Fresh Air -- Dazzling Play Of 19-Year-Old Kobe Bryant Has NBA Abuzz

As the NBA prepares for life after Michael Jordan, Times NBA reporter Glenn Nelson is spending this season in search of the heir to His Airness' throne. This is the third report from that quest.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It's the afternoon of the King holiday and actress Dyan Cannon, the renowned Laker fan and front-row neighbor of Magic Johnson, is traversing the catacombs of the Great Western Forum. She happens across a television monitor beaming the image of Kobe Bryant in the midst of a postgame interview. "Look how cute he is," Cannon coos to a companion.

Yes, cute. That's how you describe a 19-year-old with game, matinee-idol good looks and a megawatt smile he continually flashes on and off the court. Cute is the next big thing in the NBA.

Whenever Bryant is introduced or is mentioned over the loudspeaker system, somewhere in the Forum a woman or girl shrieks. Like clockwork. Every time Bryant is introduced or mentioned or touches the ball, the rest of the place buzzes like a beehive in anticipation. Like clockwork.

Kobe Bryant. Scream.

Kobe Bryant. Buzz.

When you hear the scream, the buzz is in the background. It'll be the soundtrack to Kobe Bryant's NBA career.

That's because with Bryant comes expectation. He courts it. And then he'll be darned if he doesn't deliver. Bryant knows what you want. Some people are put on this earth for a reason. Bryant was born to be the NBA's next super-duper star.

It's Portland in December. The Lakers are mounting a furious comeback. Kobe Bryant has the ball near the top of the arc. He throws a move so cold-blooded, it freeze-frames everybody on the Rose Garden floor. The Trail Blazer defense is parted like embraceable arms and Bryant nearly walks into the lane to pack the ball through the hoop.

There's this commercial in which Michael Jordan drives to the hoop for a slam and the rest of the world goes into slow motion. It's cool on television.

But this ain't television. And this ain't Jordan. Which makes it all the more chilling.

Jaws drop like the rhymes on Bryant's upcoming rap disc. Over on the Laker bench, veteran players who have performed at the highest levels of the game are jumping around, shaking each other like kids.

They are not above such behavior. Kobe Bryant is not just another player to them. It's not like that.

"Hey, next time he does something like that, take your eyes off Kobe, if you can, and you look at the Laker bench," Laker forward Robert Horry says. "We're over there going, `Oh-hhh-hhh,' just like everybody else. The stuff he does is incredible."

Horry is asked for his favorite Bryant move.

"You can't pick just one," he says. "You need a top-10 list with him."

Bryant's best friend from Pennsylvania is asked the same question.

"You're going to see him do things you didn't think was possible in basketball," Matthew Matkov says.

Matkov doesn't need to say more. You already know it's true. When the Lakers acquired Bryant in 1996, team executive vice president Jerry West, whom we all think is the smartest man in basketball, was moved to promise, "During his first couple of seasons, you're going to see him do one or two things each game that will simply amaze you."

Consider the NBA amazed. And relieved.

Next season, the league starts over. Just like it started over after Dr. J and then after Magic and Bird. Next season is the year 1 A.M. (After Michael), and the time has long passed since Commissioner David Stern dispatched the bloodhounds in search of an Air Apparent.

Kobe Bryant, understand, isn't there yet. But he at least is to the point of playing Robin to Jordan's Batman. He's the Boy Wonder.

"He's already got his own shoe," Laker point guard Nick Van Exel says. "Maybe one day he'll fly by himself to games in his own jet. He'll have his own locker room. He'll have his own bodyguards with him all the time. He's going to be that big."

Everything - everything - regarding Kobe Bryant must be considered in context of his age. He was only 17 years old, fresh out of Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Pa., when the Lakers acquired him from the Charlotte Hornets in a stroke-of-genius move that also helped clear cap room to sign Shaquille O'Neal.

When Bryant takes the KeyArena floor tomorrow for a nationally televised game between the Lakers and Seattle Sonics, he'll be the NBA's highest scoring reserve, at all of 19 years old.

The Age of Kobe is upon us. Ready or not.

He is, first of all, the son of Joe "Jelly Bean" Bryant, who played eight seasons in the NBA before moving his family to Italy, where he continued his career. That guaranteed precious basketball genes.

Sonic team president Wally Walker, a former teammate of Bryant's in Houston, describes Jelly Bean as "one of the game's real characters." That guaranteed personality.

Then there's the name. Kobe is the world's most expensive cut of beef, from Japanese cows fed beer and soybeans and massaged daily with sake. Joe and Pam Bryant spied the name on a menu shortly before their third child, and only son, was born.

If the NBA hype machine is getting cranked up, Kobe Bryant is ready. Newsweek, Sports Illustrated and just about every magazine published in Philadelphia recently have passed through Los Angeles, and Bryant took them all on without breaking stride. When a film crew from NBA Entertainment blew into L.A. the other day, Bryant knew what to say, when to smile, when to look directly into the camera. He didn't need prompting the way, say, Jordan did when he was three or four years Bryant's senior. Except for the older reliables - Jordan, Charles Barkley, Jayson Williams - no NBA player may be more polished with the media.

Reporter: "I wear your shoes to play ball."

Bryant (smiling): "Oh yeah? How do you like them?"

Reporter: "Well, whatever plastic they use makes the shoes smell, and I have to keep them out in the garage."

Bryant (still smiling): "You ever try changing your socks?"

