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Ian Thomsen
April 27, 1998
Is Kobe Bryant the second coming of Magic or Michael? The playoffs are the place to find out if he's truly a prodigy or merely a creature of hype
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April 27, 1998

Showtime!

Is Kobe Bryant the second coming of Magic or Michael? The playoffs are the place to find out if he's truly a prodigy or merely a creature of hype

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So it's settled, then. If the rest of us are forever trying to balance our feminine and masculine sides, the great basketball players are trying to bring their Michael side into balance with their Magic side. The Magic side is the one Bryant must develop.

It's certainly there inside him, circulating through him like something passed down by his father. It's the kind of personality trait that can develop only in certain environments. It wouldn't have grown on the East Coast in Joe Bryant's day, it probably wouldn't blossom in Chicago now, and it certainly wasn't going to bloom on the courts of Italy or Lower Merion High, which Bryant led to the Class AAAA Pennsylvania state championship two years ago.

"It could only have happened in L.A. for Magic," Joe Bryant says. "When Kobe was heading out to L.A., I was telling people, 'Look, what Kobe is living is a dream, and hopefully he is going to a place that still believes in dreams.' That's what L.A. is. You go around there, and everyone's searching for that big movie deal or trying to become a star. Then you look at Magic."

"I'm a positive person," Johnson says when you ask him about his health. He has been so aggressive and optimistic in his treatment that doctors can no longer find traces of HIV in his blood (which is not to say that the virus has disappeared). "Kobe's a positive person, too," he continues. "It's like God blessed that trade so that Kobe could come out here and be around a guy who can help him by sitting and watching him every night. I'm going to take care of him, but I'm also going to criticize him when he has to be criticized. Like the other night, when he went out and shot five or six or seven times and wasn't even warmed up. Those are the kinds of things he's going to have to learn if he's going to be what he wants to be, and that's the best ever."

So does a happy ending settle with the evening sun in Los Angeles? In his room overlooking the Pacific, Kobe lies on his bed and watches a videotape of the Lakers, as he has always done. But now, instead of studying Magic, he watches himself. He imagined his future so deeply that he made it come true. Now he studies how he is doing, asks whether he should have rotated defensively or passed to the open man, and sometimes he looks into the corner of the picture, at the big man sitting courtside in the rich suit, at the amazing sight of Magic Johnson watching him play.

Bryant knows that after this game ended, he returned backstage to the very locker that Magic used to occupy like a king on his throne. The Lakers say locker assignments are made by chance, but perhaps an astrologer would argue differently.

When Kobe comes out of his bedroom, it's as if nothing has changed. His parents are still living with him, by his choice; he is still only 19, after all. In fact, apart from the view of the ocean and the expensive fixtures, this might be any one of the places they rented in Italy. He didn't even have to leave home to make his dream come true.

"And if he keeps on growing?" Magic says, because Kobe is now 6'6", an inch taller than he was a year ago. "If he grows to be as tall as Joe?" That will mean he's as tall as Magic. "Then it's just over," Magic says. "Oh, my goodness."

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