THIS WAS 1995-96, the 76ers' 18-victory season of first-round draft choice Jerry Stackhouse and the team of Clarence Weatherspoon, Vernon Maxwell, Trevor Ruffin, Shawn Bradley, Jeff Malone, Sharone Wright and Derrick Alston.

And, during the preseason workouts and scrimmages at Saint Joseph's University . . . Lower Merion High senior Kobe Bryant.

"He was better than anyone we had," said Chicago Bulls assistant coach Ron Adams, then a Sixers assistant.

Legends tend to evolve over the years. Bryant, in his 12th season, became the NBA's Most Valuable Player for the first time this year. He has won three rings with the Los Angeles Lakers, but when the Finals begin tonight in Boston he will be aiming for his first title without Shaquille O'Neal.

"I brought him to the Spectrum when we were playing the Chicago Bulls, to introduce him to Michael Jordan,'' then-Sixers coach and general manager John Lucas said. "Kobe was very polite, calling Michael 'Mr. Jordan.' When we left, I said, 'Kobe, you're coming into the league, you can't be calling him Mr. Jordan.' ''

Looking back, Lucas said his wife was the one who turned him on to Bryant.

"Our daughter went to Lower Merion, and my wife went to the games,'' Lucas said from his home in Houston. "She told me about a kid named 'Kobe Bean.' She said he was better than I was in high school. I told her she was out of her mind.

"I went to the Palestra to see him play against Chester, and ran into Joe Bryant, 'Jelly Bean,' who I knew in Houston. I hadn't put the two together. He laughed and said, 'That's my son.' He played '5' [center] to start the game, then went to '4,' '3' and '2'. In the fourth quarter, he was playing the '1.' ''

Eventually, Lucas had Kobe working out with him at 6 a.m., before school, then going through after-school drills with Adams and current Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau. And then he would play in the scrimmages.

"He was precocious at that age, but a promising prospect,'' Adams said. "It's one thing to talk about what a player might be able to do, but it was another thing to see him play against other people, to see it firsthand. When I was with Milwaukee, Dwyane Wade [who went to Marquette] used to come over during his redshirt year and work out with some of the Bucks and some others. You get a pretty good picture of a guy.''

When it was time to draft in '96, the Sixers and everybody else had a pretty good picture of who Bryant was and what they thought he might become. The Sixers had the No. 1 overall pick, and were zeroed in on Allen Iverson. But doing their due diligence under the watchful, veteran eye of Gene Shue, they worked out the kid from Lower Merion. Lucas, by then, was gone. Brad Greenberg was the GM, Johnny Davis the coach.

"He had an incredible workout,'' said Shue, who still scouts for the Sixers. "He had the size, you knew he would grow into a larger body, and he had one-on-one skills. He was wide-eyed, bright, spoke with authority and confidence. Remember, though, Iverson was the player at the time, with 2 years of college experience. His name had been penciled in by many teams. It was hard to go against that.''

The Sixers took Iverson, who went on to win four scoring titles and the MVP in 2000-01, helping them reach the Finals for the first time since 1982-83. Bryant went No. 13, to the then-Charlotte Hornets, and a few weeks later was traded to the Lakers for Vlade Divac.

"I remember calling Bob Bass, who was their GM,'' Lucas said. "I told him about Kobe. I said, 'We're not taking him, but I think you should.' They did, and Kobe refused to go there and they traded him to the Lakers. The rest is history.''

Now, it is time to write the next chapter. *