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"He's a scorer -- the boy's got skills, man. I can't wait to get to that point where he enjoys playing," Chubby Cox says. "I mean, John loves basketball. He was just like I was. But he needs to relax more. Ain't nobody gonna make 'em win like John could."
Chubby Cox is well acquainted with the skills possessed by both his son and the family's other twentysomething basketballer. Chubby and his brother-in-law, Joe Bryant, used to play two-on-two against John and Kobe, leading playground teaching sessions that gradually became showdowns between fathers with NBA experience and sons with NBA potential.
"You can't get up on Kobe, he can get by you," says Chubby Cox, with the authority of a man who has personally been burned. "Oh, man, we used to play. But we let that go when they started throwin' down backdoor dunks on us. Neither one of us could guard Kobe anymore."
Chubby Cox wants to see a bit more of that playground flash rekindle in his son's college game. John's not naturally comfortable as a long-range, 3-point specialist, Chubby argues. He's a slasher who must create -- not await -- scoring opportunities.
Heaving another exasperated sigh, Chubby Cox again speaks as if he has his son's ear: "Come on, now, you've got to take control. Don't leave nothing out on the floor. Take some chances. Start entertaining the fans a little bit."
In other words, play more like Kobe Bryant.
After an afternoon practice on the Dons' gold-and-green home court, John Cox occupies a courtside seat in an otherwise empty War Memorial Gymnasium. Swigging from a bottle of Powerade, Cox is dressed in the typical collegiate athlete's garb of swishy workout pants, practice jersey (Don jerseys bear coach Mathews' motto: "We play hard"), and Adidas sandals. Against the backdrop of the vacated court -- silent except for the hum of overhead lights -- Cox draws with his index finger a detailed series of imaginary screens, pick-and-roll plays, and give-and-go passes. "Kobe told me a couple things after he watched us play [Cal. State] Fullerton [earlier this season], different places to get my shots out of our offense," Cox says. "Kobe tells me things like that, gives me advice."
Up close, Cox's mannerisms, speech patterns, and quick-forming grins bear an even more striking resemblance to those of his famous cousin, who is one of People Magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People and with whom he speaks frequently. But Cox says the off-court similarities and on-court parallels aren't intentional.
"People say that, but I don't really see it," he says. "That's not saying I don't pick up things from Kobe, but I guess it's just from growing up playing against each other."
Cox admits it was strange watching Bryant progress from just another playground player to high school phenom to worldwide celebrity. Although he says Bryant hasn't changed at all in his interactions with the close-knit family, Cox marvels at the attention heaped upon him by fans, media, and -- especially -- overseas audiences. During the summer before his senior year in high school, Cox accompanied his cousin on a three-week trip to the Philippines, Australia, Korea, and Japan, a vacation sponsored by the Adidas sports shoe and clothing company. Cox was stunned to find himself playing alongside his cousin in promotional three-on-three half-court games in sold-out 10,000-seat arenas.
"Even in high school, back home, he was big," Cox says. "But when he went to the NBA, after he won the dunk contest, he was so big. Sometimes we'd be sitting around and I'd say, "Kobe, this is amazing.' Everybody'd be like, "Kobe, Kobe, Kobe.' And it's weird because we used to be playing, and nobody would know him. We'd be walking down the street, shooting, dribbling, and he was nobody. Now I'm used to it, but it was hard to deal with at first."
With the perks of being Kobe Bryant's cousin -- traveling to foreign countries, meeting Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal and playing him one-on-one -- come the downsides, including the occasionally hostile crowds when USF goes on the road. In fact, on a scale of one to 10, Cox gives the Loyola Marymount fans who screamed taunts when he was on the free-throw line only a two.
"I heard a lot of it there, but it was nothing like it was at Gonzaga," Cox says, shaking his head at the memory of a tough night in Spokane. "Gonzaga was like an 11. I shot free throws in the second half, and the whole gym was shouting, "You're not Kobe!' They went on a run, got up 13 or 14, and the crowd was yelling, "John, you can go to L.A. now! Game's over!' That's just part of going on the road. Some things are kinda funny. You try to tune it out, but if everyone's screaming, you gotta hear it."
Coach Mathews says he's impressed with the way Cox handles the unfriendly crowds and the inevitable comparisons.
"Sometimes, when you have those genes, it's a curse to you, because you have to measure up," Mathews says. "But John is his own player. He's improving, and people are realizing it. John is very low-key but very competitive. Kobe doesn't make a big deal out of it, and they're close. I'm more concerned about John just finding his niche here."