LeBron, rookies learn from Kobe's example

LeBron James looked as if someone had just blocked his shot. Someone like Earl Boykins.

"Am I ready for the season?" he asked incredulously, repeating that very question. "Man, that's an understatement. I've been ready. I am ready."

But is the most-acclaimed NBA rookie in years prepared for what life off the court has in store for him?

In case you think James can easily handle anything that comes his way, we've got a two-word response for you: Kobe Bryant.

In the wake of Bryant's sexual-assault case that rocked the NBA and will continue to cast a pall over the league when teams start training camp next week, James and other rookies are being schooled this week on staying out of trouble.

They're participating in the 19th annual Rookie Transition Program. It's a mandatory program, with sessions covering such hot-button topics as felony situations, gambling, gender violence, security, sexual harassment, drugs and alcohol, sex education and stress and anger management.

While Bryant's stunning fall from grace is merely the latest black eye for a league that is all too accustomed to having some of its biggest stars run afoul of the law, it is also serving as a wake-up call for the 70-odd participants, including several second-year players who missed the program last season.

Some of the day-long sessions being conducted outside New York City by the league and the NBA Players Association are expected to draw on the type of issues that surfaced with Bryant's alleged criminal activity in Colorado last July. As the newcomers will be reminded, as they're busy in preseason, Bryant will be going from Lakers training camp in Hawaii to an Oct. 9 preliminary hearing in Eagle, Colo., with his All-NBA career in the balance.

If that isn't enough to grab your attention, then nothing is.

"The Kobe Bryant case has been an eye-opener," said Tim McCormick, the former NBA forward who now participates in the sessions in his role as a union official. "The players have to know that the increased media attention Kobe is going through is going to make life more difficult for them. If there's a positive, hopefully as players leave the arenas, they'll think of Kobe Bryant and the problems he's having."

Those self-inflicted problems are being hammered home during the orientation in situational skits performed by actors and actresses, with analysis provided by Zachary Minor. Minor, president and executive director of Zinc Sports Consulting, has run the program the last 15 years and also works with the NFL.

"Beautiful women are falling all over (players)," Minor said. "How do they resolve that and the responsibility of maintaining a relationship?"

That's an age-old question for players. In Minor's view, players have to exercise discipline, while also considering how any action they take would affect an existing relationship or marriage. Bryant heard those very words seven years ago when he went through the program. Once a shining example for other rookies to follow, now he's Exhibit A on the
what-to-steer-clear-of part of the program.

"It's incumbent on these guys to make better choices than some other players have made," said Bob Lanier, the Hall of Famer who now is an executive with the league and helps with the rookie program. "We've got to make them understand that the choices they make not only impact themselves, but ripple around the world."

You don't have to tell that to Bryant, not after a summer of screaming tabloid headlines and prime-time TV shows devoted to his felony rape charge.

"We all know what happened with Kobe," said Miami's No. 1 pick, Dwyane Wade. "When a person like that is in the spotlight, you have to take that under consideration. We need this program because we can learn from people who have been there before."

So they'll meet with ex-players such as Bill Russell and Bob Love. But former stars can only advise so much. It all starts with players staying off police blotters.

"Their antenna has got to be up, at all times," Lanier said. "They have to understand that life is not perfect. There are a lot of people that are going to be surrounding them that have agendas and don't mean them any good. Players have to make sure that they have people around them who they can trust."

The high-profile rookies always need to keep that last point in mind. They make the most money and will have the most people trying to get at them. No one will find that more this season than James. While the Cavs' phenom seems mature enough to contend with those shady elements, no one knows for sure.

"The trouble is that we have new players who are 18, 19 and 20 who are coming in from a nurturing environment, where people were looking out for them," McCormick said. "Now, they're targets. And they're expected to be men and not make critical mistakes. If they do, the way society is, it's gonna be on the front page. So we try to impress upon them the need to be role models and the need to work hard on their image -- probably just as hard off the court as they do on it. Because quite frankly, the transition is a lot easier on the court than it is away from the game."

In case James and the other rookies don't grasp that, all they need to do is think about the mess that Kobe Bryant has put himself in.

Mitch Lawrence, who covers the NBA for the New York Daily News, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.