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Opinion

Op-Ed: Kobe Bryant earned nearly $330 million with the Lakers — and was worth every penny

Kobe’s 81-point game

A tired Kobe Bryant looks up at his 81-point total on the scoreboard as Lakers fans stand and cheer in the final seconds of a game against the Toronto Raptors at Staples Center on Jan. 22, 2006.

(Los Angeles Times)

When Kobe Bryant retires at the end of this season, his career earnings from the Lakers will total $328,238,062. That figure is sure to elicit all the usual snark about how professional athletes are overpaid, all the more so because Kobe is earning $25 million this season while performing terribly. Even so, I submit that far from being overpaid, he has earned every penny.

At the start, granted, he was a shaky proposition. As a rookie he made more than $1 million while spending most of every game on the bench. By the end of his third season, he’d earned $3.5 million on a team that kept disappointing. Many of his shots had fans screaming at the television. Had Jerry West led us astray when he drafted the kid right out of Lower Merion High School? Maybe it would have been better for everyone — Kobe included — if he’d marinated in college a few years? It looked as though Kobe, and the Lakers, needed a Plan B.

Soon I felt bad for ever doubting. Over the next three seasons Kobe earned more than $30 million — and that was just fine, because the Lakers won championships in all three seasons, a feat unimaginable without him. Thanks to Kobe, Chick Hearn got to see his Lakers return to greatness before he died.

And Kobe didn’t just become a champion, like Tim Duncan or 2004 finals MVP Chauncey Billups. He became the most exciting athlete in the world to watch: an utter marvel. What was it worth to all the kids on the playground to imagine being No. 24? To heave a turnaround, fadeaway jumper from the corner to beat an imaginary buzzer? How do you put a price on the joy of watching Kobe head fake a defender high in the air, jump up as the man guarding him comes down, draw the foul, and still contort himself to hit the shot while falling sideways?

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I saw Kobe score 45 points on 20-of-26 shooting. I saw him shoot 12 for 18 from behind the three-point line. I saw him put the Lakers so far up that he could leave the game for good in the third quarter after he had scored 62 points — one more than all the Dallas Mavericks combined. And on Jan. 22, 2006, I saw Kobe score 81 points in a single game. I’ve watched that game at least five times. What’s it worth to see a man elegantly do the impossible?

But forget all the unquantifiable stuff. Kobe is the reason that the Lakers once sold out 320 consecutive games in an arena that holds 18,997. He’s the reason they’re still among the league’s biggest draws. He’s played roughly 1,300 games. If we’re conservative and estimate 17,500 fans per game, that’s 22,750,000 seats sold. NBA ticket prices average $50 per game — and Lakers games typically average more than $100. $328,238,062 doesn’t sound so outrageous anymore, does it? And we haven’t even factored in the TV audience. The Lakers are a storied team in a major media market. But surely Kobe contributed more than any other player to the $3-billion deal the team signed with Time Warner in 2011 and to the franchise’s $2.6-billion valuation.

The Buss family knows better than anyone that Kobe was worth his pay.

True, he earned his astronomic salary playing a game — a fun, popular game. No one mistakes pro basketball for ditch-digging. It’s not an entirely cushy gig, though. Kobe fractured one knee and had surgery on the other, tore an Achilles tendon, sprained a shoulder, strained a hip flexor and tweaked too many ankles to count. He’ll feel pain most days for the rest of his life. In the end he’ll hobble. Even in retirement, I’ll bet he’d pay $100 million for a body wiped clean of bygone injuries — a sum he earned over his last four seasons, proving once and for all that he was wise not to waste his first four in college.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a contributing writer to Opinion, a staff writer at the Atlantic and founding editor of the Best of Journalism, a newsletter that curates exceptional nonfiction.

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