University, about three miles away from Lower Merion High School where Kobe played before embarking on a 20-year NBA career that ended in 2016. The Baker League was where NBA veterans and aspiring pros used to get together to hone their skills before training camp. The league was started in 1960 by Sonny Hill and continued for over four decades. In 2017, a documentary was produced to immortalize the league which was a playground for legends like Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe, Maurice Cheeks, Earl Monroe, Darryl Dawkins, Billy Cunningham, Chet Walker, Rasheed Wallace and Lewis Lloyd.

Black was fresh from averaging 17 points throughout his collegiate career at St. Joe’s from 1975 to 1979. He would later be inducted into the school’s Sports Hall of Fame. Black dreamed of making it to the NBA and the Baker League was his first stop in the journey. Kobe’s father played varsity basketball at La Salle and finished the year when Black made his freshman debut at St. Joe’s so their paths never crossed in college. Black eventually suited up for the Detroit Pistons in the NBA before moving to the PBA in 1981 and settling down in Manila.

As it turned out, Joe was in the Baker League when Black played for Boyd’s Clothing, a popular tailoring shop in Philadelphia. NBA veteran Mike Bantom, who played in Manila with the Walt Frazier touring group in 1975, was the leading scorer on Black’s team, averaging about 28 points. Black averaged about 25. Just as the Baker League playoffs were about to start, Bantam left to play in the Italian league, leaving Boyd’s fate in Black’s hands. Black took on the responsibility of putting Boyd’s on his shoulders and led the team to the finals against Joe.

In the championship clincher, Boyd’s was up by eight points with 12 seconds left. The game was practically over. Black recalled standing beside Joe during a free throw situation. “I noticed Joe wore these beautiful Converse high-top blue suede shoes,” said Black. “So while waiting for the free throw to be taken, I told him ‘nice shoes.’ Anyway, the game ended and we won the championship. Later, in the lockerroom, as we celebrated, Joe walked in. I wondered why. In his hands were the blue suede shoes and he handed them over to me as a gift. I’ll never forget the gesture.”

Today, the blue suede shoes are neatly packed in a plastic bag in Black’s mother’s house in Baltimore. “I’m keeping the shoes,” said Black, now 62. “My mom’s been asking if she could throw them away.” The shoes are Black’s connection to the Bryant family.

Joe, 65, played for Philadelphia, San Diego (now Los Angeles Clippers) and Houston in the NBA from 1975 to 1983 then went to play in Italy. Kobe was born in Philadelphia in 1978 and lived in Italy with his two older sisters and mother when Joe played as an import. Joe is known as Jellybean and that’s why Kobe’s middle name is Bean. He was given his nickname by a high school teammate who said his moves on the court were like jelly “because jam don’t shake like that.”

Kobe’s growing-up years in Italy enabled him to speak Italian and Spanish. Kobe’s mother Pam is the sister of former NBA player Chubby Cox. His parents and two sisters Sharia Washington and Shaya Tabb live in Las Vegas. Sharia, 43, was a former personal trainer and now works for a sun protection solutions company. She was a volleyball star at Temple University. Shaya, 42, was also a volleyball player at La Salle and worked 10 years at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino.

After hanging up his sneakers, Joe became a coach and had stints with the Los Angeles Sparks in the WNBA and in the Japanese and Thai leagues. Kobe’s relationship with his parents was strained when they objected to his marriage to Vanessa Prieto in 2001. Kobe was 22 and Vanessa, 19 when they tied the knot. The parents didn’t attend the wedding. They reconciled a few years later but in 2013, were estranged again when Kobe’s parents tried to auction off some of his collectors’ items, including NBA championship rings and jerseys. Kobe sued to stop the auction and it led to a public apology from his parents.

Kobe provided financial support to his parents but his sisters fended for themselves, drawing admiration from the Laker star for their independence. His parents and sisters were at the Celebration of Life memorial at the Staples Center in Los Angeles last Monday but none spoke during the program. They were acknowledged, but not by name, when Shaquille O’Neal spoke.

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