Thursday, May 31, 2007

Memorial Day.

This ‘aint over.

He’s never been a sympathetic figure. But many of the things he’s done have been in pursuit of becoming the best basketball player he could be, the best basketball player ever. He feels as though it’s his turn, it’s his destiny.

Kobe Bryant is going to get what he wants. He just doesn’t know where yet. Half-hearted ultimatums and retractions aside, his 48 hour media blitzkrieg effectively granted the Lakers a two year amnesty. Chip or bust. Get down or lay down. Three years after his free agency loomed over the franchise, he’s proven he’s still in control and now everyone knows it. Which is why it’s time to trade him before it’s too late.

Long before him, basketball has been a stars game. One player can’t win titles alone, but he’ll get you damn close and so it’s only prudent to build around that star. Especially if he sells tickets. Therein lies a problem with all professional sports, but primarily in the NBA. The goal of the game is to win, but the goal of a business is to make money and the two agendas often intersect with disastrous results. This has held true for both the players and their respective franchises over the years. But even in a league of free agency with big salaries and big market benefits, to some, there’s still no substitute for winning.

The NBA is tough. Playing basketball 24/7 sounds like a dream to most, but the rigors of constant training, traveling and trades are very real and only truly known by professionals. Which is why it’s easy to see how some of them can grow fat on their success. A deeper hunger is needed from a player who seeks not only to improve or succeed, but to leave an imprint on the game itself. It’s the hunger to dominate. Just as Michael Jordan used Magic and Bird as a constant motivation long past their declines, Kobe has been chasing him. They all know they’re not truly the successor until they’ve out-achieved their predecessors. Everything Kobe’s done has been in pursuit of that lineage. Which is why he feels so betrayed by what is perceived to have been a con by Laker management.

The writing was all over the walls of Staples Center in the summer of ‘04. After a Finals upset by Detroit Kobe’s intrinsic value was still readily apparent, but his public perception was at an all-time low. The rape charges and internal feuding had taken their toll on him and he had begun to feel as though it was time for a change. He knew he’d never be considered a true great while playing in Shaq’s shadow and under Phil’s thumb. Management also knew this and while their rivalry may have weighed on his resigning with the Lakers, according to Kobe, it had very little to do with Shaq’s departure. Despite an impressive Finals performance, Shaq was clearly entering a decline and extending him would only be a burden on the salary cap as he regressed in his later years. So Jerry Buss made it clear to Kobe that regardless of his impending free agency decision, O’Neal was gone.

“He told me he wanted to trade Shaquille. He didn’t want to pay the $30 million or whatever it was. He felt he was getting older and it was time to trade him. He said, `I don’t care what you decide to do. I’m letting you know that I’ve decided to let (O’Neal) go. Now I hear that a Laker insider is saying this. Now I’ve got serious trust issues. They know I had nothing to do with that. Jerry Buss knows it. He called me on the eve of me making my decision, from his vacation in Italy.”-Kobe Bryant, 570AM w/ Petros and Money

But Kobe still had his reservations. Yes, the franchise had accommodated him throughout his trials, but he had always given them his best and the time had come for him to consider his future. Winning was the only answer to his problems and he wasn’t sure he could do that with the Lakers. Again, Buss reassured him.

“That’s the call that really swayed me. If you look at all the teams that have been quote-unquote dynasties, it normally takes about nine or 10 years to rebuild. That was my concern when I spoke with Dr. Buss. I said, `Are you guys on a nine- or 10-year plan? Are you on a long-term plan?’ Or do you want to try to rebuild this team right away and be aggressive. … That was my No. 1 concern, and he promised me that they would do whatever they can to go out and get players. They were going to be extremely aggressive. They are going to rebuild right now. This is not something where they wanted to wait. They wanted to get back to a championship level right now. That swayed my decision. I was leaning toward going to Chicago, and the Clippers as well, just for the fact that it was a new challenge and they have players that I’ve known for a while. … I wanted to play for the Lakers, and Jerry Buss called me from his vacation in Italy and promised that they wanted to rebuild right now. I trusted that promise and went with them.”

Who would deny Jerry Buss if he said he was committed to continuing the tradition of Laker excellence? Who would want to play with a guy who made no secret of his animosity towards their ambition? Not him.

Only now he realizes he’s been used. By everyone.

[on being blamed for the Shaquille O’Neal trade] “I’ve had many media people come up to me and say, `You know the Lakers are having you take the bullet for this one, right?’ I just shrugged it off, because it was about moving forward. Now when I see that a `Laker insider’ says I ran Shaq off, OK, now I’ve got a serious issue with that. I took it in stride the first time, because I assumed it was just talk. Now I find out that it’s coming from Laker insiders. Now I’ve got serious issues. I’m speaking my mind, because I’m not taking the bullet for something I did not say or did not do.”

