On Tuesday, Kobe Bryant visits his hometown for the final time as an NBA player. The Philadelphia Sixers will be on the opposite end of the court, fresh off tying one record for futility and extending another.
Bryant’s Lakers are 2-14 and are primed to let Philadelphia break into the win column after an 0-18 start. Only the 2009-10 New Jersey Nets began a season as poorly as these Sixers, who have lost a remarkable 28 consecutive games. That’s a feat unmatched by any U.S. professional sports franchise ever.
This season aside, Bryant can’t share much about chronic losing with the young Sixers. He has won five NBA titles, two Olympic gold medals, an NBA MVP and been selected to 17 All-Star Games. But he has a wealth of knowledge on being a rich and famous teenage superstar, experience he should discuss with 19-year-old Philly center Jahlil Okafor.
The No. 1 overall pick last summer, Okafor leads all rookies in scoring and minutes per game (17.5 and 33, respectively). He’s third among rookies in rebounds (8.2) and third in blocks (2.34), but he’s tops in disturbing off-court incidents that recently came to light. There was a reported after-hours altercation in Philly, that included a gun pointed at his head; a reported ticket for driving 108 mph on the Ben Franklin Bridge, which has a speed limit of 45 mph; and a reported after-hours street fight in Boston, where he pushed and punched a man (video courtesy of TMZ).
“I hold myself to a higher standard than anyone else ever could and I’m not proud of some of my decisions over the last few months,” Okafor tweeted Sunday. “I own my choices both personally and now publicly. At this point I am cooperating and respecting the process I have to go through.
“Going forward I don’t want to be a distraction for my team and am grateful for the support and guidance those to me are giving. I am 100% focused on my responsibility to the league, my teammates and fans.”
Each episode calls Okafor’s judgment into question, although speeding is the least worrisome. There’s something about gunning powerful, expensive vehicles that gets the best of some car owners. We can’t even write it off as youthful indiscretion. The Nationals’ Jayson Werth was 34 years old when he was convicted of driving 105 in a 55 zone.
But there’s reason for legitimate concern regarding the other reports, especially since the Boston incident occurred AFTER the gun incident. You would hope that the potentially life-threatening situation led to a change in Okafor’s behavior. You would hope that it made him realize the danger, burden and inevitable attention that accompanies high-profile individuals when they hit the clubs. (What business does a 19-year-old have at the club, anyway?)
But you also would hope that the Sixers enacted some measures and policies to protect the face of the franchise once a firearm was brandished outside a Philly bar in October. The organization has a huge investment in Okafor and shouldn’t rely solely on him for safeguarding. That’s what chaperons and bodyguards are for, not to mention veteran teammates.
If Okafor didn’t learn enough the first time he found trouble in the wee hours, that should’ve convinced the Sixers that their prized rookie needed help. Hecklers are to be expected when your team hasn’t won a regular-season game since March 25. But even if Philly was 18-0 instead of 0-18, Okafor would draw the usual assortment of gold-diggers, tough guys and lowlifes who seek to benefit from an athlete’s stature.
Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie has embarked on a questionable rebuilding plan that features four rookies, three second-year players, four third-year players and a 2014 draft pick (injured Joel Embiid) who has yet to play an NBA game. The lone veteran is 32-year-old Carl Landry, who is sidelined until January and has yet to establish a presence.
No one else on the Sixers is older than 24, a recipe for boneheaded disasters.
There’s no guarantee that a security detail or core of veterans would keep Okafor in his room or out of the news. But that doesn’t excuse the Sixers for failing to surround him with resources to choose from. Yes, he’s ultimately responsible for his own actions, but anyone who’s raised teenagers knows they can be slow on the uptake in making mature decisions. Especially when they’re rich and famous ballers.
Bryant was 24 when he had an epiphany, sparked by a woman’s accusation that he sexually assaulted her in his Colorado hotel room. The case was dropped after she refused to testify; Bryant later settled a civil suit and publicly apologized but admitted no guilt. “I started to consider the mortality of what I was doing,” Bryant told GQ magazine in February. “What’s important? What’s not important?’”
The first answer for Okafor is being healthy and productive. The second is clubbing and defending his pride. Maybe Bryant can take a few minutes Tuesday to explain that to him. Hinkie should set it up.
Afterward, the GM should assign security and sign a veteran or two to help Okafor grow up.