TSN Archives: 19-year-old Kobe Bryant was the most electrifying player in the NBA

TSN Archives: 19-year-old Kobe Bryant was the most electrifying player in the NBA


This story was originally published in the Dec. 8, 1997 issue of The Sporting News. At the time, Kobe Bryant was 19 years old and beginning his second season in the NBA.


The most exciting player in the NBA is too excited to sleep.

Tonight he made an assist with an over-the-shoulder pass. Juked the defense and dunked behind his head. Drove the middle and threw in a buzzer-beating layup.

Heard the crowd chanting his name. Saw opponents staring at his moves. Felt the sort of magic that sometimes, it seems, only he can feel.

Three hours later, he’s still feeling it. He lays in a bed at his hilltop Pacific Palisades home — eyes closed, imagining, cutting, spinning.

Next time, I’ll fake that blind pass, go up with it myself. They can’t touch me, bet I could have 360’d that jam, gotten fouled. I can beat that buzzer anytime, gimme the ball in the last 10 seconds. I can wait until decimal time, I’ll still hurt you. Tick, tick, tick, tick…

The most exciting player in the NBA rolls out of bed, pads over to his window and steps out onto a balcony.

And there they are. Twinkling lights. Enough twinkling lights to fill up all the Christmas trees in Philadelphia. An entire city of twinkling yellow and white and green. A million people, a million lives.

“Los Angeles,” he says softly, and he thinks.

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All he does is play basketball. Same as back home, only the floors are clean and the nets are string.

All he is, is a teenager. With Mom and Dad sleeping in one room down the hall, with an older sister sleeping in another.

Amid all these lights, all these people, he’s only a kid, only playing a game that he would play even if nobody watched. So what makes him so noble?

He takes a deep breath of air washed clean by the nearby Pacific, inhales again and again, and it works. It always works. He returns to the bed, where he knows he will sleep.

“Because I have been humbled.” Kobe Bryant explains.

‘Stop it, Kobe! Please, stop it!’

It is late during a Lakers practice. The veterans are tired, but the kid is at it again.

Bryant had just driven past two teammates, leaped towards the basket, switched the ball from one hand to the other in midair while avoiding a third teammate, then thrown in a layup while falling out of bounds.

This is fun if you are a fan. This can be a pain if you are an ordinary teammate like Mario Bennett during a scrimmage where you need to concentrate on ordinary things, like catching your breath.

Kobe Bryant is the most exciting player in the NBA, if only because the players on the league’s most exciting team constantly are distracted by him.

“He gets into the game and you just look at him,” Eddie Jones says. “Every play, you look at him and you wonder, ‘What’s next?'”

Karl Malone is strong. Grant Hill is smart. Gary Payton is shifty. Hakeem Olajuwon is solid. Michael Jordan is sacred.

(Getty Images)

Bryant is more exciting than any of them because he is surreal.

“He amazes me,” Nick Van Exel says. “I see him every day and he still amazes me.”

You know exactly what Jordan will do, which makes him the greatest player in history when he does it.

With Bryant, you have no earthly idea.

It is these moments of brilliance that have transformed a 19-year-old kid — one year after breaking into the league as the second-youngest player in league history — from an oddity to a star.

Just watch. No, you don’t really need to watch. Just listen. Those young girls are not screeching for Shaq. That collective “ohhhhh” is not for Rick Fox.

Sometimes, though, a dunk attempt clangs off the rim. Sometimes Bryant soars through the air, finds himself surrounded by four other players, and still shoots.

Sometimes he decides to eschew the drive and shoot a 20-footer though no teammates are underneath the basket. Or sometimes he changes his mind at the last minute and throws the ball into the stands.

Remember, this is a story about the most exciting player in the NBA. This is not a story about the greatest.

Not yet, anyway.

Although many say Bryant could start for 20 their teams, the most exciting player in the NBA comes off the bench. Plays point guard or shooting guard or small forward. Sometimes the 6’6″ kid plays all three at once.

“There are times he still likes to go one-on-five,” Van Exel says with a laugh.

