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NBA word to rookies: Secrets don't exist
Later this summer, LeBron James' ears are guaranteed to perk up. He'll be sitting in a room along with the rest of the NBA's rookie class, and the subject will inevitably turn to Kobe Bryant.
The speaker will be someone from the league's office of player development, perhaps its director, Mike Bantom. The discussion will be frank, the tone will be bleak, and the moral of the story will be this:
If you do something bad, no matter how big or small, everybody is going to know about it on a scale you could never imagine.
"I hope that somebody learns from this," Bantom said. "Before, when you were in high school and college you may have felt under a microscope, but it's nothing like at this level. Now, anything you do impacts you, your family, your career - and on how pro athletes are portrayed. And it will have a profound impact with fans."
The felony sexual assault charge against Bryant - the league's No. 1 marketable star - has been just one in a string of highly publicized cases involving NBA players this summer.
The legal troubles have been a PR nightmare for a league that has struggled in recent years to sell the sport to a portion of the public turned off by the tattooed, hip-hop culture.
Still, the NBA maintains that the problems are isolated and are not representative of the league's nearly 400 players.
In the past month alone:
Damon Stoudamire of the Portland Trail Blazers was arrested at an airport security checkpoint on marijuana charges.
Jerry Stackhouse of the Washington Wizards was charged with assault in a dispute over a rental contract for a home he was staying at on the North Carolina coast.
Darrell Armstrong of the New Orleans Hornets was arrested outside an Orlando nightclub after he allegedly shoved away the arm of a police officer who grabbed his shoulder.
"This summer has taught me to stay my butt in the house," said Vince Carter of the Toronto Raptors.
NBA rookies aren't the only ones who hear from the office of player development, which also speaks with each of the league's 29 teams twice during the season to counsel players on numerous topics: finance, continuing education, sexual health, domestic violence, traffic safety and gun laws.
But those sessions are minor compared to the six-day program known as rookie orientation, which is mandatory for all incoming players. It will be held in mid-September in suburban New York.
And while the Bryant case will serve as the epitome of how everything can go wrong so quickly for one of the game's top players, the rookies will be reminded about the Stoudamire, Stackhouse and Armstrong arrests, too.
"With Kobe, what he has been accused of is something they know they should never do, but our point is that in cases like Stackhouse's or Armstrong's, these are good guys who have done good things, but they lost their tempers. And because they are NBA players, it becomes a national news story," Bantom said.
What bothers some NBA players is that they are often lumped in with the few that get into trouble.
"It can't help but to make people think the wrong way about us," said Allan Houston of the New York Knicks. "People are going to generalize. People have done it already. When the marijuana cases came out, they generalized NBA players. Now they think all NBA players smoke weed. It's just not fair, but hey, that's how it is."
Before making those comments, Houston read to a group of summer campers as part of the league's Read to Achieve program. Other NBA players often participate in that program and similar ones that receive little or no publicity.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban believes a portion of the sports media has an outdated obsession.
"The 'I'm horrified' and 'What happened to the good old days?' perspective has long died as a perspective among the general public," Cuban wrote in an e-mail.
"If you haven't noticed, this is the age of reality TV, and if anything, people become more interested in celebrities the more notoriety they receive.
"In terms of players in the NBA, there isn't a CEO of a large company who wouldn't trade places with the NBA in a heartbeat. To have a work population of mostly young, 20-something men, and have less than 2 percent of them have legal issues in a given year, and to have them also uniformly admit any problems and be open to seeking help and counseling, would be a dream come true," Cuban wrote.
But statistical perspective and feel-good stories don't excite the masses. Arrests of athletes almost always make the national news wires and the Internet, where high-profile cases can take on a life of their own.
There are many Web sites about the Bryant case. One lists the names of pictures of the accuser's friends and acquaintances along with their public statements on the case. Another site sells "Colorado Prison League" jerseys with Bryant's familiar No. 8.
The Web site www.thesmokinggun.com, which features famous mug shots, has had 316,810 "unique visitor hits" on Bryant's arrest photo in the first 19 days it was posted - seven times the number of hits on Allen Iverson's mug shot over that span, editor Bill Bastone said.