This being an election year, once again we find ourselves peppered with campaign promises. Like inebriated predators around closing time at the local tavern, they come on to us with all sorts of propositions. They’re going to fix the economy, protect our well-being, even thin out the traffic. As citizens, we are duty bound to view these pinheads with skepticism, and regard their pledges as balderdash generated by marketing whizzes with an eye toward the bottom line.
We can accept lying from our politicians, regardless of their party affiliation, because we have been conditioned to do so over a lifetime.
But basketball is a serious matter, and a line must be drawn.
Last weekend, during the NBA’s All-Star festivities, Kobe Bryant indicated publicly that he loves the Los Angeles Lakers and would like to remain in their employ. He said so to a throng of reporters on Friday, and he repeated as much the following day in a one-on-one interview with the Los Angeles Times.
This Bryant situation is uncharted territory, though. I hold him up to a much higher standard.
If Bryant is fibbing about this, he will face the kind of uprising in this country that caused Nixon to resign. If he is being disingenuous about his inclination to re-sign with the only team he has toiled for since he turned professional in 1996, he will make Clinton’s declaration that he “never had sex with that woman” seem like the naked truth.
Bryant is on the hook now. He had better come through.
Of course, he did leave himself an exit strategy. He suggested that by opting out of his contract after this season and becoming a free agent, he was merely exercising his rights as a businessman to explore all his options. And if somehow, he decides that there is a situation more beneficial to him than the one he is currently in, he would be remiss not to consider it.
Yet this Kobe-Shaq-Phil triangle of turmoil has been fueled mostly by recent reports from sources around Bryant that he was already “gone.” An ex-Laker. A former employee of Jerry Buss. Bryant’s dissatisfaction with working alongside O’Neal, and under the thumb of Jackson, has reportedly driven him to seek a new club, one that would be better suited to his individual needs – if those shadowy and anonymous informants are to be believed.
Last weekend, Bryant said these reports are baseless and misguided. He claimed that while he does not get along well with Jackson as a person, he loves him as a coach. He explained that he and O’Neal don’t have to play checkers together on team flights, or gab on the phone until the wee hours like teenagers, in order to continue a professional relationship on the court.
It all sounds fabulous. And it had better be true.
If Bryant is simply trying to quell the ruckus around him and keep prying reporters in abeyance, all the while harboring a secret plan to stiff the Lakers at season’s end, then he is a charlatan of the highest order. That would make him a manipulator and a two-faced double-crosser.
He would be no better than a politician.
There is a possibility that Bryant is doing the right thing in waiting. If he opts out, becomes a free agent and then re-signs with the Lakers again, he can get a longer and more lucrative contract than if he signs an extension now. Perhaps that is a smart move for anyone in his situation.
If that is the case, then he should indicate that in private to Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak. It wouldn’t deny him leverage in negotiations over the summer. At this point, the Lakers would be loco to lowball someone who is arguably the best all-around player in the game. If Bryant made it known quietly to team personnel that he will be in uniform next season – barring an unfavorable verdict in his sexual assault case, of course – then Shaq, Phil and the rest of the gang wouldn’t have to comment on Bryant’s attitude, his relationship with teammates or his future.
The trade deadline is Thursday. Bryant should tell the Lakers whether they would be wise to ship him out now, so at least they could get a return on their investment.
No less an authority than Magic Johnson said Bryant should think hard about the concept of being “The Man” on another team. “He should make a call to Tracy McGrady, Allen Iverson and those guys,” Magic said, “even Kevin Garnett before he got Sam (Cassell) and (Latrell) Sprewell and ask them what is it like to really have your own team? Is it all what it’s made up to be? No. Because if you don’t have that other star sitting beside you, you’re going to be in big trouble. That’s the way I feel about it and I tell him that. Remember, now, you like to go and do your own thing. Well, that big man makes it easier for you to do that.”
Also, Bryant should remember that if Jackson does resume talks with the Lakers and signs an extension, it probably will be a two-year deal. Bryant could re-up with the Lakers for seven. It would be asinine for Kobe to sign a long-term contract elsewhere in order to get away from Jackson when the coach wouldn’t be around for the bulk of Bryant’s next contract anyway.
Bryant knows all this. He has savvy advisors. Everything in the realm of logical thought points to his re-enlistment with the Lakers.
But Bryant is also stubborn, willful, somewhat self-absorbed and aloof. He may be quietly simmering over Jackson’s restrictive ways, bitter over sharing the spotlight and the ball with O’Neal, and resentful toward the organization. He may be plotting his revenge, and is using statements like “I want to be a Laker. I’ve been a Laker fan my entire life and I want to be a Laker for the rest of my life” to create a diversion.
If that turns out to be the case, and his expressions of admiration for the franchise are fake, he’ll never live it down. The resulting furor will haunt him until the day he retires.
Of course, it would work to his advantage if he ever runs for office.
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