Kobe Bryant's Contract Extension Honors His Legacy -- But What About the Lakers' Future?
Kobe Bryant: the Lakers' $48.5 million man
"Sentimentality is the only sentiment that rubs you the wrong way." - W. Somerset Maugham.
"U obviously can't count or read. Let's try this again. The offer presented to me by the Lakers ensures the ability to bring in max talent. #imjusttryintohelpuout lol #dontbslow #keepup #ringsbeforeall." - Kobe Bryant on Instagram.
It's never too early to start thinking about what farewell gift you're going to get Kobe. Monday's announcement of a two-year, $48.5 million contract extension means that the countdown starts now for the Black Mamba's last attack. What do you buy the man who's grossed a quarter-billion dollars in basketball income alone? A Milanese futbol franchise? An authentic Easter Island statue re-carved in Kobe's mold? A "Thanks for the Memories" card penned in Smush Parker's blood?
The bar is high. During his 1988-89 last lap, Kareem Abdul-Jabber received Persian rugs, portable telephones, flutes, saxophones, jukeboxes, rifles, rattlesnake hats, cruises, VCRs and elephant sculptures made out of petrified wood -- and that was just from the other teams. The final Lakers sacrifice included a Rolls Royce, first class tickets to Orlando and a street named after him in Inglewood. The team's beloved late owner, Jerry Buss, bestowed "The Captain" with a tennis court at his Hawaiian home.
With the money earned in this extension, Kobe Bryant will be able to buy 970 tennis courts or 147 more Ferraris, 142 more helicopters, 12 more purple 8 carat diamonds or three more Orange County fortresses of solitude. That's not even touching the Forbes-estimated $34 million in endorsement money he made last year.
This isn't a question of whether he earns it. The fact that he got me to watch his Turkish Airlines commercial (see above) is proof that he does.
As Brian Kamenetzky pointed out: Kobe Bryant's job isn't like ours. None of us have won five NBA championships, two Olympic Gold Medals, or taken Brandy to our high school prom. As someone who played high school basketball in the late '90s L.A., Kobe was the favorite player of almost everyone on every team. There are still photos of him -- with the baby-afro and permanent hang time -- plastered on the walls of my childhood bedroom. From Bakersfield to Escondido, criticizing Kobe is the quickest route to a bar fight or Internet flame war.
So there's something crass about indicting him for accepting one more massive payday in exchange for a final mission impossible. You know what's cooler than $280 million? $320 million. And "Kobe's Last Stand" will basically mirror the plot of every wildly successful heist, Western or spy sequel.
But unlike the movies, the NBA has a salary cap. Whether you side with players or owners doesn't alter the fact that the collective bargaining agreement is slanted against teams with $5 billion television deals who could afford to build dynasties through free agency.
No Lakers fan cares about the idea of Kobe making too much money. L.A. could probably pass a quarter-cent municipal sales tax to fund his last ring grab on the carousel -- or at least successfully launch a Kickstarter. But the current system doesn't match market demand; it attempts to replicate the parity of the NFL. David Stern may have described his ideal Finals as "Lakers vs. Lakers," but Kobe signing a near-maximum contract makes it almost impossible for them to field a title contender in the immediate future.
For the next two seasons, the Lakers will only be able to re-sign a few role player free agents, bid on a max player and randomly pluck players from free agency like an arcade claw.
After coming under attack for refusing to take a pay cut like Tim Duncan or Lebron, Kobe has taken to Twitter and Instagram to defend himself.
"The Cap rules players have to be 'selfless' on to 'help' BILLIONAIRE owners r the same cap rules the owners LOCKED US out to put in #think," Kobe Tweeted last midnight, Washington, D.C., time -- where the Lakers suffered a close road loss to the Wizards.
There's no question that the players are locked into an inimical collective bargaining agreement that reduces the power of the superstars who made the league an international phenomenon. No one is rooting for the owners to stack more ivory back scratchers. Lakers fans just want Kobe to win one last time and ride off into the sunset, not have the Sunset Boulevard ending. This is the paradox. The same unslakable ambition and drive that built the Kobe Bryant brand can become hubris and delusion when confronted with the unsentimental erosion of time.
