"John Cox to shoot," says the PA system announcer as USF's sophomore shooting guard strides to the line for his first free throw of the game.
The crowd's steady murmur continues unabated, but the hard-core fans in The Cage clearly have read the program bios for the visiting team. Taking up their megaphones, the students unleash a stream of jeers that pierces the hushed arena and is certainly audible to the 6-foot-4 195-pounder at the line.
"Kobe, Kobe, Kobe!" shouts one fan as the referee bounces the ball to Cox. "Kobe -- you suck!"
Cox never flinches as he raises the ball to shoot. But just before he releases, the jeers reach a fever pitch, with one member of The Cage lifting his voice above the generalized taunting: "Hey Cox, you're no Kobe!"
The ball clangs off the rim.
Backpedaling into defensive position, his elbows cocked and legs pumping in what seems to be a frighteningly precise impersonation of the L.A. Lakers superstar who owns this town and also happens to be his cousin, Cox evinces another mannerism that appears borrowed from Kobe Bryant: a self-conscious head wag, a public display of dismay at blowing a free shot.
The missed free-throw is a rare gaffe in one of the most complete performances of Cox's college career, which is finally beginning to blossom after limited playing time in his freshman year and no basketball at all last year because of injury. En route to a convincing 80-67 victory over Loyola Marymount, Cox leads all players with 19 points on 6-of-9 shooting (including three 3-pointers), eight rebounds, five assists, no turnovers, two blocked shots, and three steals.
After the final horn, two giggling young girls catch up to Cox as he threads his way through the lingering crowd into the visitors' locker room. Wearing a sheepish grin, he obediently scrawls his name on the scraps of paper they thrust at him, well aware that such adulation is not normally directed at a sophomore guard averaging 12 points a game on a .500 team in a second-tier conference.
But hey, at least they're asking Cox for his autograph.
"It's worse at home games, when I see the same kids and they ask the same question: "How's Kobe?'" says Cox, who pronounces his cousin's name as if it rhymes with "robe" rather than "Moby," as the rest of the world says it. "I owe, like, a hundred kids his autograph. Sometimes, when they won't stop asking, "Are you Kobe's cousin?' I just say, "Naw, I'm not. That's just a rumor.'"
But spend 10 minutes watching John Cox move across a basketball court, and you know it's true. He shows flashes of his cousin's breathtaking quickness, the ability to close fast on an opponent's lazy inbounds pass or to explode suddenly down the base line for a twisting, improbable layup. He shares Bryant's defensive tenacity, the fundamental attentiveness to footwork, positioning, and ball movement. He's got the same lanky build, although Bryant is two vital inches taller, and the same game-time grimace. When yanked off the court by his coach, Cox pouts like Bryant; when burying a 3-pointer in the face of a lunging opponent, he pumps his fist and spins up-court in what might as well be a re-enactment of a million SportsCenter highlights starring the Lakers' No. 8.
What John Cox doesn't have, however, is his cousin's preternatural talent, the aura of greatness that earned Bryant the tag of "protégé" at age 17 and the burden of being The Next Michael Jordan when he skipped college to enter the NBA draft. Cox doesn't have Bryant's arrogance, the swagger that comes with winning back-to-back NBA championships and the prospect, as long as he stays healthy, of winning who knows how many more.
Instead, John Cox, who will turn 21 in July, has a lot of unfair expectations to meet, a family history of basketball greatness to live up to, and the knowledge that as good as he becomes in his chosen field, he'll probably never approach the talent and fame of the cousin who first exposed him to the sport.
And he's fine with that.
In November 1998 John Cox held a news conference at his high school, Philadelphia's Carver School of Engineering and Science, to announce which college he'd decided to play for. Several big-time programs had been courting the versatile Cox, a swingman who can play either guard or forward, including the University of Southern California, Pepperdine University, St. Joseph's, Cincinnati, Villanova University, Virginia, Penn State, and USF. Surrounded by his family, high school teammates and coaches, and a swarm of reporters who lavish nearly the same scrutiny on Philadelphia prep basketball as they do on the college or professional game, Cox leaned into the microphone and said, "After a lot of thought, discussions with my parents and grandparents, I've decided to bypass college for ..."
The room exploded in laughter. Two and a half years earlier, in the packed gymnasium of Lower Merion High School (just a 30-minute drive into the suburbs from where Cox held court at Engineering and Science), a 17-year-old Kobe Bryant had announced he would become the seventh U.S. player in history to skip college and leap into the NBA draft (where he was selected 13th by the Charlotte Hornets and then traded to Los Angeles for veteran center Vlade Divac). Cox's press conference joke -- a "spur-of-the-moment thing," he says now -- was both a tribute to Bryant and an acknowledgment of the vastly different expectations that greeted the cousins upon graduating from high school. While Cox had been a star for the Carver Engineers -- averaging 29 points, eight rebounds, and four assists during his senior year, and amassing the then-ninth best career point total in Philadelphia history -- Bryant scored 1,000 more points in his four-year tenure at Lower Merion, led his school to the state championship, and possessed an all-around game that made pro scouts drool.