So you say Bryant is the natural shooting guard the Lakers desperately need? Well, though he is averaging 16.2 points per game, he is shooting 39 percent.

So you say Bryant could replace Jones right now? Well, Jones knows a bit more about beating your man to a spot, about knocking your man through his screen, about playoff defense.

“The sky is the limit,” says Jordan Cohn, who runs an NBA scouting service. “But it will be a while.”

Of all the dunks and hanging layups and fall-away jumpers, what has been Bryant’s most memorable NBA moment?

An airball.

That’s what Bryanat threw up from 14 feet at the end of regulation last spring in Game 5 of the second round of the playoffs in Utah. The play was an embarrassment, the game remain tied, and the Lakers’ season ended in overtime.

But this is the wonder that is Kobe Bryant: He says he later watched the highlight and laughed.

Not because he is cocky. But because he thought it was silly he missed such an opportunity and vowed to never miss it again.

The highlight film would have killed him, he says, only if he hadn’t taken the shot.

So guess what happened during the final seconds of the Lakers’ first visit to Utah this season? Bryant blocked a 3-point attempt by Bryon Russell and raced down for a game-clinching dunk.

“Kobe Bryant has matured dramatically,” Pacers president Donnie Walsh says. “I think he understands his role much more. Instead of just showing what he can do, he is playing winning basketball.”

 

And who do you think has been seeing the ball in the closing seconds ever since?

“I would pay money just to watch Kobe play for 10 seconds,” Jones says.

Ten seconds?

“Yeah, the last 10 seconds of every quarter,” he says, laughing. “Because you know he’s getting the ball. And you know he’s doing something with it.”

‘He wants to be like Mike. But hey, he has a good chance.’

(Getty Images)

Be like Mike. It is an advertising slogan that has become a mission for dozens of young players.

Despite Van Exel’s proclamations, however, Bryant is decidedly not like Michael Jordan.

First, there is the hair. Bryant has it, and flaunts it, wearing one of the league’s few afro cuts.

“When I came to the Lakers last, I wanted to get a clean start,” Bryant said of his first season out of Lower Merion High School in suburban Philadelphia. “But this year, this is me.”

Even if that big bald genie named Shaq constantly is hassling you about it?

“My parents raised me to be an individual,” he says. “The key to success at anything, I think, is avoiding peer pressure.”

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Next, there are the earrings. He doesn’t wear any.

“I don’t want holes in my ears. Nothing against anybody else, but it’s not for me.”

Then, there are the tattoos. He doesn’t have any.

“What for?”

Despite the three-year, $3.5 million deal he signed last season, Bryant’s only claim to vain fame is a pair of non-prescription, wire-rimmed glasses. As if anybody who has ever watched him thinks he has trouble seeing.

Throw in the fact that he doesn’t drink anything stronger than Sprite, that he still hangs out in the mall food courts on the road with the rest of that town’s teens, and that he is always smiling on the court…

And you have a basketball player who maybe is setting his own standards.

“I don’t want to sound blasphemous,” Kings director of player personnel Jerry Reynolds says, “but he really can be like Jordan.”

“He has two things you can’t teach — quickness and feel for the game.”

That’s what Cohn says about Bryant. And the things you can teach? “He has the attitude,” coach Del Harris says. “Put every description in there. Willingness to listen, to work, determination…”

Above all, Bryant has the magic no great player can explain, an aura that best can be described by a little game he plays in the summer.

It is a game in gyms where he can be alone with his thoughts and his moves. It is a game of one-on-one. With himself.

“Shadow basketball,” he says. “I play against my shadow.”

Has he ever caught it? He smiles. It is the same smile you have seen in the Forum after he has sliced through two power forwards on his way to a reverse dunk. That poor shadow.

Bill Plaschke has been an Los Angeles Times columnist since 1996 and covered Kobe Bryant’s entire career with the Lakers. He has been named national sports columnist of the year eight times by the Associated Press, and twice by the Society of Professional Journalists and National Headliner Awards.





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About the Author

Marie Maynes
Marie Maynes is a Sports enthusiast and writes for the Sports section of ANH.