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Reaching for the Sky

He turned 18, and weeks later, started for the Lakers. But if you think all the attention and money have turned Kobe Bryant's head, think again.

March 10, 1997|SCOTT HOWARD-COOPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To his immediate right is TV Azteca from Mexico. One seat over, it's L'Equipe from France. That's the Baltimore Sun to his left, and a handful of other reporters fanned around the table. The world awaits Kobe Bryant's next sentence.

We're in Cleveland, where Bryant has come to participate in one of the glamour events surrounding the recent NBA all-star game, the slam-dunk contest, and in a game for top rookies. Twenty feet away, another first-year Laker, Derek Fisher, watches the media buzz, slightly amazed.

"I consider myself mature even though I'm 22," Fisher says. "But I don't know how, at 18, with all the things going on in my life, that I could have balanced them along with playing pro basketball."

Bryant celebrated that pivotal birthday on Aug. 23 and debuted with the Los Angeles Lakers about 10 weeks later, going down in the record books as the youngest player in league history. When injuries among the starters took him off the bench, he became the youngest starter ever.

So, you're 18, a millionaire and single. How wild is that?

Not very.

On the road--a blur of charter flights and buses idling on the tarmac--Bryant spends his free time sleeping, talking on the phone or maybe watching his favorite TV shows, "Living Single" and "Jamie Foxx." He reads music mags like Vibe and the Source and listens to rap: Biggie Smalls, the Fugees, Wu-tang Clan. He admits that he also occasionally cues up teen pop star Brandy, his friend and prom date last spring at Lower Merion High in Ardmore, Pa. ("That's it," Bryant says. "Nip that in the bud. Just friends. Nothing else.")

He says he abstains from the malls, a daytime diversion for many players, and the nightclubs.

"I've never really been a club person," he says. "I really like to spend time with my family and friends, outside of the lights and all that."

And when passing through hotel lobbies, Bryant pretends not to notice the young women who congregate in hopes of scoring a dream date.

"I have my earphones on. I'm not going to look. I just go straight to the elevator, go right up to my room and take it from there."

No sideways glances whatsoever?

"Too much temptation. I don't even want to look. There's no point."

Bryant didn't come all this way to party. He skipped college because he wanted to, not because none would have him. He scored 1080 on the SAT, can speak Italian, and always carries himself as if his mother were within scolding range. The faculty would have loved him as much as the fans.

He wanted to become a pro basketball player like his dad, Joe, so he became one. Friends back home are prepping for high school or college classes now while he crams for Michael Jordan. (Well, the guidance counselors do encourage work-study.) They're banking on future earnings while he pulls down $3.5 million over three years--plus endorsement fees from Adidas and Sprite.

That Bryant's every move since his decision to go pro has been chronicled seems a minor inconvenience. With the season more than half gone, he has answered the same questions--"Do you ever regret the decision?" "Are you having as much fun as you expected?"--from reporters in different cities over and over. He may betray boredom, replaying responses like a tape recorder. But frustration? No.

"He has amazing composure and maturity," says his agent, Arn Tellem, who handles about 55 players in basketball and baseball. "What sticks with me most is his ability to deal with the media and always remain poised and answer each question thoughtfully. That's something that can't be taught. It's more of a feel."

Another player who went straight from high school to the NBA this season, Jermaine O'Neal of the Portland Trail Blazers, has openly wondered about what he's missing in college. Despite the pressure to say and do everything right, Bryant likes his job, particularly mixing it up with young fans. When he walked onto the court at Artesia High School for a summer league team practice, the kids' jaws dropped.

"That's the fun part," he says. "Getting a chance to meet a lot of nice people and not having to dream anymore about something I've always dreamed about. I wanted to play NBA basketball not only because of the basketball, but because of the stuff that comes with it."

Inevitably, some of that stuff comes in the form of razzing. A jab during training camp from then-teammate Cedric Ceballos about making curfew. A zing from an autograph-seeker: "Oh, you got to go back to your room, it's past your bedtime."

But mostly, the fans and the players go easy on him.

"He is just like one of the guys," says 35-year-old teammate Byron Scott. "We remember his age at times. But a lot of times, you forget."

Says Shaquille O'Neal: "He can hang with us and be cool."

As long as it doesn't keep him up nights.

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