Across several months of late-night emails thick with scouting reports and statistical analysis, with thoughts complex and simple, Kobe Bryant(notes) had come to trust a most improbable basketball sage. They weren’t deep into this partnership, when a grown man called Sweet Chuck felt obligated to make a confession.
“You know that you’re getting your information from a guy who scored four varsity points and looks like Uncle Fester, right?” Mike Procopio emailed Bryant.
As Procopio remembers, this was 3:30 a.m., in his Chicago apartment, and Bryant had asked him to get to work on studying San Antonio. Bryant had devoured the research that Procopio had done on the Houston Rockets in mid-March and enjoyed one of his most efficient games. Now, he wanted Procopio, an assistant to Bryant’s trainer, Tim Grover, at Attack Athletics, to go back to the tape for him.
There had been a long New York Times magazine story on the Rockets and how their general manager, Daryl Morey, uses a Moneyball-esque formula in basketball. They had statistical theories on how to defend Bryant, how to best limit him and Procopio wanted to make sure Bryant read the story.
Bryant already had. He misses nothing. Bryant wanted Procopio to dig up everything he could on the ways opposing coaches and scouts – in Houston and beyond – believed Bryant could be vulnerable.
“If these people think this stuff works, then I want to see what they’re looking at and make my adjustments accordingly, if this is how they decide they want to play me,” Bryant told Yahoo! Sports in a private moment last week. “I’ll willingly accept that, to see if I can’t shut that down. I wanted him to take a look at the research and see if there’s anything that’s anything worth me preparing over or studying.”
Bryant’s physical dedication is unparalleled. Grover made his reputation as Michael Jordan’s trainer and somehow elevated it with Bryant and Dwyane Wade(notes). This season, Grover traveled city to city to work with Bryant. After Kobe scored 61 points at Madison Square Garden in February and spent his late hours doing the voice-over for a documentary with Spike Lee, he met Grover in the hotel gym at 5 a.m. the next morning. After Game 4 of the NBA Finals, they were back at work at the crack of dawn.
What had been far less public was Bryant’s reliance on the reports that Procopio shipped him for every regular-season game past mid-March and through the clinching game of the Finals. As Bryant hits his 30s, he’s stayed true to the Jordan blueprint of working as hard on his mental preparation as his physical.
“To have someone as dedicated to the game as [Procopio], it was great for me,” Bryant said. “He could see things from the outside looking in that sometimes get a little cloudy when you’re in the moment of the battle.”
“All the time he would send me things that I hadn’t thought about.”
Around basketball, they know Procopio as Sweet Chuck – a nickname that stuck from a childhood in Boston where his smart mouth caught him beatings. Short and stout with a shaved skull, Procopio had been a Boston Celtics scout for four years before joining Grover’s staff in Chicago where he worked out college draft prospects in the spring and NBA players in the summer.
He worked as a middleman between Minnesota’s Kevin McHale and Memphis’ Chris Wallace on the 2008 draft day deal of O.J. Mayo(notes) and Kevin Love(notes). League executives will tell you they often call Procopio for insight into players who’ve worked with him for trade and draft scenarios they’re considering. “He has an incredible basketball mind,” Grover said. “He should be working in the NBA.”
For this year, anyway, Sweet Chuck had maybe the most meaningful assignment of his basketball life: Keep piqued the beautiful mind of the planet’s most complete player. Bryant doesn’t suffer fools, nor invest a moment in the wasting of his precious preparation.
Most times, Bryant challenged his findings, or demanded video evidence from the Synergy video archives. Many nights, they went back and forth, again and again. When Kobe has a question, you better have done the work, better have the insight, to make your case.
“He would text or email me late at night, or on the bus, and it just took on a life of its own,” Procopio said. “We talked about how to beat someone offensively, or if he doesn’t like to be pick-and-rolled. We talked about points of attack on the floor. It was never about Kobe scoring 40 points, but just being as efficient as possible.
“I don’t think we were giving him a lot of stuff that the Lakers staff wasn’t, but I would always pick a couple of critical things for him to think about. The thing about working with Kobe, or a Dwyane Wade, is that they have the ability to take criticism and implement it into their game. They don’t want just ‘yes’ men around them.”
Procopio never did tell Bryant that his mother passed away in April, and that he returned home to Boston to take care of the services and his younger brother. He didn’t return to Chicago for several weeks, but resolved to never miss a report to Bryant, never let his personal anguish affect his professional responsibility.
“I needed something to keep me occupied, and to get me through my mom passing and that kept my mind active with something else,” Procopio said. “I think the work I was doing for him helped me a lot through that time.”
Eventually, Procopio returned to Chicago, his pre-draft duties in the day and his late-night exchanges with Bryant in the conference finals and championship series. The deeper the Lakers advanced into the playoffs, the later the missives from Kobe. He remembered pre-Finals questions about Orlando’s pick-and-roll defense popping into his Blackberry at 2 a.m., on the west coast.
Bryant didn’t have a flawless Finals, but he was at his best in Games 1 and 5, to start and close the most important of his four NBA championships. This time, there was no Shaq. Just Sweet Chuck, the worst player in the history of Revere High School.
“Four varsity points, yeah, but they were all on the road,” Procopio said. “I think that showed Kobe that I could help set him up in crunch time.”