LOS ANGELES - Behind him, clouds brushed the tops of the Santa Monica Mountains and the sun gilded the ocean, but Kobe Bryant was oblivious to the stunning backdrop at Will Rogers State Beach.
For more than two hours Bryant, the high school sensation who had yet to play a game with the Los Angeles Lakers before Wednesday but already has an Adidas contract and a Screen Actors Guild card, concentrated on soaring skyward for layup after layup while a photographer snapped images for a poster.
Eyeing the rim, mentally counting the steps, he was poised for another attempt when a photo assistant stopped him. Bryant paused, listened, then looked away in embarrassment as the assistant knelt at Bryant's feet and tied the budding star's shoes.
His mother, Pam, laughed at the deference shown her son, who turned 18 in August. "I hope he doesn't wait for me to do that for him," she said.
Not a chance. An endorsement contract and roles on the TV shows "Arliss" and "Moesha" haven't inflated Kobe Bryant's ego. Nor are big paychecks and fawning fans likely to change him, thanks to the lessons Pam and her husband, Joe - known as "Jellybean" during his eight-year National Basketball Association career - taught their three children about humility, respect and the importance of family.
"It's crazy," Bryant said of the fuss stirred by his incipient stardom. "If you sit back and start thinking about it, maybe you could be overwhelmed by the situation. You've just got to keep going slowly and keep working hard on your basketball skills. Then, I don't think your head can swell because you won't have time to think about it."
Bryant didn't go on a wild shopping spree after signing either the Adidas deal or his three-year, $3.5 million contract with the Lakers, who acquired his rights from the Charlotte Hornets. When his sister Shaya borrowed his sunglasses during the summer, he simply went without until he was given a pair he modeled in an advertisement.
"I've never enjoyed shopping," he said. "I don't have the patience. I'm usually playing basketball with one of my cousins. ... I like to buy my sisters clothes because I want them to look pretty and I know they like to look pretty. I'll go shopping with them because I want to make sure they don't buy something that shows off their figures too much. I'm afraid of all guys when it comes to my sisters. I'm very protective, and they're the same way with me."
When he found an ocean-view house in Pacific Palisades, he invited his family to move in. Pam, Joe - who gave up an assistant coaching job at LaSalle - and Shaya accepted. Sharia stayed in Philadelphia, where she is a senior volleyball player at Temple.
Although Bryant's age prompted Laker forward Cedric Ceballos to joke, "I think he's got curfew tonight," his level-headedness has impressed teammates at the Lakers' training camp. The 6-foot-6 guard had already impressed his coaches with his athleticism in summer league play, displaying good court sense, ballhandling skills and a knack for generating scoring chances from anywhere on the floor. Scouting reports called him "Grant Hill with a jump shot," and he can post up against shorter players or, if matched against a taller player, use his skills to take his taller opponent off the dribble.
"He's a very confident individual, and that's a positive thing for someone in his situation," Ceballos said. "He handles himself real well, not like someone just coming from high school. I can't believe how talented he is mentally, and his focus on basketball, and what he wants to do in basketball. A lot of people would see that as cocky, but he's not cocky. He just believes in himself. It doesn't come off the wrong way."
Although Bryant was devastated when he broke his wrist in a pickup game in early September and was idled for five weeks, he didn't let the time go to waste. He loves to study films of Michael Jordan, not so he can mimic Jordan's moves, but to analyze how Jordan changes the flow of a game.
"I always tried to hold a basketball, watch basketball, think about basketball," Bryant said. "People told me to get away from basketball, but I can't. It's in my blood. ...
"I like getting out there (for promotional appearances) and having a good time and meeting people. I like to see the end product, and I take pride in it. I want my product to be one of the best things out there. And I love going in front of the cameras and learning something new. But I understand basketball is what got me here and on top of that, I love to do it so much that it will always be my focal point."
A model student - he scored about 1,100 (out of 1,600) on the Scholastic Assessment Test - he's also a model citizen. His maternal uncle, Chubby Cox, who played basketball briefly in the NBA, says the worst offense Kobe ever committed was to "put his feet on the couch around my sister." That's it? "That can be murder," Joe Bryant insisted.
Few kids draw MTV coverage at their senior prom, as Bryant did when he took pop singer-actress Brandy.
"That shocked everyone, that and (nonstudents) lining up to get tickets for the basketball team's games," said Annie Schwartz, who went to high school with Bryant. "But he's still just Kobe here."
Said Matt Satten, a senior at Lower Merion, "I'd go to the local (Jewish Community Center) and he'd be there sometimes and we'd play pickup basketball. He'd take it easy, but once in a while he couldn't hold back and he'd dunk on us. He was never stuck up. I think it was his upbringing."
Only four NBA players have made the jump directly from high school - Darryl Dawkins, Bill Willoughby, Moses Malone and Kevin Garnett. All are big men who didn't have to learn the nuances of playing guard or small forward, but Joe insisted that his son can be the exception to the rule.
"People say he's not 6-10 or 7 feet. I'm saying, `Now wait a minute. Sure, he's not 7 feet, but he's a smart player and he understands the game.' Nobody really ever said that, and that upset me a little because, to be a guard, you really have to understand the game," Joe said.
The wrist injury kept Kobe out of contact drills early in camp, preventing Coach Del Harris from assessing his prize rookie's capabilities. Still, Harris - who was Joe Bryant's last NBA coach, in Houston - was intrigued by the raw talent he saw in Kobe's summer league performances.
"It's not just (his athleticism)," Harris said. "I guess you would say it's the athleticism combined with so many skills. You get so many athletes who excite you with potential, but they don't have the ballhandling or shooting skills. And here's a guy that actually has got all these things. It's just that it's in this young body."