Stand today in the headwaters of the Colorado River, high in the Rocky Mountains where its depth is measured in inches, and it’s hard to imagine this — this? — becomes an icon of the West that tens of millions know and love, a wonder in all its eventual crashing, dashing flow.
Now, an exercise 25 years after the fact: Picture a gangly, 18-year-old with closely cropped hair wearing a stylishly baggy uniform and adidas (adidas!) sneakers, beginning the game on the bench as the Lakers host the Timberwolves.
It’s Nov. 3, 1996, a Sunday, and Kobe Bryant eventually enters the game. After a DNP in Los Angeles’s opener two days earlier, Bryant’s highly anticipated NBA debut is measured in minutes, 6:22 to be exact, not points as the rookie goes scoreless, on only one FGA. His first official recorded stat: a turnover for traveling on just his second possession.
This — this? — would become Kobe … no last name necessary.
Let’s take a beat. Rewind to nine months earlier, in February of ’96 when Sam Smith wrote in The Sporting News: “The Kevin Garnett effect continues as pro scouts crowded the recent Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach, S.C., to get a look at Philadelphia’s Kobe Bryant, the 6-foot-6 son of former NBA player Joe Bryant, and 6-11 Jermaine O’Neal of Columbia, S.C.”
TSN Archives: Kobe Bryant’s decision to skip college
Early on, O’Neal and Bryant, Bryant and O’Neal were attached at the hip in most coverage. Would the teens go pro straight out of high school? Should they?
After they answered in the affirmative, TSN college basketball writer Mike DeCourcy noted: “The simplest question to answer when assessing the 1996 crop of basketball talent is: Who had the best recruiting year? Without a doubt, that would be the NBA. Kobe Bryant. Jermaine O’Neal. Two of the top five players in high school. No one else did as well.”
One letter-writer (remember them?) joked on TSN’s Voice of the Fan page: “NBA — Nothing But Adolescents”.
After Kobe’s points-free first game 25 years ago, which might’ve at least in part been attributed to early wrist and hip injuries, he faded into relative obscurity by Lakers standards. Newly acquired Shaquille O’Neal caused most of the buzz.
A month into is pro career, Bryant had scored in double figures twice. It would take until Jan. 3, exactly two months after his debut, for him to score more than 20.
“Just when you thought Kobe Bryant was banished to the bench for good,” Shaun Powell wrote in The Sporting News, “he returns and scores 21 points in 22 minutes for the Lakers against the Kings, punctuating his performance with a 360-degree dunk. In practice, teammates say, ‘Kobe is the real deal.’”
Maybe, but two weeks later, under the headline “Stunted Growth,” the Trail Blazers’ O’Neal admitted in TSN’s NBA Insider that if he had it to do over again he wouldn’t jump directly to the NBA. Bryant? From that NBA Insider:
The 6-6 Bryant is averaging 6.1 points and 13 minutes a game and is shooting 42 percent. He maintains he doesn’t regret his decision, but he, too, has spent much of his season on the bench.
One reason, according to a story in last week’s The New York Times Magazine, is because Bryant is preoccupied with being flashy.
“Kobe’s showboating frustrates his teammates,” coach Del Harris said. In the story, the coach also said Bryant is overprotected by his parents and representatives to the point where “he doesn’t have a chance to develop.”
Lately, Harris has tried Bryant, a natural shooting guard, at the point, with mixed results. In his first game there last week, he walked the ball upcourt so slowly it resulted in a 10-second violation. Last weekend against the Pistons, Bryant scored 10 points in 14 first-half minutes.
Suffice to say, it was going take a while to get to 25.0 ppg, his 20-year career average, let alone 33,643 points. But by late April, with the clock winding down on his first season, things were trending in the right direction.
TSN Archives: The Book on … Kobe Bryant
TSN’s NBA Insider again addressed him with “The Book on … Kobe Bryant,” which began, “It hasn’t exactly been a storybook season for high schooler-turned-rookie Kobe Bryant. The ending is turning out to be a happy one.”
The scouting report noted that despite “wild swings in minutes, the demands of playing three positions and the spotlight that has come with being the youngest player (18) in league history, Bryant is playing at his highest level yet.”
In a little more than a year, Bryant had gone from being scouted at a high school tournament in Myrtle Beach — “The day they tell me I have to start scouting junior high school kids, I’m done,” the Kings’ Jerry Reynolds said in TSN at the time — to flashing the potential that hinted at what became a Hall of Fame career.
“Kobe can flat play,” teammate Nick Van Exel said in The Sporting News. “Anything he does I’m not surprised about because I see him every day.”
Twenty-five years later, offered hindsight and the opportunity to see him every day across a two-decade career, we too aren’t surprised. It was much less clear that Sunday in November 1996 in Los Angeles.
Who knew how it would end up … and then end.
Senior editorial consultant Bob Hille has worked for or with Sporting News for more than 25 years.