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Thursday, July 15, 2004
Updated: July 16, 9:46 AM ET
Pressure is on Bryant to win

By Marc Stein
ESPN.com

It is mid-July, almost a year to the day he sat before the world in that white sweater, and here we are digesting another Kobe Bryant story that has taken us for a roller-coaster spin.

Take it all in, and dizziness is a natural reaction even after Kobe didn't choose the Clippers.

Kobe Bryant
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Apparently that's how it has to be this time of year with Kobe. No matter which Staples Center locker room he would have picked, it was going to be a nervy, suspenseful climax to a soap opera that has consumed NBA-watchers for nearly a decade.

Either he was going to defect to the Lakers' downtrodden neighbors, defying all the non-believers who said for months that he would never even consider such a switch, and leave the league's most glamorous franchise totally starless. Or we would get what we finally heard Thursday shortly after 3 p.m. ET: ESPN.com reporting that Kobe will indeed sign a document that makes him a Laker For Life, as he has occasionally promised, to jolt everyone's senses in a couple different ways.

First by making it really start to sink in just how much the Lakers had to cannibalize to get Kobe's signature. Then by making you wonder if Bryant realizes how seriously he has jeopardized his status as Hollywood's darling.

Again.

No matter what the Lakers say about making decisions independent of Kobe's whims, perception won't be changing. Perception says Kobe is a Phil-Killer and a Shaq-Slayer. Thus he has set himself up for another steep fall from grace, even if -- as the Lakers nervously continue to pray -- Bryant is acquitted this fall of felony sexual assault charges.

It wouldn't be as steep as the fall he's facing in a Colorado courtroom, of course, but don't believe that surviving a trial will guarantee him immunity with the L.A. sports fan.

The Lakers will be all his after the trial, which means Kobe can stay a darling only if L.A. continues to stay among the NBA's elite. Which means, on top of all the comparisons until now, he'll have to be legitimately and consistently Jordanesque after the trial. Only another championship will bring Bryant a pardon from the masses who can't believe that the Lakers were willing to exile the most successful coach and most dominant center of the modern era … all for a maybe instead of a promise that Kobe was coming back.

If the Lakers instead crumble from here -- which is certainly a good possibility given their newfound size deficiency and their glut of small forwards and their lack of cap room to chase marquee free agents until 2007 -- Hollywood's darling is setting himself up to be re-cast as Public Enemy No. 8.

All that is another reason the Clippers made so much sense for Bryant. Many of you didn't believe us no matter how many times we wrote of Bryant's fondness for Corey Maggette and Mike Dunleavy, or how he was intrigued by the possibility of someday playing a handful of Anaheim home games near his home in Newport Beach. Perhaps the Clippers' strongest selling point was the opportunity they afforded Kobe to be the kid who at last offset the considerable destructive forces of Donald Sterling to enable this punching bag of a franchise to swing back.

There would have been an undeniable outcry had Kobe made the jump now, after the departures of Phil Jackson and Shaquille O'Neal, but success with the Clips would have gradually muted the protests. Success, furthermore, doesn't have to be a championship with the Clips. Overcoming the Sterling mojo to win a playoff series or two would force a rewrite of the NBA Encyclopedia.

However …

As much as Kobe wanted to make that leap to Clipperdom, it will be suggested that he was obligated to go back to the Lakers after Phil and Shaq were run off. The Lakers also had the advantage of being able to be the only suitor that could extend a seven-year contract offer that would pay Bryant an extra $30 million. Add up both factors and you can understand that, daunting as the challenge of leading the Lakers back to glory will be -- in a West that never seems to stop getting tougher -- Bryant pretty much has to try.

In the interest of fairness, it also must be pointed out that O'Neal and Lakers owner Jerry Buss have to share some of the blame for the disintegration of a would-be dynasty. It was Buss who authorized every move before Kobe signed. It was Buss who decided that he'd rather align himself with the youngest member of the Lakers' Shaq-Kobe-Phil triangle. It was O'Neal, meanwhile, who yelled "Now you gonna pay me?" at Buss in the very first exhibition game and who refused to back off demands for a new three-year contract extension in the first year of his previous extension. It was O'Neal who said he wasn't willing to take a Kevin Garnett-style pay cut that might have moved Buss to push harder for a truce or to explore the possibility of sign-and-trading Bryant instead to bring in new parts to snap in around Shaq and the Zenmeister.

There would have been an undeniable outcry had Kobe made the jump now, after the departures of Phil Jackson and Shaquille O'Neal, but success with the Clips would have gradually muted the protests.

Sadly for all of them, and for those of us entertained by the ride, it's all over. Shaq and Kobe formed a tag team that made the Lakers more popular in L.A. than they ever were before, amazing as that sounds. They had a big-and-small dynamic that gave them a better long-term outlook than Michael and Scottie in Chicago, and the potential to be more successful than their purple-and-gold predecessors Magic and Kareem, since teams don't need to be as deep as the Showtime Lakers were to collect a string of rings today.

Problem was, never before did one team have the league's top two players. In this relationship, there was no Scottie Pippen to do the deferring. These two were both MVP talents who were also infinitely stubborn. Unfathomable as it seemed that the Lakers would ever dare to trade one of them, those with daily exposure to the circus have long believed that neither one would ever give in.

What next? Who knows? Maybe Bryant feels so liberated by his acquittal -- again, assuming that's the outcome -- that he turns superhuman. Maybe the chances are actually better that the Shaq trade works out, ill-conceived as it looks on paper, compared to the chances that Kobe and Shaq could have ever worked out their differences. Maybe Lakerland won't be so much of a circus anymore, and maybe that helps.

Maybe. What we do know for sure is that, like everything in the wacky season we just finished, there was disorienting suspense in the Kobe Sweepstakes to the very end. The Clippers' scaring the Lakers into moves that Shaq himself says he can't believe? Just like last July, Kobe triggered the tremors.

Of course, what Bryant needs now is a great August and September, and then a really good June or two. Lawyers won't be able to help him with the latter, and neither can Shaq any longer. Buss, in his pitch to lure Bryant back, urged Kobe to "stay with everyone who loves you." It's those future Junes that will determine how long the love lasts.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.