Is Kobe Bryant The Nba Air Apparent?

Basketball needs a new king. So far, it has a promising prince

`New York," reads a famous T-shirt. "It ain't Kansas." It ain't Los Angeles, either. When the image of a cherubic fan in a Los Angeles Lakers jersey flashes on the electronic gameboard of Madison Square Garden on the first day of March, the crowd erupts in a Bronx chorus of boos. So what if he's only two years old. The hooting is even louder when Shaquille O'Neal sinks a couple of foul shots against the New York Knicks. But then, a gangly teenage Laker named Kobe Bryant does the same. There is silence. And later, after he drops in a three-pointer, there is applause--even scattered cheering.

It hasn't been the smoothest National Basketball Assn. season in memory: Michael Jordan, the best goodwill ambassador that basketball has ever had, is talking about putting his Air Jordans in mothballs; the Latrell Sprewell incident pointed up the nasty issue of racial tension in a league with perhaps too many abusive white coaches and too many spoiled black athletes; and low scoring has critics complaining about tired veterans and ball-hogging hotshots who aren't playing a team game. Even NBA Executive Vice-President and Chief Marketing Officer Rick Welts concedes that this season's incidents "could damage the NBA brand," that the bond between fans and players has been "stretched thin."

All of which leads to the question on everyone's mind: Who will succeed Jordan? Who will be the new face of the NBA? Who will lead this enormously successful enterprise micromanaged by Commissioner David J. Stern into the next century? The NBA by design has been built on personalities such as Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Jordan, arguably the most popular athlete in the world. So the league has been groping for an Air apparent. As Welts says: "The game will continue to be driven by individual personalities and stars." But such pretenders to the throne as Shaq and Grant Hill and Penny Hardaway just don't seem to have the magic. Then there's Kobe.

If you look hard enough, you can see the future of the NBA at a tiny practice facility called Basketball City on a Hudson River pier. There, sleek, young L.A. Lakers have just finished a two-hour practice, a day before a game they would lose to the grizzled Knicks. As the players walk off the court, a 19-year-old with soft almond eyes, long lashes, and a wispy mustache and goatee is surrounded by two dozen autograph-seeking kids. Kobe Bryant, the man-child who has captivated basketball, smiles for the cameras and signs balls, jerseys, and photos of himself. Some kids get a hug.

PACKAGE DEAL. Six months shy of his 20th birthday, Bryant is having the time of his life. Even after his weak playing contributes to a 101-89 loss to the Knicks, Bryant charms the New York media wolves hungry for any sound bite. "The more you learn, the more fun you have," he tells the horde in a sweltering locker room. "Even though I hate this moment, it may be one of the best moments of my life."

At 6 feet 7 inches, Kobe is, as they say on the courts, the complete package. Capable of sailing over taller players or dribbling around the more nimble, he can score 33 points on any given night, as he did earlier this year in a narrow loss to Jordan's Chicago Bulls. In February, he became the youngest player to ever start an NBA All-Star game, testimony as much to his ability as to his popularity with the fans who voted for him.

Better yet, he may be the antidote to what ails the NBA. With an easy charm and quiet charisma, this superstar-in-the-making is unfailingly polite and still lives with his mom, dad, and two sisters. In a league in which green-haired attention hogs have been known to head-butt refs, Bryant is a gentleman who says he "never thought" of getting tattoos and doesn't drink or take drugs because "my parents told me it wouldn't be good for my health." Can this kid be real?

Certainly, the NBA hopes so. "This is a league that needs someone to be a positive force for it," says former Miller Brewing Co. marketing executive Rick Burton, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "Kobe Bryant has all the tools to do just that."

"REFRESHING." That's why the NBA and NBC Inc., which owns pro basketball's national broadcast rights, were quick to put Bryant before the cameras at February's All-Star Game. It's also why companies are lining up to throw money at him. Like Jordan, Bryant has his own shoe, the KB8, which Adidas sells for $100 a pair, as well as endorsement contracts with Spalding and Sprite. In all, this year those deals could add an estimated $5 million to his $1.2 million annual salary. A deal with a fast-food company, said to be McDonald's, has been in negotiations for months. And more are only a telephone call away. "He's one of the few guys who could get within shouting distance of the $40 million or more [in marketing deals] that Jordan gets," says Burton. Adds the NBA's Welts: "He projects values not just in sports but in American life that people find refreshing. Combine that with what is obviously huge raw talent...and the sky's the limit."

But all that cash could be chump change compared with the contract that Kobe could negotiate when he becomes a free agent in 1999. Bryant's former agent, Rick Bradley of the William Morris Agency, figures that Kobe can pull in the sort of $100 million-plus, multiyear deal that the Timberwolves gave Kevin Garnett.

Of course, as Welts notes, first you have to win championships to be regarded as a real superstar. "What Kobe is," says Lakers coach Del Harris, who spent last summer working with Bryant, "is a bundle of potential. You can't have one hit song and be compared with Frank Sinatra. Greatness comes with consistency over time."

Right, and you've got to be able to handle the heat. Marketers have showered money on young stars before, only to see them wilt under the expectations that accompany the cash. Even now, two years after the Lakers made center O'Neal one of the game's wealthiest players, there are rumblings that his game has been undermined by endorsements and the lure of film and record deals. But Kobe is no fool. "I definitely don't want to overextend myself," he says. "People can become bored with you. `Oh, him again. I see him all day, all the time.' From a business aspect, that's important."

Indeed, from the beginning, the game plan Bryant's advisers put together, says Bradley of William Morris, was "to go slow so that his game can develop." These days, the management of Kobe is largely a family affair. Although the brain trust is headed by Los Angeles sports lawyer Arn H. Tellem--who also represents Sprewell--Team Kobe is run largely from the Pacific Palisades mansion that Bryant rents and that houses his family. Most of the deals are approved by his father, Joe "Jellybean" Bryant, a former pro player. Joe taught Kobe the game as the family traveled from team to team together, ending up in Italy for the last seasons of a checkered career.

It wasn't until the Bryants relocated to Philadelphia that the buzz about Kobe began. He was named USA Today's player of the year in 1996, the year he led Lower Merion High School to the Pennsylvania state championship by averaging 31 points and 12 rebounds a game. A better-than-average student, he scored an impressive 1,100 on his SATs (out of a maximum 1,600), though he made the controversial decision to forgo college. The Charlotte Hornets selected him in the 13th round of the 1996 draft and then traded him to the Lakers.

At only midway through his second season, Bryant seems firmly on his way to basketball's top tier. His current scoring average of 17 points a game ranks 29th in the league, though he is a nonstarting reserve who plays just over half a game. Those numbers feed the inevitable comparisons with Michael Jordan. "It's cool. It's very complimentary," says Bryant. "If it happens, it happens." If it doesn't, Kobe Bryant will always be the man who could have been king.

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