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 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 are 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 their 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 and it’s aftermath. 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 placate the Big Ego, exacerbating 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. It is Phil Jackson who is selfish and avoiding his comeuppance.

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

But Phil Jackson can’t save the Lakers. Not in a year. Two either. 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.

8 Responses to “Memorial Day.”

  1. Great article.
    Phil Jackson may be the puppetmaster behind this as you imply, but he is also in the Top 2 or 3 NBA coaches of all time. Where’s the love for that? Maybe he’s just doing his job trying to reign all these egos in and holding the team together.
    The biggest problem w/ the Lakers is how inept the front office has been over the last 3 years. I don’t think it is some sort of nefarious plot to coast while saving money, I think they are just horrible at their jobs. I mean Caron for Kwame?!? Smush Parker? Radmanovich? What did they get for Shaq again?
    So Kobe’s probably right, they need Jerry West back. Whether he comes back I don’t know, but they need a new talent evaluator in the worst way.
    Kobe has got his 3 rings, he coulda thrown a fit to keep Shaq if he wanted too, he didn’t want too. Now he’s pulling a freakout because he realizes he’s stuck on a dog team. Tough, he could have been playing in the finals with the Clippers right now.

  2. This is what I don’t understand about everyone saying that Kobe could have “demanded” that the “Big Lazy” stay. His repeated attempts to bring players in to LA or even keep them here seems to have been ignored or stymied. So why would they listen to him if he said he wanted to keep O’Neil?

    Heck, at the end of the Bull’s run, didn’t Jordan want to keep that team together? Weren’t there ultimatum about if Phil goes, I go? What happened?

    What I read here in the Times was that Kobe was oh so very close to signing with the Clips, but was bum rushed by Magic and West who convinced him to stay with the Lake Show. Management convinced them they were going to keep gunning for title now. Turns out they were using him to keep butts in the seat while they rebuilt. These guy’s should watch out, man. Bad sports karma will getcha and hound you for years. Ask the 49ers after firing Mooch, ask the Knicks for dissing Ewing.

  3. maxairington Says:

    I used to love Phil, but over the years it’s been hard to look away from the unceasing manipulation of his environment. Shaq and Kobe were mere novices in PR assasinations compared to the Spin Master.
    And I honestly do think that the Lakers were just stringing Kobe along to save cash in hopes of their youth movment progressing to his satisfaction. Phil confirmed as much in his most recent “tell-all” If not for the rash of injuries that limited the team this year, they would’ve had a 50 win season and none of this talk would have even surfaced for at least another year. But now that immediate pressure is being put on a team that’s not ready, the Lakers will eventually have to acknowledge that Kobe is their only tradable asset.
    I dont see this team getting improving to Kobe’s liking before he’s able to opt out. That essentially gives the Lakers a year and a half to make things work before they’re forced to pull the trigger.

  4. Y’know, I was just talking about possible trade scenarios with a co-worker and he threw out: trading Brown for Artest(don’t know how the salaries work out, but I think Kwame is making significantly more) and then signing Grant Hill for the mid-level exception.

    I’m sure someone with more knowledge than about these sort of things can sort out if this is viable…

  5. 10FootBongz Says:

    While I am less perturbed by Kobe’s trade demand than I thought I would be (I lived through having my favorite player disgrace himself to get traded), I think that bringing up Baron and Boozer is pretty disingenuous.
    The Lakers have had neither the cap space or the talent required to get players like Baron and Boozer since the Lakers traded Shaq. Baron was never a free agent, and the Lakers didn’t have much to offer the Hornets (even though the Hornets got little for Baron). In Boozer’s case, he ended up signing an $11 million/year contract with Utah. I do not remember the last time that the Lakers had that much cap space, they certainly didn’t have the ability to sign Boozer at that price.
    With the current attitude towards players with guaranteed contracts demanding trades being one of general acceptance (and in Kobe’s favor, noone can deny that he gives 100% effort at all times on the court), Kobe should have just come out and said it clearly: He wants out because Laker management has screwed the pooch. They didn’t get enough from the Shaq trade (they either needed to clear cap space and start over or get a true superstar), then compounded that mistake by giving up an all-star level player in Caron Butler for Kwame Brown, then compounded that mistake further by paying Brown $7 million a year. They don’t have enough talent to trade for anyone that will help, and they are completely capped out, so the best that they can hope for is a DeShawn Stevenson type player in free agency (nice player, but obviously not putting them over the top).
    Nothing wrong with calling out management for doing a crap job when it’s true. In my opinion, that is a far better card to play than the “I got lied to” option. After all, the Lakers have spent money, they spent $77 million this year ($62 if you subtract Brian Grant’s contract), $72 million last year, $61 million the year before (the year after the Shaq trade, I believe). They just didn’t spend it wisely.

  6. MA,
    I agree with the general points of our article. As a Laker fan since 1979, but a fan of Kobe, my favorite athlete of all time even more, I applaud Kobe’s actions this week and can only wonderow he kept it bottled up inside for so long. If Kobe had signed with the Clippers in 2004, and given that he was pushing them to sign Iguodala as their draft pick, he’d have won two or three more titles by now.

    I’m not sure if money was the primary motivating factor in the FO’s decisions so much as it has been Jerry Buss’ horrible decision to make Jim Buss, not a basketball guy, intimately involved in personal decisions and the resultant unwillingness of Jimmy to give up on his pet project Andrew Bynum.

    IMO, ego is involved at least as much as money and as long as Jim Buss is involved, things will not go smoothly for the team.

    I’ve always been a Laker fan because they have cared about winning and they were willing to make the bold moves necessary to do so. But now, they seem to be about something else and frankly, I’ll go with Kobe. I’ll go with the brilliant, the dedicated, the superb, the reason I watch basketball in the first place.

    Some watch basketball to see great team play, I say F-That. I watch to see what Kobe is gonna do, to see shit like LeBron did last night, to see virtuoso performances and athletic wonders. I’ll leave the Spurs to the J-Funks of the world. I’ll leave the Lakers, should they choose their owners son over Kobe to the organization-first types.

  7. 10F,
    I disagree completely that the Lakers didn’t have the pieces to obtain Any of the guys you mentioned. They have had and do have the pieces, they’ve just been unwilling/unable to close the deals.

  8. maxairington Says:

    Kev, I watch for team play, but primarily for your aforementioned reasons. I wouldn’t blame Kobe for leaving and I just hope they get things together before he does.

    Complete co-sign on the Jim Buss statement. I think that the money is a contributing factor though maybe that pressures coming from Daddy. Phil mentioned it in his Last Season book. Jerry Buss explicity told him that they planned on cutting back on spending and thats why he had to go along with Shaq. He obviously told Kobe something different to keep him around.

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