Higher education

first_imgBryant, who could have gone to Duke, has talked before about the what-if. “Sometimes, out of curiosity, Ithink about that,” he told a reporter a few years ago. “My mind starts drifting a little bit, wondering what I’d look like in a Duke uniform.” Something to regret? I’m not so sure. If Kobe is smart, as he is about most things, he knows the college-basketball experience he passed up by entering the NBA draft in 1996 has been imitated by the pro-basketball life. This says a little about Bryant, a little about the Lakers – and a lot about the change of perceptions over time. No other basketball player’s fortunes are tied as tightly to his team’s these days as Kobe Bryant’s are to the Lakers’. It’s not only Bryant’s recent heroics that spark this surprising realization – his 65 points in a come-from-behind overtime victory over Portland on Friday and his 50 in a desperate win over Minnesota on Sunday, performances that would have meant nothing if the Lakers had lost. It’s also the time of the hoops season. The month of the NCAA Tournament makes people think about the young stars like Bryant who jumped from high school to the NBA. It makes us wonder if they miss the kind of intense and permanent emotional connection that exists only between a player and his school. They could play a lifetime of pro ball’s six-month schedules and best-of-whatever playoff series, and never have their souls branded by as many all-or-nothing games as they would have in a single mad March. In his 11th season with the Lakers, Bryant has spent a longer career with one team than all but one current NBA player. Kevin Garnett is in his 12th season with Minnesota, but his contract is up this summer, and his future likely is elsewhere. (Allen Iverson was in his 11th season with Philadelphia when he was traded to Denver in December.) It’s likely that by this time next year, Kobe Bryant – the very symbol of selfishness for as long as his purple-and-gold tenure was threatened by feuds and free agency and legal prosecution – will stand alone as the league’s present-day paragon of loyalty, stability and hard-earned maturity. The corporate scene of pro sports can hardly substitute for the spirit of college ball, but in Bryant’s case, the pros have given it the old college try. Having made his NBA debut at 18, making first the Forum and then Staples Center his campus, Kobe lived his youthful ups and downs as a Laker instead of a Blue Devil: He was hazed by Shaquille O’Neal – but eventually chosen over O’Neal to be the franchise’s future. He was belittled by Phil Jackson – but now finds the coach singing his praises. He faced personal strife that could have ruined him and the team – and the franchise stood by him through trial (literally) and tribulation. A few years ago, it would have been crazy to imagine a Kobe-Lakers relationship described as “nurturing,” the link approaching the permanence of the player-college association. Yet here they are. Signed through the 2010-11 season – which would be his 15th with the Lakers, matching Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s club record – Bryant has graduated to a place where his value as a player will hinge on whether he leads the team to championship contention. If they win again, he wins (and might even be considered for an MVP award), and if they struggle for the rest of his career, he will depart frustrated and underappreciated. His basketball life since Lower Merion (Pa.) High has been the closest the NBA can come to replicating NCAA passions. It’s given him the tough love, the character-shaping, the sense of shared destiny. Anyway, had Kobe gone to Duke, he would have gone for a season or two at most. Instead he went straight to the school of hard knocks. What’s better? A Blue Devil for a year, or a Laker for life? Kevin Modesti’s column appears in the Daily News three days a week [email protected] (818) 713-3616160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img read more