DECEMBER 12, 1996, SPORTS
Copyright 1996/THE TIMES MIRROR COMPANY
No College, but Bryant Is Still a Student
Pro football and pro basketball have it made. Let me ask you: How’d you like to run a business in which your product is delivered to you fully milled and refined at no cost to you, fully promoted with a market for it already created, again at no cost to you?
That’s what those sports businesses have. They have an assembly line fully functional, stamping out their finished product after going out and finding and shipping the raw material themselves.
The nation’s colleges provide this service to them free of charge. The pros are in debt to every college coach who ever scouted out a prospect, every alumnus who ever bought a car or wrote a secret check for the halfback who could run the 40 in 4.3, every sportswriter who ever dreamed up “Galloping Ghost” or “Four Horsemen” or “Dream Team” or “Fab Five” to describe his property and give it further marketability.
General Motors should be so lucky. The pros (and the agents) cash in on all this largess. The colleges do too, to some extent. But they use the revenues to fund programs that foster gender equity, not yachts or offshore bank accounts.
Baseball never got in on this good thing. Baseball founded a network of training sites at its own expense called the “minor leagues” or the “bushes,” where they found the talent themselves and set it off for burnishing and education paid for not by colleges and universities but by the teams themselves. They refined their own product. Baseball hated to see its prospects go to college because it felt the youngster would be wasting four years. He would not grow in art and skill. College ball was not considered quality-enough competition.
Once in a while a pitcher from Harvard (Charlie Devens) or Yale (Johnny Broaca) would show up in a big league uniform, but they were a long way from Cooperstown. (Devens’ lifetime record was 5-3 — and he pitched for the Ruth Yankees!)
The colleges were the minor leagues for the other sports. (Some say not so because only a fraction of the collegians made it to the pros — but only a fraction of baseball minor leaguers made it to the big leagues, too).
What brings this to hand is the fact the Lakers currently have a young player who is, in effect, jumping the queue. Kobe Bryant is bypassing four years in college and going directly to the NBA.
It is an audacious experiment, but one that has been tried. Darryl Dawkins, who called himself “Chocolate Thunder,” went directly from high school to the NBA. Shawn Kemp, the current NBA’s Mr. Everything, didn’t play college basketball. Moses Malone made the transition from high school successfully (27,409 total points, 16,212 rebounds).
It is do-able — but difficult. Only 26 players have tried it in the long history of the league. Kevin Garnett did it for Minnesota last season — and racked up an impressive 2,293 minutes.
Kobe Bryant is an extraordinarily skilled young player who might be frittering away his talent playing for dear old Siwash. Jerry West, who should know, says he is on of the best rookies he ever saw anywhere — and Jerry has seen a few.
The problem with the young (at 18 years 2 months, Kobe is the second-youngest to play in the NBA) is not only giving them basketball, it’s giving them the money. The last time an 18-year-old got millions like that, his father was the king of France.
As someone said, you go to college to learn how to make millions. If you get them anyway, what’s the point? You figure your whole life is going to be spent at the free-throw line.
The next problem is a familiar one — ego. The id. How do you take an 18-year-old who broke all of Wilt Chamberlain’s scoring records in Philadelphia high schools, who was USA Today’s national player of the year, and keep him on the bench in important games or just let him pick up what Chick Hearn calls “garbage” points? After all, 18 is a time when you know it all, isn’t it?
The Lakers are betting Kobe Bryant is more than just a good role player. They see his name in lights, his uniform in the rafters.
Kobe probably does too. But he is the son of an NBA basketball player, Joe (Jelly Bean) Bryant, who played for the Philadelphia 76ers, Clippers and Houston Rockets as well as in the European leagues. He even speaks fluent Italian.
He was also a sports columnist in high school, so he has a feel for historic pace. Still, all his life till now, he has been given the ball. How will he react to not having it? Can he move without it?
I went down to the locker room the other night, after a game in which he had not played, to see how his non-role was sitting with the once-and-future star. Would a future generation be able to understand a game in which a healthy Kobe Bryant was kept on the bench all night? Would he, himself? When would he begin throwing the furniture, bad-mouthing the coach, demanding to be traded?
Kobe Bryant smiled, turned off the tough questions with polite disclaimers and was gracious and unscowling. No, he didn’t object to sitting out the game; no, he didn’t think he had made a mistake skipping college. “The NBA was a challenge,” he said. “I like a challenge. I was ready for a challenge.”
He has racked up 170 minutes on the floor to date (Shaquille O’Neal and Eddie Jones have more than 800). He still plays a bit of the helter-skelter playground game. But when he becomes a star, he may change the whole complexion of the game. Maybe some day there will be a note in the brochure that only 26 players in the league ever went to college.
Reprinted with the permission of the Los Angeles Times
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