As thousands of boisterous fans cheer their respective teams at this week’s MEAC basketball tournament, Joe Bryant Jr. the star guard for third-seeded Norfolk State, will hear a voice in the stands of the Norfolk Scope Arena that will register with more clarity than others.
It will be the voice of the person who, at any given time at the MEAC tournament site, could brag about appearing in more NCAA Division I tournaments than anyone in the building.
It will be the voice of his mother, Helen Bryant, who as Helen Holloway was a highly decorated basketball star at Penn State.
“Honestly, she’s the only voice from the crowd that I hear when she’s at my games,” Bryant said. “It’s wonderful to have a mother who played basketball and who has accomplished so much.”
Yes, Helen Bryant set a high bar. After a solid high school career in Norfolk, Virginia, at Granby High School and later at Norview High School, where she earned All-State honors, she received a scholarship from Penn State. She made an immediate impact on the way to earning Atlantic-10 freshman of the year in 1991 and leading an undefeated team into the 1991 NCAA tournament (Penn State lost to James Madison in the opening round).
Penn State reached the NCAA tournament the next season as an independent followed by two NCAA tournament appearances, Helen Bryant’s final two years, as a member of the Big Ten.
In her senior season, Penn State was again a top seed before losing to Alabama in the Midwest regional final.
While it’s impossible for Bryant to match or surpass the number of NCAA tournaments that his mother appeared in, he has the most accomplished basketball career of any player in the Spartans’ Division I history. His record includes:
- Three MEAC regular-season championships (2018-19, 2020-21, 2021-22)
- Two MEAC tournament championships (2021, 2022)
- Two NCAA tournament appearances (2021, 2022)
- Two-time MEAC tournament MVP (2021, 2022)
- MEAC Player of the Year (2021-22)
“I always thought Joe would be a good player when he came here, an All-MEAC player eventually,” said Norfolk State coach Robert Jones. “But a credit to Joe in that he surpassed what I and the coaching staff here thought he could be.”
It’s incredible that Bryant has become all he is when you base it on what he’s not. He lacks height (he’s generously listed at 6-feet-1). He’s not athletic (he registered his first career dunk this season). He’s not likely to beat anyone on his team in a sprint.
What he has is an old-school game that combines the ability to make big shots with an off-the-charts basketball IQ that makes him a priority for every opposing team’s game plan.
“To compare him to a player today, I’d say Jalen Brunson,” Jones said. “He has a shiftiness to his game, and is a guy who can shoot the three, shoot the mid-range and get to the cup despite his lack of size.”
Jones is happy to have coached these last five years with Bryant, who during his high school career at Lake Taylor High School in Norfolk led the school to its first ever state championship during his senior season, when he averaged 16 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists. His play caught the eye of Norfolk State assistant C.J. Clemons which led to one of Bryant’s three college offers (Hampton and Maryland-Eastern Shore were the others).
“I’m not sure why other schools didn’t recruit him, and I really wanted him to get away from home,” Helen Bryant said. “But Norfolk State turned out to be a great situation for him, and now I’m glad he stayed because I’ve enjoyed watching him play.”
Helen Bryant sits in the stands across from the Norfolk State team, where she’s not necessarily seen but clearly always heard by her son. While Helen Bryant said she’s less vocal than she was during her son’s high school career, what exactly are the words her son hears?
“I’m saying ‘take him,’ or ‘he can’t guard you,’ ” Helen Bryant says, laughing. “And I’m not saying it to anyone in particular, or in a way where I want him to take every shot. Only when the opportunity is there. Joe is a smart player, he knows how to get people involved and he knows what his teammates can do.”
The best advice that Bryant said he received from his mother?
“If I do have a bad game, God forbid, she’s told me to never let anyone see my emotions,” Bryant said. “Keep that poker face, that’s the one piece of advice she’s been telling me for years.”
As Bryant’s career comes to an end, his mother remembers the feeling she had watching Norfolk State win the MEAC title in 2022 to advance to his first NCAA tournament, and witnessing her son experience the same emotions she felt 30 years earlier.
“He was moved to tears,” she recalled of that day at the Norfolk Scope. “I can still see him making angels in the confetti on the Scope floor, not to mention winning the tournament MVP.”
Another NCAA tournament appearance is on the line this week for Norfolk State, and Bryant is hoping to add a seventh appearance to an already stellar family collection.
“She’s always been a big influence, and I always played the game hoping to get to the levels that she achieved in basketball,” Bryant said. “I have a chance at getting to the NCAAs a third time. Doing it would be great, but she’ll always have me on that one.”