Kobe Bryant’s comeuppance
Phil Jackson hit the road a couple of weeks ago, leaving behind the wreckage of a Los Angeles Lakers team he’d coached to the NBA finals four of the past five years, winning three championships.It’s deja vu. In 1998 the coach rumbled out of the Chicago Bulls parking lot on his motorcycle, having won six NBA championships in eight years and leaving a franchise in ruins. The Bulls remain hopeless to this day.In neither case was this Jackson’s fault. Management screwed up. Both times, keeping the coach and the team together for another season or two would likely have delivered each franchise another championship, or two.Instead the Bulls sent the coach packing. One star, Scottie Pippen, wound up on another team, Houston. The other, basketball’s best ever, Michael Jordan, retired too early. The Bulls went from winningest team in history to losing nearly as many as they used to win.The Lakers sent the coach packing. One star, most dominant in the league today, Shaquille O’Neal, was traded last week to another team, the Miami Heat. The other, “most like Mike” Kobe Bryant, flirted with leaving as a free agent this summer and then took the biggest contract that could be offered by anyone to stay with the Lakers.And just like that, the most feared team in the league these past five years will compete to stick with Memphis, a nice little team in the middle of the pack. Miami gave the Lakers three-fifths of their starting lineup from a .500 team in the weaker East and still stole Shaq. O’Neal alone now puts Miami among the East’s elite. The team he leaves behind will struggle just to reach the playoffs next year.The Lakers are unlikely to be horrible. They still have decent players. And while Bryant falls well short of Jordan at this point in his career, he’s among the top five to seven players in the league and is widely considered the best among the perimeter players. Maybe he is, though I believe he’s a little overrated.The justice here is poetic, constructed of hubris, selfishness and greed. The Lakers, if they didn’t know already, can look back no farther than last summer in Eagle County to see that. The kid with the squeaky clean image he could not ultimately hold up in real life sneaked off to Colorado for a knee surgery the Vail Daily knew about before the Lakers did. I’m not congratulating us by saying that. He made the “mistake of adultery” within the hour after checking into the Lodge at Cordillera. At best. His trial beginning Aug. 27 on a rape charge will determine how bad it gets for a 25-year-old who just signed a $136 million contract as a “Laker for life.” It remains to be seen whether he’ll actually be a Coloradoan for life. Few observers give that notion much thought, which is a bit reminiscent of the “experts” wondering whether the lowly Detroit Pistons could win so much as one game in the finals against that juggernaut the Lakers. This is why these things are settled on – or in – the court. The Pistons wound up steam-rolling those vaunted Lakers four games to one.Now Bryant, famously a ball hog for all his overall talent, has his own team at last free of the most dominant player in the league and top coach. Suddenly, he’s another Paul Pierce, Tracey McGrady, Vince Carter, Allen Iverson – single perimeter stars trying to carry teams, and very, very frustrated. I see comeuppance as the far likelier conclusion to this soap opera than a crown. (That’s if I’m not trying to check him out of the Eagle County jail for noontime ball at the gym on Wednesdays and Fridays this fall.) With sports commentators openly skeptical of Bryant’s denials that he orchestrated the chain of events that sent Shaq and Jackson on their ways in disgust as the Lakers courted him to stay with them, the first cracks are already opening in a fan fallout to come if Kobe’s Lakers fail.Seems the faithful forgive rape charges and slips from PR grace. Losing, well, that’s a different story.Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 600, or firstname.lastname@example.org
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