At the end of the day the math just did not make sense. Playing six or seven games in April would not benefit anyone. It would not benefit Kobe even if his knee could heal in two weeks. What about the rest of his body? He would still be woefully unprepared for NBA basketball. A Kobe return would not benefit Mike D’Antoni who is helpless against the driving compulsion of Kobe and withers like a bat in the sun beneath his glare. The team already is fragile and fractious. Throw Kobe into that mix and D’Antoni would be more beaten down than he already is. It would not benefit the Lakers front office for Kobe Pt. II. They are in the interview stage as they evaluate players for next year. Kobe would have taken up valuable time from Xavier Henry and MarShon Brooks who are still being judged. Besides, Kobe has not changed. His drive and force of nature may have eked out victories where losses should be. Then what? Most of the draft experts say after the 7th pick the draft takes a precipitous turn sideways. And so, to benefit everyone, it all came to its natural conclusion when it was announced Kobe Bryant’s year was over. He will have his longest off-season in 9 years.
No one loves the Lakers more than Kobe Bryant. For everything he has accomplished, he has sacrificed even more. It has been eighteen years of dedication and compulsion and pushing himself for himself and pushing himself for his individual glory and pushing himself back from extinction and pushing himself for the Lakers too, to win more titles. You cannot separate Kobe from the team; Kobe is the team. It is near impossible to think of the Lakers without him. Kobe was drafted in 1996. Babies born in that year are 18 years old now or soon to be and graduating from high school in a couple of months. They have no concept of the Lakers without Kobe. And in a way, neither does he since more than half of his life has been intricately linked and tied to this one organization which just happened to be the organization he idolized as a child growing up in Italy. He has such an emotional investment in the Lakers organization, as an employee, as a player and as one of their biggest supporters and fans he cannot reflect upon the interests of the team without looking at his own interests too. All of it with a heavy dose of passion and frustration as he looks towards next year.
Let’s go back. In September of 2013, Mitch Kupchak told a group of assembled reporters the obvious: Kobe can be difficult. And then he said with a smug stare that it was Mike D’Antoni’s job to bridge the gap, to get to know Kobe as a person. To develop trust and respect so he could coach him as a player. Obviously it was advice not taken because Sean Deveney of the Sporting News reported Kobe has no interest in playing for Mike D’Antoni again. Why should he? At the very least, a coach’s responsibility is to bring out the best in their players, not the worst. They take what their players can do and begin there, not rework the image of what they think their players should do or be.
It was always going to be a rocky marriage, like meeting someone at a bar and marrying them the next night. It was not well thought out. It started out on a false premise, that D’Antoni was the better fit than Phil Jackson. Of course this was ridiculous. The hire had repercussions. It prevented Phil Jackson from getting the job which prevented Dwight Howard from giving 100% effort which cost the Lakers Dwight Howard. D’Antoni alienated Pau Gasol right from the start. Nothing says team harmony like benching a two-time champion in the fourth quarter. And then saying you did it because “I wanted to win.” The alienation of Gasol continued by not putting him in the position to succeed and then getting into a war of words with him. More D’Antoni missteps. He crumbled under the Kobe death stare, allowing him to play 48 minutes and then in the next game when Kobe shredded his Achilles after playing 44 minutes, D’Antoni shrugged as if to say, I can’t tell him what to do. Oh, really. You are just his coach. More D’antoni flaws. He angered the fans by telling them to go find another team to root for. He continued his defensive misery that began in Phoenix, continued in New York and was on display in Los Angeles. D’Antoni was responsible for the worst loss in Lakers history and to the Clippers of all teams. He romanticized the Steve Nash years as if he could magically recreate what happened in Phoenix even as 8 years had gone by. He never took accountability. He never once said “I am to blame”. Or the Lakers poor effort was because of “something I’m doing.” He failed to communicate with his players in order to gain their respect and gain him some breathing room when things went sideways. Which goes back to why Kobe wants to play for someone else.
It isn’t a secret around the league the Lakers dysfunction begins in the front office, at the top with Jim and Jeannie and their fragile relationship. The brother and sister duo are on opposite sides of a line in the sand. Grief has propelled them and time has hardened them and the perception among outsiders is that they are an angry, bickering twosome that is keeping the Lakers treading water. Or a brother and sister so detached they hurt themselves by their own silence. Newsflash: players want to join organizations that have a common goal and a plan for the future, not one in which the owners resent one another and can’t even communicate. That is a recipe for disaster which is why Kobe said, “You have to start with Jim and Jeanie and how that relationship plays out and it starts there and having a clear direction and clear authority and then it goes down to the coaching staff. It’s got to start at the top.”
Ever since he fractured his knee, Kobe has been conspicuously absent. But his aura is one in which visibility does not matter. Simply, he is the most important person in the organization. All over the world his fan loyalty runs to epidemic levels. So it stands to reason that Kobe’s frustration and disappointment over his injury reverberates all the way to China. He was in full effect today: Kobe being Kobe. He has zero interest in waiting around these last two years just to be mediocre. But what he expects may be more than the Lakers might be able to deliver. He offered no specifics. Carmelo? Luol Deng? Chris Bosh? In the past Kobe has always praised Mitch Kupchak, expecting him to make miracles, but Kobe gave no cover to the front office. “The same expectations they have of me I have of them.” Translation: do your job.
The beauty of sports is that no one knows what is going to happen next. Kobe wants to will certain things into being but even he can’t do that. A good part of his Lakers future is out of his control though he did say he found it perplexing the Phil Jackson-New York Knicks alliance. “Personally it would be hard for me to understand that happening twice. It would be tough. I really don’t get it.” Of course he doesn’t and he shouldn’t. Phil took Kobe’s innate talent and maniacal work ethic and molded it into an intellectual player who displayed calm in the most stressful situations. In a way he and Phil belong together until the very end. But often in life and in sports things don’t work out the way they should. In fact most of the time things work the opposite of what is common sense.
So here we are with Kobe Bryant. He could not hide his disgust. When he said ‘this is not what the Lakers stand for’ he meant this sensationally horrible year. He meant the Lakers are winners. He meant die hard Lakers fans know the truth: the Lakers are not an ordinary team. Lakers fans belong to the largest private club in the world; Kobe is the president. He is the one who sets the tone, who tries to manipulate the agenda. He says he has seven months to drive himself to perfection as he has done every summer since he was a rookie. It is one more sacrifice for himself and for the team and for us. It is the bargain he made and one we believe in. And trust. And yet when training camp starts it is unclear who will be standing next to Kobe and his imperfect will? Who will be in the coach’s chair? What lay in wait in 2014-15 besides a healthy Kobe? Even Kobe doesn’t know the answer to that question.