Last December, before the Los Angeles Lakers' annual pilgrimage to Chicago, the team's director of public relations, John Black, quietly warned 19-year-old Kobe Bryant that the press was about to open public hearings into the matter of whether he was, indeed, the next Michael Jordan. Bryant could have gone into a slump right then.
"It doesn't bother me," he responded. "I expect to be that good."
Now he was really asking for trouble. For Jordan is the American Zeus, an utterly commercial god who scores, plays defense, wins championships and appears in the advertisements during timeouts. A few weeks after Bryant had been interviewed for the position in Chicago (he scored 33 points, many of them while being guarded by Jordan, who had 36), he was being promoted on one side of a full-page newspaper ad for the Feb. 8 All-Star Game. On the opposite side of the page was the requisite picture of Jordan, his tongue dangling like a royal flag.
"I said, 'Cool,' " Bryant says. "It was like they were making it out to be some big one-on-one showdown."
Others were more concerned. "Wasn't Harold Miner supposed to have been the next Michael Jordan?" asked New Jersey Nets assistant coach Don Casey. Miner vanished from the league as if he had been caught staring at the Lost Ark of the Covenant. Grant Hill, exhibiting the wisdom of a Duke graduate, seemed to turn away from comparisons with Jordan at the last moment, but the unexplainable forces of the universe punished him nonetheless by making him play for Jordan's former coach, Doug Collins, the screaming Hydra.
It is because Bryant is so completely unaffected by fame that the league and its network partner, NBC, felt they could safely extol his virtues. In so doing, they almost turned him into the anti-Jordan. Western Conference coach George Karl benched him in the fourth quarter of the All-Star Game, and several of the older players—but then they were all older, weren't they?—were apparently fed up with everything Bryant stood for. Karl Malone recalled trying to set a pick for him. "The guy told me he's got it," the 34-year-old Malone said. "Like I told Coach Karl, when younger guys tell me to get out of the way, that's a game I don't need to be in. I was ticked."
"I still don't remember that play," Bryant says. "I probably did it—I'm sure I did it—but there's nothing wrong with it. I was just being aggressive. When somebody told me what he said, I thought it was funny."
It was not meant to be funny. It was meant to lump Bryant in with the prematurely rewarded nine-figure millionaires of his generation. Malone's complaint is that the league's young stars have walked into a vault of public goodwill and unmarked bills that was unlocked for them by the older players, and they are shortsightedly spending the principal when, really, they should be content just to live off the interest. Their preposterous salaries have given them a sense of power long before many of them have even contended for championships. When Malone, the league's reigning MVP, saw that he had been replaced on the All-Star Game marquee by a 19-year-old who doesn't even start for his club—well, you can't blame Malone for assuming the worst.
Bryant's second NBA season has been one long, inconclusive argument. His play since All-Star weekend has seemed to confirm suspicions that he is a creature of hype. In the 24 games between Feb. 10 and March 25 he shot an anemic 37% from the floor and averaged just 12.1 points, or 5.8 less than he had during the first half of the season. Not the numbers of the next Michael Jordan. Worse, Bryant admits that some of his teammates have confronted him about being selfish on the court. Lakers coach Del Harris has vowed to teach Bryant a lesson about the "team game." Bryant "didn't learn it in high school, and he didn't go to college, so he has to learn it here," says the 60-year-old Harris. "The only way he can learn it is by reduced playing time until he accepts it." During one 10-game stretch after the All-Star break, Harris cut Bryant's playing time by almost seven minutes a game; by the end of the season the chastened Bryant was back near his prebreak average of 26.7 minutes.
But the playoffs are here. The haggling is finished. Over the last month the Lakers have been reinstalling Bryant into their offense with the understanding that they can't go far in the postseason without him. Harris worries, too, that they can't go far with him. The young man is being asked to fulfill his potential immediately. The Lakers need his creativity in the half-court offense, and yet they haven't married themselves to him for better or for worse, in good times and in bad. Will he be the Bryant of the first half of this season, full of energy and confidence, or the Bryant of the second half, who has been fatigued and criticized? The Lakers are going to find out the hard way, by running their engine at the highest temperatures without the proper testing.