To Stay, or Not to Stay?
So, in front of a charmed audience Friday, Kobe Bryant says he wants to be a Laker for life.
So what is he waiting for?
The Lakers have offered him more money than anyone else can pay him.
The fans have showered him with more love than he has reasonably earned.
His teammates have been subjected to more turmoil than even their stalking, strutting selves deserve.
So what is he waiting for?
After leading the Lakers through flaming hoops all winter, it is time for Kobe Bryant to stop this circus.
If he truly wants to remain a Laker for life, he should sign a contract before Thursday’s trading deadline.
If not, he should give patron saint Jerry Buss the nod to trade him.
Sure, Bryant might have to play a couple of months in some backwater town for some losing team, but he still would have his beloved freedom this summer.
And, obviously, the Lakers would lose their most popular player, but at least they wouldn’t lose him for nothing.
It’s too risky waiting for him to agree to a sign-and-trade this summer, especially because there are teams that will trade for him now. You wouldn’t get full value, but some value, and wouldn’t that have been enough for the Orlando Magic before they let Shaquille O’Neal walk?
It would be a tough decision for Bryant, but the Lakers have made many equally tough decisions while standing behind their mercurial superstar since his troubles began last summer.
He needed a controlled media environment, they gave it to him.
He needed understanding about missed practices and games, they understood.
He hasn’t seemed emotionally strong enough to weather the usual criticism from Phil Jackson, so Jackson backed off.
The Lakers have altered their entire way of doing business to accommodate the fallout from a night in Colorado that should have been none of their business.
Bryant made it their business, and they might eventually pay for it with a lost championship.
Now it is time for Bryant to acknowledge the debt.
It’s simple, really.
For one of the few times since he flew to Colorado to undergo knee surgery without the club’s knowledge last summer, Bryant needs to show the Lakers and his community the same respect they have shown him.
He faced the fire. He always does.
Some were surprised when Kobe Bryant met the national media during All-Star interviews Friday at a Century City hotel, but he always shows up to stare down the biggest bullets, even if he dodges more than he catches.
He’s tough like that.
He’s also tricky like that.
Hounded by reports that he has already decided to opt out of his contract at the end of this season, Bryant cried foul, saying, “I want to be a Laker for the rest of my life.”
Yet he has told teammates and other team employees that he was leaving, his public comments in the past year have indicated he was leaving, and Wednesday in Houston he said that he didn’t care if Jackson returned.
Bryant called foul on that comment too, saying the answer about Jackson’s uncertain contract status was taken out of context.
“I was asked if I felt like it was a distraction,” Bryant said Friday. “I said, no, I didn’t care.”
Yet a check of the transcript reveals the following exchange in the visitors’ locker room Wednesday night.
Reporter: “It doesn’t matter if he’s here or not?”
Bryant: “I don’t care.”
Those close to the situation felt this confirmed Bryant was leaving.
Such a notion is poison in a locker room already infected by injuries and uncertainty. Such an attitude has the wingspan of Yao Ming and the toughness of Kevin Garnett, and even a team full of Hall of Famers cannot compete.
Bryant showed up Friday dressed in his best backpedal.
“I know the truth, the organization knows the truth, and we’ll go from there,” he said, later adding, “I want to opt out, to look at different options, but I want to be with the Lakers the rest of my life.”
This confusion has overwhelmed a team that needs to know whether Bryant is still in their bunker.
Sometimes, such as during his listless Wednesday night in Houston, it looks as if he has already checked out.
Other times, such as when he poorly manhandled that fourth quarter in Memphis, it looks as if he is already auditioning for someone else.
Then he hits the game-winning shot against the Denver Nuggets shortly after flying back from a court date in Denver and you are reminded that nobody owns Staples Center like this guy. Nobody owns the fourth quarter like this guy. Nobody can make basketball fun like this guy.
But since last summer, he hasn’t been the same guy.
This is not same player who has soared and limped and willed the Lakers to victories. This is not the same player who once played so hard, he wept.
The toll of the Colorado courts has seemingly consumed some of his athleticism, while the uncertainty apparently has affected his heart.
All of this is understandable. What is less easy to figure is why he insists on making his difficult walk so much worse with his posture.
Bryant should remain a Laker, of course. He can win another championship or two as a Laker. He might not have that chance anywhere else.
He wants to prove he can win with a team built around him, he should look no further than Vince Carter or Tracy McGrady.
Like it or not, he and Shaquille O’Neal are not only each other’s biggest enemies, but best hopes.
“Anybody who wants to leave Shaq ... he’s crazy!” Allen Iverson said Friday.
But, hey, if Kobe Bryant wants to be that player, fine, good luck. It would just be nice if he left the Lakers something for their trouble.
Bill Plaschke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.