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Friday, July 16, 2004
Updated: July 18, 11:12 PM ET
Clippers risk too costly for Kobe

By Ric Bucher
ESPN the Magazine

As Kobe Bryant made his long-awaited announcement, my plane descended into the L.A. area, affording the wondrous sight of seeing thousands slowly climbing down from their rooftops and balconies, apparently having been prepared to meet their end had ol' Crazy Eight decided to leave the Lakers.

Kobe Bryant
Signing a $136.4 million contract, like Kobe Bryant did Thursday, will brighten one's mood.
That, of course, is pure fiction -- a vision I saw in my head of what could have been -- thereby putting it in the category of pretty much everything else written or said about Kobe's decision in the last few weeks.

We all have our flights of fancy, our dreamy thoughts of radically changing our lives with just the right nudge. Sometimes it even comes along and we close our eyes and take the leap. We move to the islands to wait tables and surf, run away to Europe to write the great American novel, get out on the edge and join a dot-com start-up or leave the edge by tossing the corporate coat-and-tie to run a rustic B&B.

The driving force, though, is that the reward for such a risk is clear. We know we'll have more time with our loved ones. We know the pace of our lives will change. In general, we know we'll have a shot at a goal made impossible by our present circumstances. Or there's something about our existing situation that no longer works for us -- the addition-by-subtraction paradigm at work. Few people beyond their teens make a change just for change's sake. Those that do discover pretty quickly what little satisfaction that brings.

In any case, no such reward ever existed for Kobe Bryant to leave the Lakers. Yes, he sincerely entertained thoughts of going to the Clippers, but only because it was the one move that offered the least change. He could live in the same house, play in the same arena, drop his clothes at the same dry cleaners and pick up his milk at the same corner store. But what was the reward? Playing with a roster of young talent not quite good enough to make the playoffs? Playing for an experienced coach with, Rasheed Wallace aside, a track record for getting along with his players? A shorter commute for a dozen home games should the Clippers follow through on their offer to play more games at Arrowhead Pond? To borrow from Gertrude Stein, there was just no "there" there.

Ah, but there was a whole lot he'd be giving up to make that move. Thirty million dollars, for starters, that being the difference, under league rules, in what the Lakers and Clippers could offer. He'd also be leaving an owner, Jerry Buss, with his eye on having the all-time title-winning franchise in NBA history, which dovetails nicely with Kobe's ambition to eclipse Bill Russell's record for all-time titles won by a single player. Kobe said he thought that Clippers owner Donald Sterling was ready to make the push out of mediocrity; hey, Gary Payton thought Phil Jackson would abandon the triangle offense for him.

Then there's the $30 million, which means a lot more to someone who has had his off-court earning power evaporate with the as-of-yet unsettled legal case in Colorado. Kobe also would've lost his shot at having his jersey hang with the other all-time Lakers greats, an honor that Shaq well may have sacrificed with his extend-me-or-deal-me demand.

And did I mention the $30 million? Ask Bill Gates or Warren Buffett or Paul Allen if they'd make a decision that would cost them that much money without any hope of making it all back and then some. The point is, no one, no matter how wealthy he may be, simply forfeits $30 million. The late Pat Tillman turned his back on a fortune and financial security, but there were higher principles at work. While there may be occasional similarities in the mental stress and difficult conditions of combat and playing for the Clips, the glory of transforming Sterling's reputation and defending your country doesn't quite compare.

So why all the drama? Because the Lakers allowed it. Had they stepped back and considered what Kobe's options were, they would've told Kobe they loved him and wanted him back and then went about hiring Jackson's replacement and trading Shaquille O'Neal in a manner that best suited them, not in a way that appeared they were running every move by Kobe's camp. There would've been no flirtation with Mike Krzyzewksi, or wrangle with Rudy Tomjanovich about making Kobe's close friend, Brian Shaw, an assistant coach, or pressure to jump at the best-available offer for Shaq before the free-agency signing period opened.

The truth is, all the debate about whether or not Kobe made the departure of Jackson and O'Neal prerequisites to re-signing with them was pointless. Had Kobe announced he was not coming back to the Lakers the day after the season ended, Phil still wouldn't have returned as head coach because Jerry no longer wanted him. Or if Kobe said the day after the season ended he wanted to play with Shaq, the Big Diesel still would've been shipped out because he wasn't going to stay in L.A. without an extension -- especially not under the new Kobe-centric world order -- and Buss wasn't going to give him one. The mistake Kobe made was in not saying he still wanted to play for Phil and with Shaq loud and clear on July 1, the day he became a free agent. It wouldn't have avoided their ousters, but maybe he wouldn't have been cast as the driving force behind those decisions in at least a few people's minds.

If Kobe agonized over the decision to stay, as he claims he did, he did so only because, in the end, there was nothing to agonize over. His first shot at freedom as an NBA player, of choosing to go wherever he'd like, proved to be the equivalent of being in an amusement-park bumper car. Spin around all you want, force someone else to change course, give yourself a wicked case of whiplash -- none of it matters. You're not going anywhere, and you never were.

And Ones

For those aghast at the Warriors signing back-up center Adonal Foyle to a six-year, $41 million deal, don't be. The last year of the deal is not guaranteed, turning it into a five-year deal worth closer to a far more palatable $30 million. Both Brent Barry's deal with the Spurs and Quentin Richardson's offer sheet from the Suns also are lower in guaranteed dollars than originally reported. ... Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony is working out intensely to prepare for the Olympic Games in Athens, having heard of coach Larry Brown's grueling practices and philosophy that minutes are earned by playing hard on defense. ... At least one hang-up in the four-team deal that would've sent Vince Carter to Dallas is that the Knicks wanted to send Shandon Anderson instead of Kurt Thomas to the Raptors. This is what the proposed deal, at one point, looked like: Vince and Penny Hardaway to the Mavs; Thomas and Michael Finley to the Raptors; Nazr Mohammed to Golden State; Erick Dampier, Evan Eschmeyer and Antoine Walker to the Knicks.

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine and collaborated with Rockets center Yao Ming on "Yao: A Life In Two Worlds," published by Miramax and available in bookstores beginning Sept. 22. Click here to send him a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.