Why the debate? When Kobe Bryant wants to sign for two more seasons and agrees to a pay cut, you hand him the contract and pray the pen has ink. Do the doubters not remember how spectacular he was last season before he tore his Achilles tendon? Do the haters not realize he is ageless, 35 going on 29, and that he’s restless and hungry and the kind of physical beast who will continue to flourish after an injury?
Here in Los Angeles, where brand and show-business quotient trump the usual risk-reward questions within other NBA franchises, securing Bryant as a “Laker for life” was vital to an organization in transition. It reminds fans in a Lakers-infatuated town that their security blanket will be in purple and gold through the summer of 2016. More importantly, it builds a competitive bridge for the next prize on the team radar, a man who, if you haven’t noticed, has taken an increasingly active business interest in entertainment, music, sports and representation and enjoys the whopping amount of air time he receives on TV commercials, all elements conducive to an L.A. address.
You’ve heard of LeBron James.
The basketball cognoscenti claim Bryant’s two-year, $48.5-million extension dilutes the chances of James signing with the Lakers next summer, in what will be the wildest free-agent bonanza in NBA history. They say it restricts financial flexibility — now, only one major player can be signed instead of two. Sure, Bryant could have taken a bigger salary slash — to $15 million — and allowed enough payroll room for James AND Carmelo Anthony. But let’s be real here. And fair. And loyal. First, you don’t insult Bryant, he of the five championships, and ask him to take less money than James, who has won two championships and still hopes to build the body of work that Bryant has shaped, or less money than Anthony, a mopey scorer who doesn’t lead and breaks down in the postseason. Second, you’ve signed him for only two years, which allows James to play alongside Bryant in a historic sports tandem, then take over the franchise and position himself for titles post-Kobe. Third, Anthony isn’t coming to L.A. anyway, married as he is to a New York lifestyle that he and his wife embrace, despite the Knicks’ perpetually dysfunctional woes.
Bigger than all of that, LeBron would be taking his entrepreneurial talents to Hollywood. I’m convinced that’s what he wants as much as more NBA rings. And sexy as South Beach is, Ocean Drive isn’t where the big entertainment deals are done. They’re done in Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and West Hollywood, on the Westside of L.A.
Maybe James doesn’t win a championship with Bryant because the team’s payroll is hamstrung. But he’s not winning any championships beyond this season in Miami, assuming the Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs aren’t already better, with Dwyane Wade hobbling in his career twilight and Chris Bosh now defined as a complimentary player. While not putting anything past Heat boss Pat Riley, I do not see James finishing out his career in South Florida, where he isn’t fully appreciated as one of the planet’s greatest athletes. Nor do I see him going back to Cleveland, where it is very cold and where his return would be very awkward and where he shared too many painful moments with the coach brought back by the Cavaliers, Mike Brown. The Knicks? James Dolan is an awful owner. The Nets? A complete mess, with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett not only old but ready to stage a mutiny of rookie coach Jason Kidd, who is in over his head in a political league.
There is only one place where James can maximize and mesh his basketball preeminence with his entertainment ambition.
And why not launch it all by teaming up with Kobe Bryant, then filling in the pieces down the road — Kevin Love, Jabari Parker, whoever and whenever. The Lakers lack the same front-office aura without the late Jerry Buss, but there’s something about arena banners and legends and sunshine and palm trees and Laker Girls that sells this franchise no matter who’s running it. Don’t think James doesn’t know that. And don’t think Kobe doesn’t know that, having gotten close with LeBron during their successful Olympic basketball excursions. Not once has James declared he is staying in Miami for certain, opening up yet another June/July soap opera that this time won’t be bastardized by a sham TV show called The Decision.
“I have absolutely no idea,” James told one of his most trusted media conduits, ESPN’s Chris Broussard, in his definitive comments on the subject to date. “I would love to spend the rest of my career in Miami with this great team and great organization as we continue to compete for championships. That’s ideal. But we don’t know what may happen from now to the end of the season. That’s the nature of the business. It’s the nature of not knowing what tomorrow brings.
“I mean, as a kid, I never thought the Bulls would break up. Never. If you’d of told me as a kid that (Michael) Jordan and (Scottie) Pippen wouldn’t play together for the rest of their lives, I’d have looked at you crazy. And Phil Jackson wouldn’t be the coach? I’d have looked at you crazy. But sometimes the nature of the business doesn’t allow things to happen like you would want them to. But we’ll see.”
Asked recently again, James didn’t budge. “When that bridge comes, I’ll cross it with my family,” he said. “And we’re going to make the right choice. We’ve been in this position before, I’ve been in this position before, and I’ll be excited about it, but we’ll see what happens.”
Assuming Bryant stays healthy, he should end his career as the rare epic athlete who stays with the same team for life. Even Jordan, who was sabotaged by a bad owner who foolishly thought he could build his own dynasty, had to finish his career with the rumpled Washington Wizards. Bryant also will pass Jordan on the NBA career scoring list — he’s only 675 points behind — and might even threaten Karl Malone at No. 2. No way he touches all-time leader Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
But more than individual accomplishments, and more than legacy, Kobe Bryant wants one more shot at winning. In L.A. That’s why he sat at a table Monday, with his agents and Lakers bosses Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak, and took the negotiating-table version of a selfie. It went out over his beloved Twitter feed. “#Laker4Life,” he tweeted.
Next summer, his salary will be the only one on the payroll when free agency begins. That smacks of an opportunity, not an albatross, and I would like to be a piece of fuzz on the smartphone of LeBron James when Bryant starts texting him in the recruitment phase, assuming it hasn’t begun already.