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By Tom Friend

NEXT, March 23, 1998

He is 19, and he has a book to read, and he has a BMW to drive, and he has a floppy hat to wear, and he has a generation to carry, and, well, he wants the job.

He was raised in Italy, and when he was 8 years old, his cousin called from the States, hyperventilating over something he had just seen on television You won't believe it, his cousin said.

Believe what?

Believe Air.

So they sent him a videotape-Airmail, of course-and it reached him at his house next to the soccer field, and he ripped it open and watched a certain No. 23 dunk and a certain No. 23 wag his tongue, and so Kobe Bryant gets a zero for originality.

He is almost grown up now, and he can read cue cards in two languages, and the networks are campaigning for him, and David Stern endorses him too, partly because No. 23 is edging toward the door and they need someone else who can touch the top of the backboard. He gets the nomination whether he likes it or not.

Of course he likes it; the question is whether we like it. He is still a sixth man, and he has never dominated a playoff game, and he keeps forgetting one detail-passing the ball-and he has just alienated the league's premier power forward, although that you can blame on youth. After all, it wasn't his fault he started the All-Star Game: 12-year-olds everywhere stuffed the ballot box. There he is at the Garden, and NBC wants him and No. 23 to go one-on-one whenever possible, and four mini-cams are in his face, and the kid can't turn back now so he waves off Karl Malone to go it alone.

It wasn't out of disrespect-the kid actually calls Magic Johnson Mister Johnson-but this is our future, and our future is 6'7" and growing, and our future scores 17 a game off the bench, and our future scored 1,100 on his SATs, and our future could have gone to Duke and gotten 4.0s but went pro instead, and our future has no tattoos, and our future has no earrings.

And our future does not drink, and our future does not chase women and our future is reading philosophy. The book is called Plutarch's Moralia, and Kobe Bryant was reading it in some Ritz-Carlton one day after a morning shootaround, and the quote that caught his eye was those who are serious in ridiculous matters will be ridiculous in serious matters.

He found it totally true and decided he'd rather be serious in serious matters, and if he was ever going to be the next No. 23 well, he knew he shouldn't have been so serious (when he told Karl Malone to clear out) in such a ridiculous matter (an All-Star Game).

In other words, our future is a work-in-progress, and our future wants to learn to pass, and our future wants to get his shooting percentage above freezing, and our future takes foreign language courses at UCLA, and our future wants to raise his future children in Europe, and our future gets out of his BMW every time he sees a kid wearing his KB 8 sneakers and thanks him. I say, 'Nice sneaks, how's your game?' our future says.

Our future also does not celebrate after dunks, and our future wears that floppy hat and sunglasses so he can go see a movie in peace, and our future has been assigned Mister Johnson's old locker, and our future respects the '70s, and our future knows about Pistol Pete Maravich?

When he was a kid in Italy, his cousins sent him tapes other than Come Fly With Me; his favorite video was NBA Showmen. He says Earl Monroe gave him his spin move, and that Pistol Pete gave him all my tricks, and isn't it great that our future knows about our past?

In Italy, they tried to turn him into a soccer goalie, but he would come home after school, eat a Pop-Tart, play basketball, watch his basketball videos, do his homework, say hello to his father, Jelly Bean (who was playing professionally over there) and then watch G-rated TV.

I was raised by a great family, he says. I just saw The Godfather and Scarface for the first time last year. Growing up, it was all Babes in Toyland and Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Those are things kids should be exposed to. You don't need to see all this violence.

But he moved from Italy to Philly at the age of 14, and he saw his violence all right. They asked him if he wanted to smoke dope, and he said no, and they asked him if he wanted to party and he said no. Even before he read the book, he had been serious in a serious matter.

As long as I had my basketball there with me, I could escape, our future remembers about that day in Philly when he was offered a joint. I was, 'Bye.'

Bye, and back to his room to watch the Pearl and Pistol and No. 23.

Bye, and five years later hello.