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In Focus: Kobe the sage

By Andy Gray

Kobe Bryant (right) and Shaquille O'Neal spent eight seasons together in Los Angeles. (Walter Iooss Jr./SI)

Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal

Kobe Bryant is in the news after placing a call to the struggling Alex Rodriguez, who is 3-for-23 in the playoffs, to offer some words of encouragement. Kobe wasn't always the wise sage. Back in 1996, Sports Illustrated's Michael Bamberger visited Lower Merion High School in Pennsylvania to profile the 17-year-old Bryant when he announced his intention of skipping college to play in the pros. Not everyone agreed with the decision:

What, precisely, he will do in the NBA is anybody's guess. In the last three decades only six U.S. players have joined the NBA without playing college basketball, and all of them have been big men, centers and power forwards: Moses Malone, Darryl Dawkins, Bill Willoughby, Shawn Kemp, Thomas Hamilton and Garnett. Bryant played the entire floor in high school -- his Lower Merion coach, Gregg Downer, compared Bryant's style of play with Michael Jordan's and Grant Hill's -- and could score seemingly at will from inside. The cumulative effect of all those inside points was to give him a reputation as the best high school basketball player in the country.

In the pros he will be a guard, but whether he's an NBA shooter remains to be determined. Also unclear is whether a 17-year-old who is truly happy with a book in his hands should be going straight into the workforce without stopping for a college education.

"I think it's a total mistake," says the Boston Celtics' director of basketball development, Jon Jennings, who opposes any schoolboy's going pro. "Kevin Garnett was the best high school player I ever saw, and I wouldn't have advised him to jump to the NBA. And Kobe is no Kevin Garnett."

Jennings, if you're wondering, left the Celtics in 1997 to work in the White House for then-President Bill Clinton. He is currently the president and general manager of the Maine Red Claws, the Celtics' D-League affiliate.

SI VAULT: Philadelphia schoolboy Kobe Bryant hopes to make impact in NBA (5.6.96)

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