Chicago Bulls assistant coach John Bryant didn’t go to NBA Summer League last July. Instead, he took seven trips to visit his father, who was battling a severe case of COVID-19.
“It was the best decision of my life,” Bryant said Tuesday at the Advocate Center.
When Bryant’s father passed from the virus in September, he had the presence of mind during his grieving process to post an inspirational message on social media asking people to tell their parents they love them and for people to be good and kind to one another.
Bryant is serving as the Bulls’ head summer league coach this July. He apologized to reporters following Tuesday’s practice for wearing a mask as he spoke and said he could repeat anything if he couldn’t be heard, a gesture as courteous as it was unnecessary.
Because it’s clear with both his words and his actions that Bryant views coaching as something bigger than basketball.
“I feel good about where we are because I’m growing them and grooming them as men,” Bryant said. “I feel that’s my responsibility.”
Before and after each practice, Bryant and his staff gather the players for a group discussion. Bryant asks players to vote on the daily “Warrior” award, handed out to that day’s most competitive practice participant. And he and his staff share what they appreciate about that day’s effort, while also acknowledging areas for growth and improvement.
This open dialogue is what allowed Bryant to comfortably begin Tuesday’s session by talking about the tragic mass shooting at Monday’s 4th of July parade in Highland Park, home to many Bulls during the dynasty days.
“I told the team just to reflect on their lives. I told the team how fortunate we are to wake up today. I told the team how fortunate we are to play a game and get paid,” Bryant said. “And to think about the people who didn’t get that opportunity today.”
Bryant felt comfortable having this conversation because of the curtain he pulled back when telling those same players about his late father.
“I let them see a peek into my life and got real with them. And they could be real with me,” Bryant said. “That to me is real coaching. Of course, everyone needs to win. But to me, real coaching is coaching these young men to be better men for our communities, better fathers, better brothers, better cousins, better friends. I think I’m doing my best to do that every day.”
In fact, Bryant admitted this experience is increasing his love for coaching. Hired before the 2020-21 season after spending four seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers, Bryant has had a voice before. But he never has been the voice.
“I never talk this much, not even with my wife,” Bryant said, who also joked about his cough drop consumption. “But it’s great. I’m finding my voice. I’m so thankful to Coach (Billy) Donovan for allowing me to do this. Ultimately, I’ll help him because I’ll be a better assistant for him. It’s been amazing.”
Bryant said Donovan, who he jokingly referred to as “a wise old sage” observing from the sidelines, has mostly taken a hands-off approach to this week. He has let Bryant make mistakes and enjoy successes, slipping in the occasional suggestion.
Often, Donovan’s input comes because Bryant asks for it.
“I seek him out just to see how he thought the practice looked. I will seek him out just to see where I can be better. Because ultimately, I’m here for him,” Bryant said. “But I think he understands the best part and the way you get better is by doing it. And he has allowed me to do it.
“But the one thing as a head coach I have more respect now for Coach Donovan is you’re always thinking about the team. You’re always thinking about the next drill. You’re always thinking about the next ATO. You’re always thinking about something. My kids want to play and I’m thinking about what drill I want to run. It’s fun.”
And Bryant said he knows his father is watching over him, enjoying the experience as well.
“I can hear him. I talk to him every day. He’d be so proud of me,” Bryant said. “I’m trying to do it the best way that I can. Every day that I played, he was just like, ‘Hustle. Try your best. Do your best. Work hard.’ And I’m trying to do that for not only our players and our staff but to be a reflection of what he taught me to do. I know he’s smiling.”