Kobe is currently the same age (35) as Michael Jordan when he retired the second time. Factor in the decision to skip college for the NBA, deep playoff runs and the Olympics, and he has probably logged more minutes than any 35-year-old, ever. He's also returning from a ruptured Achilles tendon that would silence the career of anyone similarly aged, but not named after a cut of beef from a Wagyu cow.
Rings might be in the hash tags, but the reality is that last year's Lakers team needed until the last week of the season to even secure a playoff spot. The year before, they were swept in the second round -- and that was with Andrew Bynum and two years less mileage on Kobe and Pau.
"BTW Lakers have max cap space and then some #mitchissharp #bussfamsharp #lakers," Kobe concluded in his rattled, 48-hour stretch of social media.
This is technically true. Mitch Kupchak is one of the savviest GMs of the last decade, most recently proving it with the revelation of Jordan Hill, who was ostensibly a throwaway in the Derek Fisher trade. Provided they waive Steve Nash during the off-season, the Lakers will have enough money to lure another superstar. But this year's free agent crop lacks anyone remotely capable of vaulting them into championship contention. Lebron is staying. Carmelo Anthony is about as likely to move to L.A. as Woody Allen.
With his UCLA and Beach Boys bloodline, Kevin Love is the most appealing candidate to come in 2015, but unless the Lakers tweeze an all-star out of this year's draft lottery, it's unlikely that Kobe will get his sixth ring, tying Michael Jordan, and triggering a bunch of click bait pieces about who is the true greatest of all time. Then again, the Lakers last two lottery picks were Andrew Bynum and Kobe Bryant (or at least they acquired the latter in exchange for the chain-smoking, Serbian Movember icon, Vlade Divac).
You can't blame the Buss family for the decision. With the shot clock ticking, there will be StubHub warfare to get into Staples Center. Jersey sales and television ratings will be berserk. Every article about the extension has rightfully pointed out that the franchise's seven-year, 270-game home sellout streak was snapped earlier this month. Rihanna may be chanting Swaggy P's nickname right now, but the fan covenant is currently hinging on Kobe's ability to come back.
The allure of sports is rooted in the irrational. Fandom makes no sense. We not only root for uniforms, as Jerry Seinfeld said, but we root for them to be stained and eventually framed. We have largely chased superstition, Jingoism, mystique and aura out of everyday life, but these atavistic ideas gain oxygen in the culture of contemporary sports. The Lakers championships banners on the Staples walls are memories that become tall tales. There are hundreds of children, male and female, named Kobe in the LAUSD. They'll get to watch his final few years in purple and gold and pass on the faded recollections to their kids -- or at least show them old game clips on NBA TV.
By giving Kobe a (almost) max deal before his return, the Lakers are sending subliminals to the players in the league that this is how legends are supposed to be treated. If Kobe's career represents a refinement of Michael Jordan's model, this contract seemingly (hopefully) spares him the indignity of stumbling around on the Wizards. In a professional sports world frequently maligned for its avarice and soullessness, there's something pleasantly asymmetrical about it -- maybe even heartwarming. Magic Johnson's premature departure deprived the fans of a proper extended bon voyage. And you can't help but read it as the last testament of Jerry Buss, whose vision of Lakers exceptionalism was instilled in Angelenos with a far greater consistency than any Judeo-Christian or Heliocentric religion.
This wasn't a deal about logic, which is why it's maddening to many. When you factor in Kobe's age, value on the open market, and the mathematics of cap space, there is no way that they will field a better team by signing him at $24 million instead of $10 million. This was about the Lakers ownership attempting to preserve intangible ideas in the face of corporeal realities. It's why the Yankees continue to pay Derek Jeter obscene sums despite him being rarely able to leave the dugout.
You can't put a price tag on a symbol but nor can you use it as salary cap exception. It's frustrating that Kobe wasn't willing to take less, but it would have been a fatal contradiction of what constitutes Kobe. Gods rarely acknowledge their vulnerability, but they will respond to haters on Instagram.
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