- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2000

INDIANAPOLIS

Had Kobe Bryant done what most Philadelphians clamored for him to do four years ago enroll at La Salle University and revitalize a horrible program where his father, Joe, once played he would not be where he is today.

Which is basketball royalty.

Had Bryant gone on to play college ball and stayed four seasons, he might well be looking forward to putting on an ill-fitting suit later this month to be the top pick in the NBA Draft.

But it is the things that he does have at age 21 because he didn't go to college back then that support his decision to turn pro in an era when this is universally frowned upon.

In his fourth season, Bryant has already been named an NBA All-Star starter twice, and this season he was voted second-team All-NBA and first-team All-Defense; has signed a second contract that guarantees him $71 million; is generally regarded among the top-five players in the world; and has developed light years ahead of any player who will be selected in this year's draft; and owns the most prestigious franchise in the growing Italian basketball league.

"We had a plan and I dreamed about this all the time," said Bryant, who recently moved his parents out of his mansion overlooking the Pacific Ocean. "You have this picture in your head about how you want things to play out, but you never think it will work out perfectly.

"It has been a lot of hard work. There were a lot of times when you didn't know how you were going to pull out of a situation because things seemed to be so tough. But you just keep on pushing and things somehow seem to have a way of working out."

All of his life, Bryant has had a tendency to do things at an earlier age than his peers. For instance, he recently got engaged, something that is almost unheard of in NBA circles at such a young age.

"Dog," said teammate Shaquille O'Neal, "he's just 21."

But Bryant, who is questionable for tonight's Game 4 in the NBA Finals tonight against the Indiana Pacers because of a sprained ankle, has gotten used to doing things ahead of his time. And those who have been around him don't find anything he does surprising at all.

Mike Bantom, the NBA's senior vice president for player and basketball development, played basketball in Italy at the same time as Joe Bryant, who also played for the 76ers and the Los Angeles Clippers of the NBA. Bantom has seen Kobe's development over the years.

"It's hard to imagine that much talent in such a young player," Bantom said. "And the fact that I saw him when he was younger and growing up makes it even more amazing. You can see a kid with the passion for the game that he had, but I don't think there was any way to predict that he would become this good.

"His game is characterized by a certain fearlessness, and that's something that goes back to when he was little. I remember once my family was visiting the Bryants in Viette, Italy, and his sisters came running into the house to tell on Kobe because he was doing one of his favorite things jumping off the second-floor window down into the lawn. It was dangerous but it was something that he did for fun. I was like, "Oh my lord. What's going to happen to this kid?' "

What has happened to Bryant is part luck and part good fortune.

When he was drafted with the No. 13 pick in 1996 by the Charlotte Hornets, Lakers general manager Jerry West worked the phones feverishly to work a deal that would bring Bryant to the Lakers in exchange for Vlade Divac. As a rookie Bryant appeared in 71 games and averaged 7.6 points, 1.9 rebounds and 1.3 assists. But he broke through in his second season when he was named an All-Star despite coming off the bench for the Lakers. Last year, his first season as a starter, Bryant became a star, averaging 19.9 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists. This year, despite missing the first 15 games of the season because of a broken wrist, Bryant had his best season (22.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists).

As awesome as his natural abilities are, Bryant doesn't believe that he or the Lakers would be where they are winners of 67 regular-season games without the presence of coach Phil Jackson. Jackson has taught the Lakers the workings of the triangle offense and made them virtually unbeatable. And in the process he has helped smooth the once rocky relationship between Bryant and the team's most important player, MVP center O'Neal. Jackson, Bryant believes, has helped him both on and off the court.

"As a person he has helped my patience a great deal," Bryant said. "I was always one who was short on patience and liked to jump the gun a little bit. Not only off the court but on the court as well. He has helped me view the game differently. More X's and O's. He has taught me the game; how to play the game; where the momentum is; how to take the strength away from a team; and really dissecting your opponent. He has really helped us all in that aspect of the game.

"I have always said that other young players around the league are at a disadvantage because they don't have the coaching staff here that we have in L.A. Phil is a special coach. You have special players that come around every so often, and Phil is a special coach and I believe that."

While so many seem ready to anoint Bryant as the next Michael Jordan, it is Jackson who shoots down that notion. Jackson, who coached Chicago to six championships, still has plenty of criticism of Bryant's game and sees plenty of room for improvement.

"Kobe's greatest strengths are also his greatest weaknesses," Jackson said. "Kobe likes to hit a home run every play, and sometimes you have to lay down a bunt or make a sacrifice to make the team win.

"His ability to beat people one-on-one or his ability to try and take over a game can either be something that works successfully for him or something that the defense can key off of."

However, instead of rebelling against Jackson's advice, Bryant absorbs the analysis, processes it and says, "Absolutely." But Bryant knows that just because he has been able to successfully bypass college doesn't make such a course the right thing for everyone to do. He sees himself, the Tracy McGradys and the Kevin Garnetts as the exceptions and not the rule.

But you get the feeling that if Bryant had to do it all over again, even with a different set of circumstances, he would make the right decision.

"My success is not a validation of what a player should or shouldn't do," said Bryant, who also aspires to record rap records. "It can go either way and it depends on the player involved. This was right for me. I believe I'm just scratching the surface. My career in the NBA and the business world is just getting started."

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