HE'S BEEN in the NBA for more years than he had lived when he first entered it.

Kobe Bryant came back as a player one last time Tuesday night to his suddenly and stunningly appreciative hometown, came back to play against a team full of guys as wide-eyed as he was when he entered it as an 18-year-old two decades ago, less than a year after Jahlil Okafor was even born.

There's one huge difference, though, and it probably saved Kobe from the kind of turmoil that Okafor has invited with his recent off-the-court activities. "For me at the time, it was probably harder in some aspects," Bryant said before the Sixers broke their 18-game winless start with a 103-91 victory over his rebuilding Lakers. "Because the league was so much older that there was really nothing in common that I had with my teammates. At the same time, it was better because of the age difference. They had so much experience that I could really absorb everything from them. The entire team wasn't a young team. Where they are all learning this for the first time."

No, it sure wasn't. Derek Fisher and Travis Knight, the other two rookies from that 1996-97 Lakers team, were 22. The rest of that team, which won 56 games and lost to the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference semifinals, ranged from 24-year-old Shaquille O'Neal to 34-year-old Joe Kleine.

"I was there with Byron Scott and Jerome Kersey and all these guys," said Bryant. "So I had an incredible mentorship from the beginning. And I think because the league is so, so young, a lot of that gets lost."

Down the hall a few minutes later, Brown leaned his back against the concrete wall and spoke about trying to make up for that loss. This Sixers team has only one player, Carl Landry, over the age of 24 - although, to be fair, Robert Covington is less than two weeks from that, um, veteran threshold.

But Covington, still in the process of solidifying his own credentials as a must-see player, is in no position to hand out guidance to a 19-year-old talent who has too much money in his pocket, too much time on his hands, and too little maturation to handle either and especially both.

So Okafor finds himself occupied these days not with just breaking a dubious streak but repairing a dubious image. And Brown, so often exasperated while coaching a team starved for savvy and smarts, now finds himself baby-sitting as well.

He misses the presence of veterans such as Jason Richardson and Luc Mbah a Moute, he said.

"I feel like the leadership is trying to be grown from within," said Brown. "I do feel a responsibility to carry the load at times.

"I've got an unusual job, as you know. I'm coaching a bunch of 20-year-olds."

And dying a little with their mistakes each night. For the sixth game in a row, the Sixers held a fourth-quarter lead. This time, they held on to it, in a large part because Bryant can no longer summon the physical talent that made him one of the game's greatest-ever players. Bryant hit three of four threes to start the game, scored his team's first 11 points, had 13 in the first quarter and finished with . . . 20.

Bryant finished with a 7-for-26, even missing two of three free throws late after drawing Covington into a foul.

"God knows, I can't sustain that type of energy for 48 minutes the way I used to," he said afterward. "I've got to figure out how to solve getting stiff as the game goes on. I haven't been able to figure that out yet."

No doubt, it sabotaged the Lakers attempted comeback, which Brown acknowledged was formidable enough to force a "Here we go again," thought. The Sixers had taken fourth-quarter leads in their previous five games. This was the first time they held on - to the delight of a sellout, slightly schizophrenic crowd of 20,510 at the Wells Fargo Center.

It was Moses Malone night, but they clearly had come to see the local boy turned longtime nemesis, and to express, finally, how they really felt about the career he fashioned, about the five NBA championships, about that personality that once boasted about ripping out the hearts of their local team.

Hearts were exposed, for sure. They gave him a long standing ovation, raised the roof after he dropped those three early threes, even chanted "MVP" during the early going.

But when there was a game to be won, there was no lost allegiance. They backed their young team, roared when Okafor or Nerlens Noel slammed in baskets, roared when Jerami Grant swatted away Kobe's late layup.

But when it was over, when the Sixers had secured that final victory, the crowd switched one last time. They chanted Bryant's first name, brought him to tears as he hugged everyone - from ushers who had baby-sat him as a toddler to Julius Erving. And he in turn touched his heart with his right hand, raised his left in appreciation.

"Couldn't have scripted it better," he said, and that included this: There was a long hug at midcourt with Okafor, a few final words of advice from the former teenage talent to the current one.

"Just to stay focused on what you're doing," Bryant said when asked what he said. "Which is playing the game of basketball. It's tough in this day and age where everybody has a camera on their phones. You pick up on mistakes a lot more than you would in the past. Not to say that some of the heroes who played here in the past didn't make the same kind of mistakes. The important thing for him is to just learn from those mistakes. And stay focused on the game. Stay focused on tactical things where you feel like your weaknesses are and how to get better at it. If he does that, he'll be just fine."

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