Kobe Bryant was already a star by 1996, but his national profile took a bit of time to catch up. The buzz of his potential leap from high school directly to the NBA was baffling at the time; his performance at the McDonald’s All American Game in late March—the only real look most casual fans were able to catch of Bryant’s talent—was unremarkable. He looked like a boy unfit for a league of men, without the advantage of supreme size that allowed Kevin Garnett to make a stunning prep-to-pro transition one year earlier. Simpson sent the first round of callouts for 1996 Usenet draft scouting reports back in April, more than two months before the draft; it wasn’t until the fourth callout in May that Kobe even showed up as a prospect to be written about. A random scouting report landed in Simpson’s inbox weeks later. It painted as clear a profile of Kobe as one could expect on the early web, with descriptors we now know to be foundational to his legacy as a player: intelligence, determination, idolatry at the altar of Jordan. It was penned by someone who’d played local high school and summer games against the future legend. “That was not common,” Simpson said.
January 27, 2021 | 8:36 pm EST Update
“I see why there’s a comparison. Obviously, LeBron is one of the greatest to ever do it and Ben has the potential given the size, ability, and speed, but it’s unfair. It’s unfair to compare anybody to LeBron or compare anybody to Michael Jordan, especially at a young age.”
Attempts to grow closer as a team are confronting a world in which proximity to teammates is both dangerous and prohibited. As a result, NBA players and staffs have been reduced to distant conversations through face masks, and a road life dominated by individual screens rather than collective camaraderie. “The reality is that you can’t do stuff like that anymore,” Haslem said. “Those opportunities don’t exist.” In Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner’s words: “It’s a bubble within a bubble.”
STARTING AN AVERAGE day on the road, an NBA player must now wake up as early as 7:30 a.m. to be tested before a practice or shootaround, depending on the market. He then returns to his room to catch another hour or so of sleep, or to busy himself with a video game, an episode of a series or maybe a FaceTime session with family back home. A couple of hours later, he reports downstairs to board the team bus. The wait in the lobby is traditionally a time when players schmooze and hang out, but with everyone at least 6 feet apart and masked, the vibe has taken on an edgy quality.
Pre-practice strategy sessions at the hotel can no longer last more than 10 minutes. Shootaround or practice offer some normalcy, but breakfast back at the hotel in a ballroom, typically a communal ritual where players and staff yuck it up at tables for eight, now operates as a grab-and-go. Want some fresh air? Forget about taking a walk outside, even though the CDC and other leading medical institutions regard outdoor activities with the appropriate precautions as low risk.
Back in the hotel room, the walls close in for players. More video games and binge watching. Myles Turner has delved into Narcos and has been playing Cyberpunk 2077, while Sacramento Kings guard Cory Joseph recently watched the Tony Parker documentary on Netflix. “I don’t think locking up in a room for 24 hours just coming out to play basketball is mentally healthy,” Haslem said. “I need to go out and take a walk because there are things that can pile up that have nothing to do with the game of basketball. And you’re saying that I can’t even go take a walk? I don’t think that’s right. Even in the bubble, you can go take a walk and get some fresh air.”
This season, that ground rarely extends much past the door to a hotel room. The Spurs’ custom on the plane has been effectively prohibited. Under the new guidelines, players must sit next to the same guys they sit next to on the bench during games. On an off night, it’s dinners for one in the room — a far cry from the jovial dining out experience in a road city. “I think that’s hard — having options taken away,” Holiday said. “You might go to your favorite city, and have a favorite food spot that people might not know about. And that’s something that you can bring to the table, something you share, and [this season] you can’t really share that.”