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 Rockets?
Bryant, a 6'6" shuffler—except on a basketball court, where he moves like lightning—ambled up to the podium in a vent-less 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," Bryant said.
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 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."