Boy Wonder

IT’S WEDNESDAY NIGHT IN LOS Angeles, and Kobe Bryant is just hanging around—about three feet in the air. The L.A. Lakers are playing the Chicago Bulls this February night, and Bryant, the Lakers’ 18-year-old rookie guard, hovers improbably, trying to block a shot by Michael Jordan, the NBA’s most frequent flyer. Suddenly outleaping His Airness, Bryant bats the ball away, and by the final buzzer the Lakers win by 16.

For Kobe Bryant, however, there are heights yet to be reached. Jordan outscored his teenage rival 27 to 5, while Bryant missed 5 of 7 shots. Still, the buzz about the 6’6″, 200-lb. Laker—who would be a college freshman had he not jumped to the NBA from high school and who this year became the youngest player to start an NBA game—is that he has shown flashes of Jordan-like greatness. “It’s going to be scary when he’s 24, 25, 26 years old,” predicts fellow Laker Shaquille O’Neal. “It’s going to be real scary.”

His confidence is already a little spooky. “I was about 6 when Jordan came into the league,” says Bryant. “But I can’t back down. My attitude is, you can play basketball, but I can play a little, too.” More than a little: While he averages only six points a game, his brash style of play has earned him the nickname Showboat (last month he won the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest). “Kobe [pronounced Ko-bee] does everything the fancy way,” chides teammate Byron Scott. “Instead of a plain layup, it has to be spectacular.” Says Bryant: “I’m not trying to be flashy. I just do what comes naturally.”

Heeding his inner guard has paid off handsomely for Bryant, who has a three-year, $3.5 million contract with the Lakers, a multimillion-dollar deal with Adidas and a hilltop, six-bedroom Pacific Palisades mansion. Further proof that he’s no typical teen: Bryant attended his senior prom with the singer Brandy (they met last year at an awards show) and later did a guest stint on her TV sitcom Moesha. Heady stuff for someone who should be ordering pizza from his dorm, but Bryant seems to have the maturity to match his moves. “He’s shown a lot of poise for a high school guy,” says Shaq. “I can tell hanging around Kobe that he was raised very well.”

Credit for that goes to Joe Bryant, 42, a former journeyman NBA player, and his wife, Pam, 43, a homemaker, who set up, a small court behind their Philadelphia home so their 3-year-old son could imitate his dad. When Bryant was 6, the family moved to Italy, where Joe played in a pro league for eight years. By the time they returned to Philadelphia, father and son were frequent one-on-one opponents. “My father beat me up on the court,” says Bryant. “He didn’t do it to hurt me; he did it to make me tougher.”

The strategy worked: Despite his slender build, Bryant made the varsity team as a freshman at Lower Merion High School, near Philadelphia. Four stellar years and one state championship later, he was fielding offers from college coaches, but he’d already decided to jump right to the pros. “It was my goal since the ninth grade,” says Bryant. “I was just going with what I felt in my heart I wanted to do.”

With his parents’ blessing, he entered the 1996 NBA draft and was snatched up in the first round by the Charlotte Hornets, who traded him to the Lakers two weeks later. But after impressing skeptics with his poise and pizzazz early in the season, Bryant has hit a snag or two. Lately he has been playing fewer minutes, and Laker coach Del Harris “is questioning his commitment and attitude,” says Peter Vecsey, basketball commentator for NBC. “It’s tough for a kid right out of high school to understand that if you don’t play, you can’t sulk.”

But even Vecsey admits that Bryant has what it takes to thrive in the NBA, including solid family support. Bryant’s parents and sister Shaya, 19, a college sophomore, live with him in his L.A. home (his other sister, Sharia, 21, is a senior at Temple University), and Joe quit his job as a coach at Philadelphia’s La Salle University to manage his son’s career. As for his education, Bryant, a strong B student in high school, is looking into taking college classes on the Internet. What little free time he has is spent hanging out with Brandy (he has no serious girlfriend), taking his sisters shopping and, sensibly, resting. “It’s important to let my body recuperate,” he says. “I’m still growing.” And up, after all, is the kid’s favorite direction.



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