On Monday at 2:25 p.m., the final bell rang at Lower Merion
High, in the leafy suburbs of Philadelphia, and the school's
gymnasium, a museum piece circa 1964, began to fill. Boys with
knapsacks on their backs scurried up the bleachers, and girls
with lacrosse sticks in their hands sat cross-legged on the
hardwood floor. Teachers, feigning disinterest, filled the gym's
double doors. The school's athletic director, wearing his best
suit and tie, tested the microphone.
On the edge of the basketball floor reporters from The Main Line
Times and from the Merionite, the school newspaper, accustomed
to covering events at the creaking gym without competition,
found themselves making space for ESPN and The Washington Post.
Members of Boyz II Men, who hail from Philadelphia and are
friends of the featured speaker, hovered in the back. The name
of the singing group never seemed more appropriate. On Monday at
2:35 p.m., in the same gym where he scored more schoolboy
basketball points than anybody will remember, an amiable prodigy
named Kobe Bryant, 17 years old, announced his plans for the
future. He couldn't, after all, be a Lower Merion Ace forever.
But what would come next? La Salle University, where his father,
Joe (Jellybean) Bryant, is an assistant basketball coach?
Villanova? Michigan? The NBA, where Joe spent eight seasons with
the San Diego Clippers, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Houston
Bryant, a 6'6" shuffler—except on a basketball court, where he
moves like lightning—ambled up to the podium in a ventless
sport coat and fine dress trousers bought at the last minute and
in need of a tailor, his sunglasses positioned on the top of his
shiny shaved head. His coat had puffy shoulders, masking his
frame, which at 190 pounds is as skinny and malleable as a
strand of cooked spaghetti. He leaned his goofy kid's mouth
toward the microphone, mockingly brought his fingers to his
unblemished chin as if he were still pondering his decision, and
delivered the news that insiders had been expecting for a week.
"I've decided to skip college and take my talent to the NBA,"
May 5, 1996
The gymnasium at Lower Merion, a school of high academic
achievement, filled with whooping. Bryant—a B student who
scored 1,080 on his SATs and speaks fluent Italian, which he
learned while living in Italy during the half-dozen years his
father played professional basketball there—was beaming.
He will enter the NBA draft on June 26 and will be, league
scouts and general managers say, one of the first 13 players
chosen, a lottery pick. In his first four years in the NBA, if
he plays four years in the NBA, Bryant could earn $10
million—or more. Of course, he could also spend those four
years earning a college degree. He chose to pass up that option,
he said, not because of money or parental pressure or a desire
to emulate Kevin Garnett, the teenage forward for the Minnesota
Timberwolves who went from Farragut Academy in Chicago to the
No. 5 pick in last year's NBA draft and proved by midseason that
he belonged in the league. Bryant's family does not need the
money, and his parents did not influence his decision. He's
going pro to fulfill a dream.
"Playing in the NBA has been my dream since I was three," Bryant
said, and he's old enough to know that a dream deferred can
peter out to nothingness. He is taking no chances, not after
averaging 31 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists, four blocks and
four steals a game in leading the Aces to the state class AAAA
title as a senior.
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
"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."
That note was not sounded at the Lower Merion gym on Monday. The
athletic director, Tom McGovern, set the tone. "In the last four
years he's brought us joy, happiness, national recognition--and a
state title," McGovern said. "We will be behind him 100 percent.
We owe him that much."