When news spread that Akiba Hebrew Academy had hired Joe Bryant, a number of alums began scratching their heads, trying to figure out why a former Philadelphia 76er would take a job coaching the Akiba girls’ basketball team. As it turns out, Bryant had just returned from a successful post-NBA career playing in Italy, and he wanted his teenage son to play high school basketball in America. So Kobe Bryant was enrolled at Lower Merion High School in 1992, and Joe Bryant kept an eye on him — and kept busy — by coaching Akiba, which was only a few miles away in the Philadelphia suburbs.
Joe made quite an impression on the girls over the course of his one season there. They played their hearts out for him, and the end result was the best season an Akiba girls team had ever had. Amy Malissa, a 6-foot sophomore at the time, said that she was a bit antsy when she first heard that Joe Bryant would be coaching her team. “It felt like, this is a real person who played basketball in the real world, and I want to be a good player for him,” she said. “After one or two practices, though, you realized how warm and encouraging and nurturing he was, and you played better because you really wanted to please him, because he was so nice.”
Malissa said the girls immediately took to Joe. “He was like an uncle,” she said, “a completely beloved mentor for all of us.” That year, Akiba played in a league made up mostly of small Catholic schools. The girls figured out a way to use that to their advantage. They gave their plays Hebrew names, and had Coach Bryant call them out as they played. “We taught him the names of the plays, and it was hilarious to hear him screaming the plays out in Hebrew,” she said.
Joe left Akiba after one season to be an assistant coach at his alma mater, La Salle University in Philadelphia. As for Kobe, he would eventually lead Lower Merion to a state championship before heading straight to the NBA. Today, Kobe is an NBA all-star who also happens to be awaiting a trial on sexual-assault charges.
But back when he was a standout freshman for Lower Merion, Kobe would come to watch the Akiba girls practice. On a few of those occasions, Kobe and Joe would scrimmage against the girls, two on five. “It was ridiculous,” Malissa said, “they wiped the floor with us. But it was still really fun. Sometimes, I’ll tell people, ‘I scrimmaged against Kobe Bryant,’ and they’ll say, ‘No way!’”