After hearing about Kobe Bryant for 10 or so years, I met the kid in September 1996, less than a month before his first NBA training camp with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Kershaw Leatherbury, a heck of an athlete who'd played at Philadelphia's legendary Overbrook High, was a former college roommate. Leatherbury also had a nice handle and ridiculous range, in addition to batting cleanup behind major-league outfielder Jeffrey (Hac Man) Leonard.
Through that Philly connection, I'd met Kobe's pops, Joe (Jelly Bean) Bryant and former USF point guard Chubby Cox and had a hookup to write a story with Source Magazine.
Leatherbury, since Kobe was about seven or eight, was saying Kobe Bean was a prodigy and appeared headed on a direct course to the NBA. Leatherbury and J.B. were right about the kid who spent much of his youth playing soccer in Europe.
Bryant, then 18, was living (or was it vice versa) with his pops and moms (Pam) and his sister in a cul-de-sac at the top of hill in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles. Even at 18, Bryant clearly was advanced in terms of basketball vision.
A maturity, heavily influenced by the guidance of moms and pops, already was in full force. In retrospect, one wonders if Bryant truly believed at that time he could become as good as he is now. Athletically, Bryant's life has been an unfinished dream.
Should he lead the Los Angeles Lakers to another NBA title this June over the Boston Celtics, he unquestionably will be the player of the decade. That means he'd have played an integral role in five titles beginning in 2000 and he'll be 32 on August 23.
Since many observers judge greatness in terms of championships won, Bryant is approaching hallowed ground.
That's one short of the six won by his idol, Michael Jordan. And make no mistake, Bryant has patterned much of his career and playing style after Jordan. Bryant walked, talked and dunked like Jordan. Former teammates say Bryant used to watch tapes of Air Jordan incessantly at the Forum before the Lakers moved to the Staples Center.
As a society, we've seemed to kick Bill Russell and his 11 championships to the curb as if they don't exist. Perhaps it's because Russell was a big man and didn't dominate offensively.
But the title of greatest ever has been awarded to Jordan and it's almost universally acknowledged despite the achievements of Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson, two name just two.
Comparing Jordan and Bryant is a bit premature. Jordan already has his titles, while Bryant remains a work in progress. Jordan retired the first time from basketball in 1993 to try baseball. Jordan dealt with tales about his gambling and the murder of his father.
Meanwhile, Bryant was accused of sexual assault in the summer of 2004. During questioning with the police, he made derogatory comments regarding then teammate Shaquille O'Neal, when the center's name never should have come out of his mouth.
That was Bryant's weakest moment. However, as I've said many times, I've never been questioned by police, much less for sexual assault of a white woman. Honestly, I can't say whose name might have come from my mouth. Spanky? Alfalfa?, Curly Jo, who the heck knows.
However, Bryant has kept his nose clean, remained married, recovered from the knee surgery for which he was in Eagle, Colo. (the scene of the assault). And now Kobe Bean has a chance to do something to make himself more special than he already has become.
Winning a fifth would tie him with Magic Johnson. That achievement is pretty darned good on its own merit.
Only four franchises - the Lakers, Celtics, Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs - have won more than three.
Every player with more than seven played with Boston - Sam Jones (10); John Havlicek, Tommy Heinsohn, K.C. Jones and Tom 'Satch' Sanders, all with eight.
According to NBAUniverse.com, three players - Robert Horry, Frank Ramsey and Jim Loscutoff - won seven rings. Horry was the only player to do it with three teams.
With six are Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Scottie Pippen and Bob Cousy.
Bryant's heroics almost are becoming joke-like, said Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry. It's no longer news when Bryant dominates down the stretch. The news comes when he doesn't.
Certainly, the defensively-minded Celtics propose a different threat. Yet, in Bryant's mind, having defeated the Lakers in 2008, the C's are a challenge. Bryant, like Jordan, feeds off challenges - like winning championships.
Still working out the bugs, but here goes:
Using your own criteria, who is the NBA's greatest player?