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Something Special in the Air | THE NBA

Soon, He'll Be in League of His Own

February 09, 1998|MARK HEISLER

NEW YORK — "Promoting Kobe is no different than what we were doing promoting Michael in 1990. Business is business."

--NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol, Wall Street Journal

*

Oh great, now he can work on his shot selection and carry the league into the 21st century.

Kobe Bryant, the littlest all-star, or the youngest, anyway, arrived in the world's biggest apple to find it was waiting for him. Sort of the way it was waiting for Charles Lindbergh on his way home from Paris.

There were full-page, four-color newspaper ads, with Bryant and Michael Jordan looming over the Manhattan skyline, bigger than the towers of the World Trade Center. There was a media blitz, capped by Bryant's appearance on "Meet the Press." Yes, right after the segments on President Clinton's problems and the Iraq situation.

"It was great to be on there," said Bryant, typically enthused, "because they were asking some terrific questions, not just about basketball but just about society in general and about our youth.

"Those are questions I really look forward to answering."

That's our prodigy, eager for the day when he can not only dominate the game but improve the quality of life of every inhabitant of the planet.

Of course, Bryant is only 19. When he's 21 in two All-Star games--both of which he'll start, if David Stern has to punch out the ballots personally--they'll probably ask him to address the U.N. first.

It was already a mad, mad, mad, mad world and for Bryant, it's getting madder. Stern, who's a little concerned about finding a replacement for the irreplaceable Jordan, seems to be trying the glass slipper on Bryant, even to the point of jumping him over a generation of young stars like Shaquille O'Neal, Grant Hill and Penny Hardaway, none of whom may be inclined to, or capable of picking up the torch.

Bryant has the game, the charisma and the appetite. Now if he can only live through the initiation process.

This town, with its frenzied competition for attention, was the perfect place to break him out. As the all-stars arrived, Gotham was recovering from the World Wrestling Federation's announcement it was hiring Mike Tyson to referee, an unforgettable event in which reporters were asked at the door if they were"boxing press" or "wrestling press." Few outlets cover the WWF so its "press" is presumed to be friends of the promoter, posing as reporters.

Sunday, a stunning array of celebrities headed for Madison Square Garden, helping make up what may have been the first sellout crowd with an average salary of $1 million. In the prime courtside row sat Spike Lee, the artist formerly known as Prince, the artist formerly known as Magic Johnson and Jack Nicholson, with his trademark binoculars. Madonna was there, and Leonardo DiCaprio and too many to name.

Nineteen-year-old that he is, Bryant was almost vibrating as he went on a phenomenal first-quarter run: 11 touches, 10 shots. Maybe he was confused. Maybe he thought this was his last game in the Garden.

Of course, it wasn't anything he hasn't done before, or as a Laker staffer noted, "That's one less shot than he took in the rookie game."

Being Kobe, he made a few, missed a few, threw down some dazzling dunks, furnished ESPN with enough highlights to finish out the month and kept firing.

The score after one quarter was Jordan nine, Bryant eight. The East and West were also playing but no one was paying much attention to that score, except the people who had to phone in updates to radio stations.

"It's all about competitive nature," said Bryant of the shootout. "I came down, being aggressive. He came back at me, being aggressive . . .

"He hit those two turnarounds, I was like, 'Cool! Let's get it on.' "

Too bad Jordan won't be around to face the grown-up Kobe. Sunday, the final score was Jordan 23, Bryant 18. Bryant did wind up making 44% of his shots which, considering their degree of difficulty, was excellent.

For the cherry atop the whipped cream on the sundae of Bryant's weekend, Jordan paid him one of the greatest compliments he has given an opponent.

"I didn't expect myself to come out here and win the MVP,"said Jordan. " . . . I just wanted to make sure Kobe didn't dominate me."

Bryant finished the afternoon on information-overload. He had enough highlights to last a year but in his life, the highlights come fast.

"Can I sum it up?" he said. "Nah. If I could, I would. If you want to know how I'm feeling right now, I'm excited. I'm sad 'cause it's over."

He finished his final interview session, murmured "God bless," startling press people who aren't used to being blessed by athletes, and went home. It had been some weekend.

He isn't Los Angeles' own little Kobe anymore, now he belongs to the world. Business is business.

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