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Monday, March 23, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bryant Says Take It To The Bank: `In Kobe We Trust'

Times NBA Reporter

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Kobe Bryant wants you to trust him. He wants you to trust that the future of the NBA is in good hands because those hands are his. He wants you to believe he is not going to betray that trust, no matter how crazy the hype becomes.

Kobe Bryant says this from the battlefield, amid the crossfire between NBA generations. The hype got so mad, it is now in reverberation. The backlash has begun in earnest.

"I hear what people are saying," Bryant said during a rare quiet moment in the Los Angeles Laker locker room last week. "They're saying that it's all gone to my head, that it came too much, too soon. They're saying I'm falling off the cliff. I hear all that, but I don't agree.

"Don't give up on me. This is all going to play differently than these people are saying. Trust me."

Bryant is not ducking the tracers. He's taking the hits. The wounds will heal, he figures, and the scar tissue will make for thicker skin. He is 19, yet he wants your trust. He has struggled mightily the past six weeks, but insists hard times will lead to better times.

It's quite a leap of faith that Bryant's asking for, considering what has transpired the past couple of months.

The 1998 NBA All-Star Game served as his personal debutante ball because it was held in New York and because it was supposed to be Michael Jordan's last midseason dance. The league's highest scoring reserve at 17.9 points per game, Bryant seemed perfectly dressed for the party.

Bryant cast a dashing figure, but got tuned out by those attempting to also mute NBC's ear-piercing hype. The purists chimed in, accusing him of a piggish performance in what after all is an exhibition that most fans prefer to be a basketball equivalent of pileup at the trough. The Kobe-bashers received further ammo when the old school's principal, Karl Malone, revealed that Bryant had waved off his offer of an all-star pick.

"There always comes times when new players step up to the plate and the older ones move aside," Bryant said. "That's just the way things happen. I'm sure Karl was the same way when he was younger. I'm sure he was more aggressive, wanting to succeed, wanting to make a mark."

That's fine in a showcase event, but during the grind of the season, NBA teams are funny about playing against guys looking to make their mark, especially when the marks are welts that come in the form of losses. After leaving New York, Bryant found himself accompanied on court after court by a burgeoning posse.

The newly sprung double-teams and defensive stunts provoked a tailspin that some have interpreted as an ego-laden free fall. Bryant has averaged just 11.6 points in 21 outings since the All-Star Game and his shooting has dipped from 45 percent to 35. The nadir came last Monday in Seattle, when he was held scoreless for the first time in nearly a year.

Bryant said of the game against Seattle, "I didn't even get a chance to get in there, to get my rhythm." Laker Coach Del Harris agreed, explaining that Bryant played only 12 minutes because of the Sonics' size advantage at small forward, Bryant's best position.

"I feel like I'm 20 times the player I was before the All-Star break," Bryant said. "I understand the game better. I can see the defenses teams are throwing at me, and figuring out how to deal with them."

Trust is advised on this point. Bryant has a reputation for scholarly approach and knowing his NBA antecedents. He also has a reputation for hard, offseason toil.

"All this is not going to stop me from trying to accomplish what I want to accomplish," he said of his recent turmoil. "You're supposed to have tough times. You can't have everything go well. You don't know where you're going because you have nowhere to come from. When you struggle, it makes success that much sweeter.

"I'm just going to work 20 times harder. A year from now, two years from now, a lot of people are going to look back and say they were wrong.

"Trust me."

Kobe Bryant pleads for faith. He asks for time. We wonder if the hero-starved masses will be patient enough to allow him to be the same.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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