They don't make kids the way they used to.
Four years ago, Kobe Bryant, age 14, dunked for the first time and it wasn't a work of art. Saturday night at age 18, he became the youngest player to win the NBA's dunk competition as 20,000 fans chanted his name.
Of course, this was after he led all scorers with 31 points in the rookie all-star game but lost the most-valuable-player award to Allen Iverson, whose East squad won, 96-91. The crowd booed the announcement. As Iverson noted later, it was rooting for Kobe to win that too.
"It feels good to get out there and win the slam-dunk competition," Bryant said. "That's something I've always dreamed about doing since I was a little kid.
"Both [awards] really have no value to them. As long as I keep working hard, I'm going to look at things in the long term."
In this particular life, dreams come true fast. Anything but awed by his surroundings, Bryant came out firing in the rookie game. He took 12 shots by halftime, by which time he had 13 points. In the second half, he started driving--13 free throws' worth, of which he made 12.
Then it was on to his next competition. He started with his version of the Isaiah Rider reverse dunk from the 1994 competition, the smoothest, most powerful dunk that anyone got off all night, clinching his berth in the finals.
On his first dunk of the finals, he brought the ball between his legs and dunked, then did a victory sway and flexed his biceps. In the stands, Brandy, the pop singer who was his prom date, jumped up, waving her arms. The judges gave Kobe 49 of a possible 50 points, the high score in the competition.
"I know I don't have much," said the slightly built teenager, "but I decided to flex what I have."
A year ago, he was in a dunk contest for high school kids in Myrtle Beach, S.C. It was only three years before that he threw his first one down, more or less.
"It was at my high school," Bryant said. "Up to that point, I could barely touch the rim. I was having growing spurts, growing pains, things like that.
"It really wasn't a dunk. It was one of those things where you grab the rim and the ball happens to go in. But after that I was really excited. I was really hyped up and dunking was something I worked on."
It was just like any other weekend for him, give or take a few hundred basketball stars and assorted other celebrities. He came, he saw, he joined in, just like always.
"It's been a great experience since I got up here," Bryant said. "I got a chance to see all the great players, talk to the young players, walking around, asking questions, getting advice on dunks. People are congratulating you on your first half of the season. It's been great, I've really enjoyed it. . . . Earl 'The Pearl' Monroe basically said keep your head up, keep working hard and good things will come. Good things come to those who wait. Coming from him, that was something very special."
Of course, in Kobe's case, he hasn't had to wait awfully long. Here he is, starring in his first all-star weekend, and in three more birthdays, he'll be an adult.
To Bryant, it's merely another step in the ladder. Someone asked who had given him his best dunk advice.
"My father," he said. "He said, 'If you miss, don't worry about it, we love you, anyway.' "