You hear about Kobe Bryant, the Lakers' 19-year-old basketball whiz, and your first reaction is, the last time anyone this good appeared there was a star in the East. I mean, you want to say, "Come on, what are you trying to hand me? Nobody's this good!"
It gets to the point where, when you meet him the first time, you want to ask him what he did with the halo. Did he fly in -- or just walk across Santa Monica Bay? You don't know whether to get his autograph or his blessing. Or just touch the hem of his warmup suit. You feel inadequate interviewing someone so perfect. It's a job for Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, not a mere sportswriter.
He's not 9 feet tall, as you might expect. He looks perfectly ordinary. Of course, he's single, lives with his parents. But he wasn't born in a stable. Or even a log cabin. He was raised partly in Italy, where his father played basketball. He speaks better Italian than the pope.
He has a nice sense of humor. He laughs a lot, keeps it light. Everyone likes him. He's not at all arrogant about his talent, just grateful for it. To a man, the New York media loved him at the recent All-Star game there. And that's the toughest media in the world. They couldn't believe their good luck in finding a superstar this approachable. As for Kobe, he was having the time of his life. Bryant is no shrinking violet. If there's one attribute that sticks out all over him, it's confidence. Optimism. Accentuate the positive.
He eliminates the negative, all right. So, he missed the most crucial shot of the year last year, the one that would have beaten Utah and kept the Lakers in the playoffs had it gone in. Kobe didn't go home to perch on a ledge or go off to join the French Foreign Legion. He doesn't do sackcloth and ashes. He just shrugged and told himself that, the next time this happened, he wouldn't miss. "My time will come," he said.
He didn't come cheap. The Lakers had to give up Vlade Divac to get him. And Divac was a 12-point-a-night, 800-rebounds-a-year, 7-foot-1 center.
Kobe's role on the Lakers? "My job is to spread havoc in the enemy, kind of a spark plug," he tells you. The idea is to get the other guys trying to look over both shoulders at once for him. He's a disrupter, "I figure out what the team needs and try to supply it," he tells you. "get the ball to Nick (Van Excel), get open, set up, win."
Technically, he's what they call a "sixth man." He is meant to come off the bench at key moments and spark a turnaround in the team's fortunes. It's a role pioneered by the Celtics' John Havlicek.
He plays to rave notices. Says Hall of Fame broadcaster Chick Hearn, who has been known to restrain his enthusiasm for the modern player on occasion: "Kobe is a 28-year-old in a 19-year-old body. The things he does with no college experience is beyond belief. He has total confidence. He'd walk up to Michael Jordan or a backup guard with the same degree of skill and enthusiasm and expectations of success. He's a star on and off the court. I've seen lots of them come and go but none with the potential of Kobe Bryant. Someday, we'll be able to brag, 'We knew him when!' "
You see what I mean? He comes into focus to the sound or organ music and the smell of incense.
You can see why you don't know whether to genuflect or buy him a lollipop when you first meet him.
Even rival coach P.J. Carlesimo of Golden State bows, "He's scary. Then you realize he should be a sophomore in college, and it's real scary. He's their sixth man, but he's not a complementary player. He plays a big role on a great team and makes it greater."
He has had his doubting Thomases. To the prediction he had a chance to become the next Michael Jordan, they retort, "In 10 years he has a chance to be the next Kobe Bryant."
Lots of people think Michael Jordan is from outer space. Nobody human could do those things he does with a basketball. Fly, for instance. And Michael's debut outshone Kobe's. Michael threw in a league-leading 2,313 points in his first year. Kobe topped out at 539 his first year. But Jordan played 3,144 minutes. Kobe played 1,103. Jordan was a ripe 21. Kobe was a downy-cheeked 18. Kobe's role was partly Get-the-ball-to- Shaquille O'Neal-and-get-out-of-his-way. Michael's role was Go-get-me-the-ball-and-get-out-of-my-way.
Any way you look at it, you might want to get his autograph before he ascends into hoops heaven. He won't be hard to find. He'll be the one walking through doors without opening them. Michael Jordan may be Air Jordan but Kobe is Heir Jordan.
This column originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Jim Murray, the long-time sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1990. He died Aug. 16, 1998.