Hoop dreams became grounded in reality for Kobe Bryant at the age of 17, when he entered the NBA straight from high school.
Eight years on, he was an American sporting icon who seemingly had it all.
KOBE BRYANT FACTFILE
Born: 23/08/78, Philadelphia
Joins NBA at 17 in 1996
Lakers debut Nov 1996
1998: Youngest-ever All Star
2000-02: Wins three NBA titles
Pts high: 56 v Memphis, 2002
2nd best PPG av (30) last year
Youngest player to hit 10,000pts
Three NBA titles with the Los Angeles Lakers, a multi-million-dollar fortune, a beautiful wife and daughter, and the adulation of a sports-crazy nation.
But then came allegations that he sexually assaulted a young woman at a hotel in Colorado on 30 June this year.
Bryant denied rape but admitted that he and the college student had had consensual sex, tarnishing his previously squeaky-clean image.
That image matters to a man whose talent and star qualities have netted him massive sponsorship deals with, among others, Nike and Coca-Cola.
Lurid tales of American sportsmen behaving badly are a staple feature of the US media, especially during basketball and American football's summer close seasons.
But interest in Bryant's case has made sideshows of all the others, and even overshadowed the upcoming new NBA season itself.
The reason? Because it's Kobe.
The 6ft 6in 25-year-old, who plays guard for the NBA's Hollywood glamour team, is regarded as his sport's biggest name.
He is also the antithesis of the brash, flash, trash-talking breed of star whose $100m contracts make them think they are bigger than the game itself.
Bryant's wife Vanessa has stood by him
Bryant may have bypassed college to turn pro, but he has the air of a well-rounded individual - he also speaks fluent Italian - a giant of the sport without the ego to match.
Cool headed, quietly spoken, respectful unless sorely provoked, he was seen by many as the natural successor to Michael Jordan - the NBA's greatest-ever player.
Growing up in Philadelphia, Bryant certainly had a head start thanks to his father Joe, who had him practising at the age of 13 with one of his former teams, the 76ers.
The former National High School Player of the Year was picked 13th overall by the Charlotte Hornets in the 1996 NBA Draft but traded to the Lakers a few months later.
Bryant became the youngest-ever player to appear in an NBA game, coming on against Dallas aged 18 years, two months and 11 days on 3 November.
He struggled initially against older, bigger players, but his will to win and outstanding talent saw him established as a Lakers starter.
Bryant's scoring feats and prowess, particularly in tandem with giant centre Shaquille O'Neal - who also joined the Lakers in 1996 - helped re-establish the team as the NBA's dominant force.
They took the title in 2000, 2001 and 2002, but saw San Antonio win it this year, prompting a summer recruitment drive by coach Phil Jackson.
However, Bryant remains at the heart of his plans - if the serious allegations hanging over the player's head prove to be unfounded.