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Have you ever wondered what the future of basketball looks like? An overflowing Palestra crowd caught a glimpse last night, in the first game of the District 1 high school semifinals. His name -- Kobe Bryant. Bryant, a senior at Lower Merion High School in Philadelphia's northern suburbs, is by most accounts the best high-schooler in the United States. His play last night supported the hype. Like all great players, the 6-foot-7 guard lifted the games of those around him. In Bryant's case, those around him are decidedly mediocre, so it took all of his individual genius -- blocked shots, clutch threes and breath-taking dunks -- to lift his Aces past a technically-superior Coatesville squad. The show began early last night. Fourteen minutes before game time, Lower Merion came out of the tunnel for pre-game layups. The lanky Bryant was not content simply to knock the ball off of the glass and through the hoop. On the contrary, he twisted and contorted his body, as if rehearsing for his heroics in the game. Ten minutes before tip-off and the night already belonged to Kobe Bryant. Lower Merion started slowly, perhaps intimidated by the frenzied over-capacity crowd which flowed into the Palestra aisles, a group which would not be held back by little things like fire codes. Bryant's Aces seemed flustered in the first quarter. After two trips down the floor, the team did away with any semblance of an offense scheme. The new plan: give the ball to Kobe and get the hell out of the way. The only real offensive function performed by his teammates was to lob the ball toward the rim and let Kobe finish the alley-oop. By game's end, Bryant had amassed 29 points and had led his Lower Merion team to an upset 70-65 victory. But Bryant's importance goes far beyond his contributions in the Aces' district title run. The real story of this highly-touted 18-year old will be playing next fall. Bryant's indecisiveness makes Temple coach John Chaney livid for not having committed -- to La Salle. "I'm going to get a baseball bat for that Joe Bryant. That kid should have committed to La Salle a long time ago," Chaney said after his Owls win over the Explorers earlier this year. "It's very unfortunate and sad. It angers and frustrates me. Kids in this area should go to these schools." Kobe's father, Joe, is a former 76er and is presently an assistant coach at La Salle. To Chaney, and to many other traditional Big 5 fans, that means Bryant should have signed on with the Explorers long ago. But the young superstar has not made up his mind, and his father repeatedly denies any intention of pushing him. Bryant has another option, one that only the rarest of high school phenoms possesses. He is considering entering the NBA draft this June. It may be too easy to take the pro money up front, instead of risking a career-ending injury playing college ball. Chaney's opinion, on the other hand, is that the key to revitalizing the once-proud Big 5 tradition is keeping local basketball talent at home. Lower Merion's No. 33, who looks frighteningly like Anfernee Hardaway from the cheap seats, fits the bill perfectly. The possibility that such a talented player could wear the blue and gold next year is the one bright spot in an otherwise bleak year for La Salle. So as an illustrious high school career winds down in the coming weeks, and a final decision nears, there is more at stake than just the decision of one NBA hopeful. Standing on the Palestra hardwood last night, Kobe Bryant was many things to many people. To Explorers head coach Speedy Morris, the image was perfect. Bryant pulling up for a three-pointer under the La Salle 1954 NCAA championship banner which hangs from the Palestra rafters. To Chaney, Bryant was a local star who cannot be allowed to get away. And to the anonymous NBA scout in the audience, he was a potential franchise player. Most importantly, though, Kobe Bryant was a son to Joe Bryant -- a son who has been granted the freedom to make his own decision.

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