NEW YORK -- Kobe Bryant has barely played a year and a half in the NBA, and already he's being compared with perhaps the best player ever. It's probably Bryant's flair for the spectacular, his on-court confidence and his charisma.
But it gets downright eerie with Bryant when you sit down next to him. Close your eyes and listen. Hear his inflections, the cadence of his speech and the confidence he exudes. Bryant resembles Michael Jordan in more ways than one.
At this time in 1996, Bryant was a senior at Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Pa., helping lead his team to a state championship. Two years later, he is an NBA All-Star for the Los Angeles Lakers, and he takes the court tonight as the youngest starter in All-Star history.
"Right now, no, I can't believe this," Bryant, 19, said Friday during an hourlong media session. "This is incredible. My whole body is numb. I don't know what I'm thinking at this moment."
What Bryant has found over the past few days is that the phenomenon of his fast-growing popularity is immense. Gigantic.
How else do you explain the full-page color advertisement in USA Today on Friday, featuring Bryant and Jordan towering over the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center?
By the time Bryant arrived fashionably late for the Friday media session, there were 40 print and television journalists awaiting him. How popular was he? Bryant's presence attracted so much attention that the likes of Grant Hill, Anfernee Hardaway, Kevin Garnett and David Robinson were almost overlooked.
Bryant, speaking in generational terms, has blown up. And it has been something of a surprise, especially after he played a little more than 15 minutes a game last season, averaging 7.6 points and 1.9 rebounds after being selected with the 13th pick in the first round of the 1996 draft. He was picked by the Charlotte Hornets and traded to the Lakers.
"[Sitting] was hard, because I wanted to play," Bryant said. "I want success. I'm hungry for success. And it was hard last year because I felt I could do more, and yet I couldn't.
"I'm a very impatient person," Bryant added. "But by sitting, it taught me how to be patient. It helped me mature. It allowed me an opportunity to step back, watch others play and learn."
The Lakers' high opinion of Bryant was evident in Game 5 of last year's playoff series against the Utah Jazz when he took the potential game-winning shot at the end of regulation -- an air ball. He would toss up three more air balls in overtime as the Lakers were eliminated.
What was surprising was that on a team with three other players who went on to become All-Stars this year -- Shaquille O'Neal, Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones -- it was the rookie Bryant who took it upon himself to try to lead his team to victory.
"It helped me a lot with my confidence," Bryant said of his misfires. "Even though I missed those shots, the fact that my teammates trusted me to take them showed me something."
After a summer of bulking up and working hard on his game, Bryant has arrived as a factor on a team that is the deepest and most athletically gifted in the league. Bryant is averaging 17.9 points per game, the highest total for a non-starter in the league.
His success lies in his amazing one-on-one ability, with athleticism giving him the ability to break down a defender almost at will.
"You all haven't seen the half of it," teammate Rick Fox said of Bryant earlier this season. "I'm the guy guarding him in practice every day. I've resorted to flat-out butchering him every time he goes to practice.
"I've been really impressed with his attitude and approach to the game," Fox added. "He's going to be the real deal."
Said Denver Nuggets coach Bill Hanzlik of Bryant: "How good is Michael Jordan? Kobe Bryant can be Michael Jordan-good. He's that awesome."
Others who were preordained to be the next Jordan -- like Hardaway and Hill -- have scoffed at such comparisons, but Bryant seems to take them in stride.
"I definitely watched him growing up, and the only similarities we have is we're both 6-6 and have athletic ability," Bryant, now 6 feet 7, said of Jordan.
"I've learned a lot from Mike -- the way he approaches the game, the way he dissects opponents, the way he tries to exploit their weaknesses," Bryant added.
That Bryant can be so grounded as a teen-ager playing in a league with its fast-paced lifestyle probably has a lot to do with his upbringing. Bryant's dad, Joe "Jelly Bean" Bryant, played eight seasons in the NBA before retiring in 1983.
When the elder Bryant played in Italy, Kobe went along, learning to speak Italian, and that experience played a part in making him the well-rounded individual he is today.
By the time he made the decision to skip college and go straight to the NBA, Bryant knew he was ready.
"I wasn't intimidated at all, and I knew I would work hard," Bryant said. "To me, this is a simple game. You're just playing it against top-notch players."