Kobe's Bawl Game

By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, May 31, 2007

SAN ANTONIO

You think the Kobe Bryant soap opera can't get any juicier but it always does. From on-court drama to courtroom drama to Phil Jackson's book to Shaq's leaving, there's always a cliffhanger. And now this.

Kobe says he wants out of Los Angeles, wants the Lakers to trade him because he feels the team hasn't kept its promise to rebuild a contender around him, and because he feels one of the team's executives has told reporters in L.A. that it was Kobe who more or less endorsed Shaq being traded to Miami after the 2004 season.

There's more intrigue in the latest Kobe reality show than the last hour of "The Good Shepherd." There's Kobe going public with his trade demand.

There's his request that former Lakers boss Jerry West put off retirement to come back from Memphis and fix the Lakers. There's an implicit suggestion that current Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak has been inadequate in the specific area of acquiring talent -- which is true. There's "he-said," innuendo, revision of history and plenty of hurt feelings.

By late Wednesday afternoon, Jackson had gotten hold of Kobe, who did a tiny little backslide on his trade demand in an ESPN interview with Dan Patrick. And by late evening in California, the backslide had turned into a full backpedal with Kobe telling the populace how much he wanted to stay in La-La.

Either way, this is one May cliffhanger that isn't going to hold until fall.

Bryant isn't going anywhere. The Lakers aren't going to trade him and shouldn't. West, arguably the greatest basketball executive who ever lived other than Red Auerbach, will get over being steamed at Kobe, push retirement away for a couple of years or so and ultimately save the Lakers. Within the next 48 hours, Kobe will have talked again with Jackson, also with West, also with owner Jerry Buss, who preferred Kobe over Shaq three years ago, and will conclude it was all a misunderstanding. We'll hear inside a week or so that they're all on the same page, that Kobe was simply demonstrating the great passion he has for the team, its fans and winning championships, which is what he's about.

We'll hear Kobe say he was serious at the time, that his feelings were hurt, but that the club has promised him -- the great West has promised him -- that whatever happened the last three years is over and that the team will do whatever it has to do to return to championship form.

But it won't keep all parties from viewing each other with suspicion.

Bryant went about this terribly. Don't get me wrong, he's right to hate what Kupchak has and hasn't done with the team. Trading Caron Butler, now an all-star, for Kwame Brown, a bust in whatever uniform, has set the Lakers back years. But Kobe could have and should have gone about voicing his displeasure differently.

I almost always love these public catfights. They're good for sports because they raise general interest and produce days worth of copy and fodder for talking heads. Even NBA locker rooms crackle with gossip. But Kobe owes the Lakers in a way few players owe their teams. The Lakers, from all indications, stood by him every step of the way during his lurid episode in Colorado a few years ago. Yes, the Lakers had their selfish interests, but regardless they backed him publicly, made every imaginable resource available privately. They walked him through the most difficult time of his life as best an organization could.


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