"We've learned Kobe Bryant has been asked to run the Federal Reserve. The feeling is, he can do more with three quarters than most of us can do with a whole dollar." —Peter Vescey, the New York Post
What are the makings of a titan? In Greek mythology, a titan is an immortal deity of great strength. Although their kind were eventually overthrown by the Olympians, individuals with seemingly celestial talent are occasionally born from the flesh of man. With the 1984 arrival of Michael Jeffrey Jordan, the National Basketball Association witnessed what appeared to be a celestial anomaly like no other.
At the time of his second and final retirement in 1999, Michael Jordan left several "just like Mike"s in his wake. But none could compare. Vince Carter's insane athleticism and North Carolina Tar Heel pedigree reminded many of MJ, as did Jerry Stackhouse's competitive fire and Tracy McGrady's explosive scoring ability. With each year there were whispers of the coming of the "Next One," yet each of the aforementioned shooting guards fell short in one attribute or another.
Some possessed Jordan's penchant for scoring, but not his stalwart defensive effort. Others were as explosive athletically (more so, in the case of Vince Carter), but did not have his indomitable will. Some, as was the case with Harold "Baby Jordan" Minor, were crushed for even being jokingly compared to him.
Let it not go unsaid that Kobe Bryant is at least the second-best shooting guard of all time, with MJ being the clear choice for No. 1. There are even those who would dare say that, skill for skill, Kobe Bryant is the better of the two. Like the titan Prometheus of Greek mythology, Bryant is alleged to have stolen fire from one who sits at the zenith of basketball's Mount Olympus, and is accused of using it to ignite the competitive fire deep in the belly of mere mortals.
What is it about Kobe Bryant that has allowed him to will himself into this conversation of greatest player ever?
Competition has been the very soil that has nurtured Kobe Bryant. The son of former professional basketball player and head coach of the Los Angeles Sparks Joe "Bean" Bryant and Pamela Cox Bryant, young Kobe had a fire that was apparent at a very early age. As a small child, Bryant lived in Italy, and his grandfather would tape NBA basketball games and send them to the child. Bryant would study them ardently. As a four-year starter on the varsity basketball team at Philadelphia's Lower Merion High School, Bryant would grow into an all-time great high school basketball player, averaging 30.8 points, 12 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 3.8 steals as a senior. He would lead the Aces to a 31-3 record and their first Pennsylvania State Championship in the school's 53-year history.
Of course, McDonald's All-American accolades were soon to follow. Even then, his attributes were being scouted and admired by the very best in the business. In the Sports Illustrated article "Fire Inside," writer Chris Ballard recounts a 1996 pre-draft workout at Inglewood High School gym. In a scene that could barely be fathomed by most high school players, Jerry West was in the building to watch Kobe play retired Los Angeles Lakers defensive stopper Michael Cooper one on one. According to eyewitness accounts, Coop got dragged all over the court.
"It was like Cooper was mesmerized by him," said Raymond Ridder, now the Golden State Warriors' executive director of public relations. After 10 minutes, West stood up. "That's it, I've seen enough," Ridder remembers West saying. "He's better than anyone we've got on the team right now. Let's go."
At the time, former Lakers great Jerry West was already known as one of the preeminent evaluators of talent. For such accolades to be showered upon a teenager is, for some, beyond the realm of imagination. Bryant would be drafted by the Charlotte Hornets with the 13th pick overall. However, they agreed to trade the pick to the Los Angeles Lakers prior to making the selection. The Hornets would end up getting center Vlade Divac and several draft picks in exchange for Bryant. If only they had known the type of player whose rights they briefly held, would they have balked at the pre-arranged swap?
Some youngsters may not recall, but Kobe Bryant's career, though clearly enchanted from the very start, had its fair share of challenges. Nothing was ever handed to him. He was immediately a boy trying to navigate the politics of men. He started his career backing up three-time NBA All-Star shooting guard and All-NBA defender Eddie Jones, along with hot-shooting combo guard Nick Van Exel. Bryant, only 18 years old at the time, would ask coach Del Harris to feature him in certain sets. Harris would tell Kobe that he simply wasn't more efficient in the post than Shaquille O'Neal, and that he would not even consider such a thing until Bryant was better.
Some spend a lifetime trying to figure out their place in the world; others are born into destiny. The sheer audacity of 18-year-old Kobe to even ask such a thing of a head coach has to be without equal. He seemingly was already aware of what great things were in store for him. Though he didn't get much playing time early on, Bryant practiced like a man possessed. It was clear that he would have to supplant Van Exel and Jones in order to get playing time as a rookie. He would average 15 minutes per game his rookie year. The following season would see Bryant's average minutes per game jump to 26 minutes per game, and his scoring average would more than double from 7.6 to 15.4 points per game during the 1997-1998 NBA season. Jones would start at shooting guard 80 out of 82 games that season.
Kobe would only start one of the 79 games in which he was available to play, but would get the lion's share of minutes at small forward when L.A. went small. While he had not yet completely replaced Jones as the second best Laker on the roster, the writing was as apparent as neon lights in Times Square. This kid was the future and clearly the real deal. He was already cutting into Van Exel's minutes and would swing over to play shooting guard at times. Nick's minutes and shot attempts per game were both down compared to where they were during Kobe's rookie year. While the usually even-keeled Eddie Jones appeared to take Bryant's rapid ascension in stride, Van Exel at times seemed repulsed by the very idea of being supplanted by the young phenom. But it wasn't just Nick; it was Shaq as well.
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