Hands slap. Fingers pop. Connection is made.

Bryant obviously is no dummy. He recently completed an advanced course in Italian at UCLA. Spending eight formative years in Italy didn't just give him a predilection for the language, it endowed Bryant with a worldliness that serves him well in the NBA, the sport gone Hollywood.

For kicks, Bryant writes poetry and lays it down behind old rock and pop hooks with a Philly-based rap group called Cheizaw. He became Cheizaw's sixth member while using whatever influence he possessed to help them get established. Now, he says, they are just centimeters away from signing a deal with a record company.

"Writing poetry is like a puzzle to me," Bryant says. "I love mixing and matching the words, finding the right word, using words with more than one meaning. Then getting it all to rhyme."

So, yes, cute. No earrings. No tattoos. A pager and cell phone clipped to his sweats after practice are as close as Bryant comes to bearing the trappings of his generation.

"Kobe takes that Gen-X label that everyone tries to put on him," his buddy Matkov says, "and he flips it."

And it hooks you.

Still, in the Age of Kobe, the age of Kobe Bryant also has been the source of incredulous sneers.

"He's going to get all kinds of hype because he's in L.A.," one well-regarded NBA veteran said earlier this season. "But watch. Teams are going to start defending him. They're going to come after him. Then the big fella (O'Neal) is going to come back. And (Bryant) is going to start to fall. You can't just have a burst and be considered a great player. You have to show me something for a whole season."

Laker Coach Del Harris knows what they're saying.

"Michael wasn't as good at 19 as Kobe is, but he continued to upgrade his game and become the best," Harris says. "It didn't come to Jordan instantly and it hasn't with Kobe. His challenge is what he does between now and age 25. That's where the great players define themselves."

Like most 19-year-olds, Bryant often seems in a hurry to complete his definition. He has so much, and wants to show it all now. Because he'll soon have even more to show. Because for every move revealed, there is another in production. The great ones learn to pace and eventually slow down.

But there is no stopping Kobe Bryant.

"You know what?" he asks. "I'd play this game for a penny. I'm out there enjoying myself. Know what I enjoy most? When I'm out there kicking somebody's butt."

Last week, late in the first half of the Lakers' hard-fought victory over Miami, Bryant is seized by this notion. He is being defended by past-his-prime Dan Majerle. Bryant is going to work him.

The Laker swingman puts the ball between his legs. Whap, whap, whap, whap, whap, in rapid succession. Majerle, going for the first fake, thrusts a hand and knocks the ball away for a steal. The body language of Lakers Van Exel and Eddie Jones, usually the kid's biggest supporters, betrays disgust.

"It's constant," Van Exel says. "We know he's young. He always wants to make the big plays. And a lot of times, he does. But sometimes, when the team isn't playing well and he tries doing that, you get frustrated. It's a two-way street with Kobe."

Jones: "In a game like that, obviously you don't do things like that. If it had worked, we probably would've been happy."

In the fourth quarter, following up an errant Horry jumper, Bryant catches the misfire with two hands and, still suspended near the rim, shifts the ball to one hand, then shakes the rim with a dunk as he is raked across the forearm. Van Exel and the rest of the Lakers charge up on Bryant, chest-bump him, then ride the adrenaline rush to victory.

"See what I mean?" Jones says.

Monday, the Lakers are clinging to a two-point lead with Orlando's Horace Grant at the foul line. Derek Harper, who was talking trash long before the Sonics' Gary Payton, says to Bryant, "Let a veteran show you how to knock down a couple of free throws."

Grant misses one of the two, and the Magic is forced to foul. It fouls Bryant.

"Let a young fella show you how to do it," Bryant says to Harper.

And then he ices a Laker victory by sinking two cool ones with 7.7 seconds to play. Twenty-three seconds earlier, Bryant made the play of the game, slipping inside Danny Schayes, the third-oldest player in the NBA and twice Bryant's age, to tip in a missed Horry free throw.

"If he was surprised, cool," Bryant says of Schayes. "But I didn't surprise myself."

The smile blazes.

Sometimes the smiles Bryant receives in return are deceiving. Already he's being knocked as too Jordan-like. He tries to dunk everything the way Jordan used to. He already gets the calls Jordan does. The nerve. During his only trip to Chicago this season, Bryant scored 33 points, to Jordan's 36, and asked His Airness about his post-up move. A month later, Bryant's turnaround jumper out of the post is a carbon copy.

As if being like Mike, the greatest player who ever lived, is something to be criticized for. From Kendall Gill to Harold Miner, there have been so many flash-in-the-pan next-Jordans, they could start one rip-roaring grease fire. What marks this kid is that he's actually pulling it off.

It was just three years ago that Bryant was wearing Air Jordan sneakers and Magic Johnson jerseys. He bought them with the change he made from getting good grades. Now he's off the hook. The Sports Section on Manchester Boulevard has a hard time keeping Bryant's No. 8 jersey in stock. Last month, driving with his sister Shaya, Bryant glanced out the window and for the first time saw someone else wearing his signature sneakers.

"I felt like hopping out of the car, walking up and thanking the kid," Bryant says. "I was touched."

Bryant plants a hand on his heart. His face lights up like Rodeo Drive.

And for one, crystal clear moment, you see Kobe Bryant for what he really is - a 19-year-old kid. But the moment passes as quickly as it came. The Age of Kobe is upon us, and time otherwise has no relevance.