- Stephen A. Smith, ESPNNewYork.com columnist
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If the interest of the Los Angeles Lakers relies upon nostalgia, deference and a debt of gratitude for contributions given to their illustrious history, they should give Kobe Bryant a hug, wish him well and simply tell him to "please be safe" overseas.
But if the interest of the Lakers falls where it should -- the Lakers -- and the future, indeed, is what truly matters, every tactic should be exercised, every maneuver used and exhausted, to prevent their resident superstar and future Hall of Famer from going to play in anything but an occasional summer league event.
Regardless of Bryant's feelings.
None of us needs to pay attention to Bryant's assertions that he hasn't spoken to Turkish team Besiktas in weeks. It shouldn't concern us whether he has spoken to the team, via phone, email or telepathy, for all we care.
What is of relevance is Bryant's proclamation that he'll "play anywhere." His birth certificate is a lot closer to 40 years old than 20. More importantly, the Lakers have not found a way to leak a "No way in hell is this going to happen on our watch" response to a star with 15 seasons in the league and $83.5 million left on his contract when this lockout is over.
Enough of this nonsense already.
This isn't so much about Bryant playing in Turkey. In all likelihood, that's not going to happen. The Turkish team doesn't have the money to afford Bryant. It doesn't have a league befitting his stature, his cachet. And we're not even addressing the fact that even if teams in Europe managed to pluck 50 of the NBA's top players to play in their leagues, they'd still have to cough up $200 million -- in the midst of collective bargaining negotiations over $4.3 billion-plus in annual revenue.
What needs to be addressed is Bryant's tone-deafness to Father Time. He seems to believe he can defy odds that have never been defied. He seems to be oblivious about the reality that LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are not going anywhere. Neither is Derrick Rose, nor Kevin Durant. And new champions, the Dallas Mavericks, have cemented their presence in such a way that it's going to take considerably more than Bryant's bravado and aloofness to push the Lakers back to the realms of championship relevance.
"I'm just waiting for the phone to ring. Here it is," Bryant said Sunday of reports about playing overseas. "I will play anywhere."
Bryant said it with a smile when nothing about it is funny. He said it because of a lockout the owners and players had better resolve before a regular-season game is missed. He echoed those words, seemingly, with no regard for a Lakers organization that doesn't need its box-office attraction considering adding wear and tear on his body at a time in his career when excessive extracurricular activities need to be avoided at all costs.
In 15 seasons, Bryant has amassed 40,145 minutes in 1,103 regular-season games. Then, of course, there are the additional 8,165 postseason minutes
he has amassed in his 208 playoff games.
Add up all that playoff work, and you have an additional 2½ seasons tacked onto an already taxing 15-year career, at roughly 3,000 minutes per season. Goodness knows how much mileage has been put on his body, judging by the 21,370 regular-season shots he has attempted, plus another 4,198 in the playoffs.
"He's one of the greatest players in the history of our game," USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo recently told me. "He's one of the greatest players, competitors, professionals you name it. Kobe personifies so many great things about the game of basketball, it's difficult to put into words."
And we all know this.
But we also know Kobe doesn't care too much about what others think. Not when it comes to his game and, more importantly, his interest.
So it's up to the Lakers to protect their own interest. And if Bryant has to be used as an example, so be it.
The Lakers have no leverage legally because, as one league official explained to me, pertaining to Kobe's even entertaining playing overseas: "FIBA is responsible for enforcing league contracts around the world. They know that, to the extent a player is under contract, it would be a violation for another FIBA member league to try to sign that player. But they also know that NBA players are free to play where they want during a lockout but must honor their [NBA] contracts once the lockout is over."
In other words, Kobe can play overseas if he wants to.
But here's what the Lakers can do: They can remind Kobe that, if he gets hurt, his $83.5 million salary could potentially be negotiated down -- or maybe even voided altogether.
They can play tape of the Lakers getting swept by the Mavs, of Kobe himself looking worn out, then ask: "Don't you think you could use some additional rest?"
They can remind him of his minutes, his games, and players such as Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and Metta World Peace (I can't believe I just wrote that), along with the reality that little help is on the horizon with the cap-strapped Lakers having little wiggle room to get things done. Then they can ask him that same question about rest over and over again.
There's no doubt Bryant would be significantly irritated by such a presentation, feeling as if the Lakers are filled with nothing but gall for even approaching him with such a subject. Especially given that they hired a new coach, Mike Brown, and didn't even seek Bryant's input before making that move.
But in the end, business is business. In this case, the Lakers' interest takes precedence.
If anyone can understand that much, it's Bryant.
He hasn't gone global by being stupid.
Follow Stephen A. Smith on Twitter: @stephenasmith.
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