Laker in Waiting Might Be an NBA Star in the Making


The drumroll for Kobe Bryant started last Christmas when his high school team left Lower Merion in the tony Main Line suburbs of Philadelphia for a tournament in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and two NBA general managers turned up.

One was Dave Wohl of the Miami Heat. The other, John Gabriel of the Orlando Magic, pronounced Bryant “borderline sensational.”

After that, the drumroll got louder and louder until Wednesday, when the Charlotte Hornets took Bryant, who is not a 7-foot center but a 6-6 guard and won’t be 18 until August, with the 13th pick in the draft, marked for shipment to the Lakers, who agreed to trade one of the league’s 10 best centers for him.


“You like to use basic scouting principles,” Gabriel said Thursday of Bryant, “and he passes with flying colors.

“He’s a once-in-a-blue-moon type athlete. He’s way beyond his years in coordination, maturity. That alone makes him a prospect.”

If not a lock.

“My people felt he was a great high school player,” says Indiana Pacer President Donnie Walsh, who is not the leading skeptic.

“We’re not ready to say all these high school players are going to develop in the NBA. I think if you look at Kevin Garnett, he rose up to it. Maybe Bryant will too.”

Bryant’s father, Joe, played eight NBA seasons in the ‘70s and ‘80s for the Philadelphia 76ers, San Diego Clippers and, in his last stop, the Houston Rockets under then-coach Del Harris.

A light-hearted, 6-10 string bean who went by his Philadelphia playground nickname, “Jellybean,” Bryant played college ball at La Salle and married Pam Cox, the sister of a starting guard at Villanova. They named their first son Kobe, after the city in Japan.


“It was the ‘60s,” said Joe, laughing. “We weren’t naming kids Joe or John.”

Born in Philadelphia, Kobe spent several years in Italy, where his father finished his career, and now is said to speak fluent Italian. The family returned to the United States. Joe became an assistant coach at La Salle. Kobe became a high school star.

Going into his senior year, he was considered among the top preps, the latest instant legends in the hothouse world of elite players. Bryant was compared to Grant Hill, not apologetically, either, but favorably: “Grant Hill with a jump shot.”

The subculture is given to hyperbole, with its annual “Nexts”--the Next Magic, the Next Michael, etc. A slew of aspiring megastars met last summer at Adidas’ camp at Fairleigh Dickinson in Hackensack, N.J., with everyone now out to be the Next Kevin. Garnett, hailed by NBA scouts as a once-in-a-decade prospect, had just gone fifth in the NBA draft and the stars of the next class were as antsy as jumping beans.

Few top players had committed to a college. Suddenly there was a new standard for elite status--was the NBA interested? Anyone who considered himself a superstar had to know.

“There’s too many coaching changes, too many players going pro,” said Jimmy Salmon, cousin and summer-league coach of 6-10 Tim Thomas, considered the nation’s top player before the camp.

“Let’s face it, he’s not going to be in college that long.”

Thomas missed one session because of a sprained ankle and was suspended from another for skipping the daily seminar on the Scholastic Assessment Test. Over the winter, noted prep maven Howard Garfinkel told some pro scouts Thomas didn’t work hard enough to be even a college star.


Thomas made the necessary SAT score and signed with Villanova, where he’s expected to stay a year or two. A recent report on prospects for the 1997 draft lists him No. 11, proving hype never dies, it only hibernates.

Bryant, a sensation at the camp, left as the new No. 1 player. At 6-6, he could play both guard spots or small forward. He’s a good ballhandler, a slashing driver and, depending on when you see him or whom you talk to, a decent or erratic outside shooter.

At the camp, Joe confided he was getting interesting suggestions about becoming a head coach, assuming he brought you-know-whom. The incoming calls frothick, Joe stopped giving out hiand left your number.

Kobe’s father had been a prep1975, but it was a gentler time, “No doubt about it,” Joe saall the time. I mean, I can’t gofashion, whether it’s what schoohe’s going right to the pros.

“I want him to play the gameall the pressure off him. I try of what other people might say taway by it. He says, ‘My dad sai “He’s not a normal kid wherelollipops and you’re loving it a Kobe, personable and poised, finished with a 3.0 grade-point average and scored 1080 on the SAT, which might have been good enough to get him into Duke or North Carolina if he didn’t play basketball. By graduation, however, his focus had moved beyond campus. Joe, clearly delighted at the pros’ interest, told NBA scouts he liked the idea of Kobe going pro.

Kobe has since announced he’d be eligible for the draft, hired an agent and signed a deal with Adidas, meaning there’s no way back to college basketball.


Even in this new world, this is a new frontier. All the preps who successfully jumped to the pros--Moses Malone, Darryl Dawkins, Garnett--were 6-10 or over. As far as NBA size goes, Bryant is Everyman. Several general managers, including Portland’s Bob Whitsitt, who tried in vain to trade up for Garnett last year, pooh-poohed Kobe’s chances, yet took another prep--6-foot-10 Jermaine O’Neal of Eau Claire, S.C.--as the draft’s No. 17 selection.

Bryant is currently waiting for Charlotte, a place he doesn’t want to go, and the Lakers, on whom he has his heart set, to sort out his rights. For better and/or worse, he’s already a pro and his ride is only starting.



Name: Kobe Bryant Age: 17 Position: G Height: 6-6 Weight: 200 School: Lower Merion High



YR Pts Reb Ast Stl Jr. 31 19 4 4 Sr. 30.8 12 6.5 4