[on the rebuilding process] “For the past few years, I’ve been meeting with Mitch and Dr. Buss in the offseason, talking to them about players. Most of the players call me, because I know most of them. Baron Davis called me and indicated he wanted to come out here and hoop with us. Same thing with Carlos Boozer. Same thing with Ron Artest. My response to them has been, `You know what? I love it. Let me call you back. I’m going to call Mitch and see what I can do. Let me (call) you back.’ Every time I had to call back and say they didn’t want to do it because of this or that. In Baron’s case it was because he was injury prone. In Carlos Boozer’s case it was because he can’t guard forwards. It was always something. Then they traded my man, Caron Butler, which made me feel terrible because he and I had been working out that whole summer. … Then I get a call, telling me that he’s been traded. They were asking me about my thoughts on that, and I said, `Why are you asking me my thoughts now? You already did the trade?’ Through all of these three years, and the time it’s taking to rebuild, enough is enough. That’s why I’ve been very vocal.”

Kobe felt as though he had some control and so did everyone else. Which is just what they wanted. But in light of recent events, the question has to be asked; if Kobe really did hold that much influence over the organization as to personally have O’Neal and Jackson jettisoned, then why didn’t it extend to acquiring Baron, Boozer, Butler or Artest? The answer appears to be that the Lakers never planned on spending any money. Management knew Kobe would be seen as a tyrant who banished two of the game’s treasures and it suited their agenda perfectly. The longer that he was nationally deemed the cause of the Lakers failures, the longer it allowed them to rescind spending to get back under the salary cap and luxury tax. Which meant not resigning Shaq or trading for players of ‘questionable value’. Local fans could be sustained by Kobe and the promise of a bright future, which was the integral piece to the team and the franchise moving through a transitional period as Buss nears retirement. He’s certain to pass control of the organization down to his children, Jim and Jeanie, whose quarrels on L.A. radio over the teams direction lit the fuse leading to Kobe’s bombshell.

The common thread throughout all of this? Phil Jackson.

Jim’s nurturing of prodigy Andrew Bynum has long been evidence of the Lakers commitment to a youth movement and his comments questioning Phil’s ability to foster it have been a point of contention for weeks within the front offices. Jackson chastised his students all year in the press and Jim wondered aloud whether this was best for a team in it’s developmental stages. Jackson, with his preference for hungry veterans, had always been critical of young players and the consequences of their immaturities. He was quoted as being less than impressed with his roster’s predilection for porn and video games and claimed that Jesus Christ himself couldn’t save them. There was an obvious rift between the coach and upper management.

Of course the coach also lives with upper management. After Jeanie Buss and assistant coach Kurt Rambis sounded off on Jim’s criticism of the Zen Master, it was clear that the power struggle of the Laker front offices had spilled into public view. Enter Ric Bucher, Stephen A. Smith and anyone else with a microphone breathlessly awaiting Kobe’s assessment of the situation. He probably would’ve gone on Imus if it were possible.

His solution? Bring back Jerry West. Not gonna happen. And why did West leave in the first place? Phil Jackson. Who prompted Kobe’s outbursts with tales of management’s long term rebuilding plans? Phil Jackson. Who reasoned with Kobe and averted another Hollywood breakup? Phil Jackson. Who was ultimately responsible for the first breakup? Phil Jackson.

It was Phil who ruffled West’s majestic feathers. It was Phil who was entrusted to end Star Wars, but chose to exacerbate the situation. It was Phil who left Kobe to the heavy lifting after he had dismissed the current roster as dead weight. It was Phil who coerced Kobe into speaking on his behalf when he had no leverage and when that talk pushed Kobe where he couldn’t follow, it was Phil who reigned him back in. It’s Phil who is looking for another title and another multi-year, multi-million extension. Phil Jackson has long been derided as a coach who manages talent rather than nourishing it and if Kobe were to leave Los Angeles, Jackson would be exposed for attack. He was the one who was brought back to placate Kobe and once again, he is the one mainpulating Kobe. He deserves as much as much of the blame for this as Jerry Buss. It's Phil Jackson who is selfish and avoiding his comeuppance.

Kobe’s rumored destination? Chicago, hungry for past glory after a controversial rebuilding process and the tumultuous departure of, um, Phil Jackson.

But no matter what he whispers in Kobe's ear, Phil Jackson can’t save the Lakers. Not soon enough. And as Kobe continues to age at a rate belied by his years, today will haunt the franchise until he puts pen to another contract. He now feels as though he’s been slighted by the entire organization and isn’t likely to forget it. How long can the Lakers delay the inevitable? With a trade veto and the clock ticking, Kobe Bryant is going to get what he wants, he just doesn’t know when yet.