Fri, Jun 04, 2004 - Page 24 News List

Kobe-Hamilton matchup unfolds

AP , EL SEGUNDO, CALIFORNIA

Kobe Bryant and Richard Hamilton first crossed paths when they were prep stars in the Philadelphia area.

They've traveled in different directions to reach the NBA Finals, where they'll provide one of the key matchups when the Los Angeles Lakers face the Detroit Pistons.

"It's going to be fun," Bryant said Wednesday. "We've played against each other so many times -- we were very good friends in high school. He plays the same. [But] he's gotten so much better."

The 26-year-old Hamilton, six months older than Bryant, attended Connecticut for three years after graduating from Coatesville High in 1996. He led the Huskies to the NCAA championship as a junior before Washington made him the seventh overall selection in the 1999 NBA draft.

Hamilton improved steadily in three seasons with Washington before being traded to Detroit before the 2002-2003 season in a six-player deal that sent Jerry Stackhouse to the Wizards.

Finishing his second year with the Pistons, Hamilton has become a star, leading them into the Finals by averaging 21.5 points in the playoffs.

Bryant, meanwhile, went straight from Lower Merion High to the Lakers in 1996 and achieved stardom a few years later. He will be shooting to win his fourth championship ring in five years.

While Bryant figures to spend most of his time guarding the tireless Hamilton, the Pistons might opt to assign Tayshaun Prince to the Lakers' star at times.

"Larry is using him the way he used Reggie Miller in Indianapolis," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "He gets a lot of help from the screeners."

Jackson was referring to first-year Pistons coach Larry Brown, who is coaching in the NBA Finals for the second time. The first was three years ago when he was in Philadelphia and the 76ers faced the Lakers, who won in five games to cap a 15-1 playoff run.

"We go back a long way," Jackson said. "I've got a great understanding for what he does, a lot of respect for his ability to coach basketball."

The Lakers and Pistons meet starting Sunday at Staples Center in a rematch of the 1988 and 1989 NBA Finals. The Pistons have reached the Finals for the first time since 1990.

The Lakers are heavily favored, but at least one of their veterans isn't looking at it that way.

"I don't think one person walked out of our locker room who's overconfident," said 40-year-old Karl Malone, who joined the team last summer in search of his first championship.

A title would be Jackson's 10th as a head coach, snapping a tie with former Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach for the most championships won by a coach or manager in a major professional team sport.

"It's a great fortune to be going for something like this -- it's a matter of circumstance and luck," said the 58-year-old Jackson, whose contract expires at season's end, leaving his future up in the air.

With eight players including Bryant, Malone and Payton eligible for free agency after the season, this could mark the end of an era for the Lakers.

"I haven't dwelt on that," Jackson said. "We're just playing for the moment."

No Eastern Conference team has won a championship since 1998 -- Jackson's last year as coach of the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan's final season with that team.

The Spurs won in 1999 and 2003, and the Lakers, under Jackson, prevailed from 2000-2002, going 12-3 in the Finals against the Pacers, 76ers and Nets. O'Neal was the Finals MVP each time, but those were the days when he was completely dominating the middle.

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