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Will rookies learn from NBA's summer of trouble?

8/5/2003

Later this summer, LeBron James' ears are guaranteed to perk up.
He'll be sitting in a room along with the rest of the NBA's rookie
class, and the subject will inevitably turn to Kobe Bryant.

The speaker will be someone from the league's office of player
development, perhaps its director, Mike Bantom. The discussion will
be frank, the tone will be bleak and the moral of the story will be
this:

If you do something bad, no matter how big or small, everybody
is going to know about it on a scale you could never imagine.

"I hope that somebody learns from this," Bantom said.
"Before, when you were in high school and college, you may have
felt under a microscope, but it's nothing like at this level. Now,
anything you do impacts you, your family, your career -- and on how
pro athletes are portrayed. And it will have a profound impact with
fans."

The felony sexual assault charge against Bryant -- the league's
No. 1 marketable star -- has been just one of a string of highly
publicized cases involving NBA players this summer.

The legal troubles have been a PR nightmare for a league that
has struggled in recent years to sell the sport to a portion of the
public turned off by the tattooed, hip-hop culture.

Still, the NBA maintains that the problems are isolated and are
not representative of the league's nearly 400 players.

In the last month alone:

--Damon Stoudamire of the Portland Trail Blazers was arrested at
an airport security checkpoint on marijuana charges.

--Jerry Stackhouse of the Washington Wizards was charged with
assault in a dispute over a rental contract for a home he was
staying at on the North Carolina coast.

--Darrell Armstrong of the New Orleans Hornets was arrested
outside an Orlando nightclub after he allegedly shoved away the arm
of a police officer who grabbed his shoulder.

"This summer has taught me to stay my butt in the house," said
Vince Carter of the Toronto Raptors.

NBA rookies aren't the only ones who hear from the office of
player development, which also speaks with each of the league's 29
teams twice during the season to counsel players on numerous
topics: finance, continuing education, sexual health, domestic
violence, traffic safety and gun laws.

But those sessions are minor compared to the six-day program
known as rookie orientation, which is mandatory for all incoming
players. It will be held next month in suburban New York.

And while the Bryant case will serve as the epitome of how
everything can go wrong so quickly for one of the game's top
players, the rookies will be reminded about the Stoudamire,
Stackhouse and Armstrong arrests, too.

"With Kobe, what he has been accused of is something they know
they should never do, but our point is that in cases like
Stackhouse's or Armstrong's, these are good guys who have done good
things, but they lost their tempers. And because they are NBA
players, it becomes a national news story," Bantom said.

What bothers some NBA players is that they are often lumped in
with the few that get into trouble.

"It can't help but to make people think the wrong way about
us," said Allan Houston of the New York Knicks. "People are going
to generalize. People have done it already. When the marijuana
cases came out, they generalized NBA players. Now they think all
NBA players smoke weed. It's just not fair, but hey, that's how it
is."

Before making those comments, Houston read to a group of summer
campers as part of the league's Read to Achieve program. Other NBA
players often participate in that program and similar ones that
receive little or no publicity.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban believes a portion of the
sports media has an outdated obsession.

"The 'I'm horrified' and 'What happened to the good old days?'
perspective has long died as a perspective among the general
public," Cuban wrote in an e-mail.

"If you haven't noticed, this is the age of reality TV, and if
anything, people become more interested in celebrities the more
notoriety they receive.

"In terms of players in the NBA, there isn't a CEO of a large
company who wouldn't trade places with the NBA in a heartbeat. To
have a work population of mostly young, 20-something men, and have
less than 2 percent of them have legal issues in a given year, and
to have them also uniformly admit any problems and be open to
seeking help and counseling, would be a dream come true," Cuban
wrote.

But statistical perspective and feel-good stories don't excite
the masses. Arrests of athletes almost always make the national
news wires and the Internet, where high-profile cases can take on a
life of their own.

There are many Web sites about the Bryant case. One lists the
names and pictures of the accuser's friends and acquaintances along
with their public statements on the case. Another site sells
"Colorado Prison League" jerseys with Bryant's familiar No. 8.

The Web site www.thesmokinggun.com -- which features famous mug
shots -- has had 316,810 "unique visitor hits" on Bryant's arrest
photo in the first 19 days it was posted, seven times the number of
hits on Allen Iverson's mug shot over that span, editor Bill
Bastone said.

While the Bryant case is a debacle for him and the NBA, the
actual damage -- especially long term -- cannot be assessed until he
goes to trial, if there is a trial.

Although Bryant can play for the Lakers while the charge is
pending, it would seem unlikely he would participate in training
camp and the early part of the season if he is fighting for his
freedom in a Colorado courtroom.

Bryant is due in court Wednesday, after which a timetable should
become clearer. Whether he is eventually exonerated or
incarcerated, Bryant will one day make a return to the court.

"If anything, I would expect the first Laker game to draw the
biggest ratings for a regular-season game in a long, long time,"
Cuban said. "No one wants to see these things happen, but the
reality of our world today is that this will help the business of
the NBA, not hurt it."