- Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Senior Writer
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So, about that torch pass?
Call it a failed exchange, dropped baton, whatever metaphor suits you, but lost in the immediate aftermath of Howard's decision to bolt for the Houston Rockets is the fairly urgent need for a new casting call for the Lakers' next leading man.
Bryant, of course, said last week that he fully intends to retire as a Laker and doesn't believe there will be a problem working out an extension to his current contract, which expires after the coming season. So for another two or three or four more years, he'll hold it down.
But even he would admit that's more of a stopgap than a long-term answer. And he's said on more than one occasion it's important to him to leave the franchise in good hands. "This organization has done so much for me. I'm so thankful to them," Bryant said on the eve of Lakers training camp last season, when the terms and conditions of transfer were being publicly set forth to Howard.
"That's one of the conversations that [executive vice president Jim Buss] and I had over the summer. It was like, 'If you have the opportunity to get Dwight over the summer, get him because I want to see this organization continue to flourish and continue to be successful long after I'm gone.'"
That quote looks a little dated in hindsight, knowing how things ended with Howard. But the premise remains the same: The Lakers -- and Bryant -- need to recruit a new torchbearer.
And it's almost as important for Bryant and his legacy as it is for the Lakers' future. I say "almost" because Bryant's place among the all-time greats is already well-established. But because of the way his time, first with Shaquille O'Neal and now with Howard, ended, it would be a smudge on his résumé if his career didn't eventually end either with a clean handoff -- or another title or two with Pau Gasol.
Gasol and Derek Fisher have been the two teammates Bryant has had the strongest connection with during his career.
Besides being cerebral and sensitive, Fisher and Gasol were wholly unthreatened by Bryant. They weren't there to take over for him; they were there to complement him. Both challenged him when they needed to, which is why he respects them so much. But these relationships were always partnerships, not the mentorship it was supposed to be with Howard.
That mentorship was probably doomed from the start. Howard and Bryant are two very different people. But the whole premise was off. You don't just hand the Lakers franchise over to someone; it must be earned. And then, quite frankly, at some point the heir apparent must step up and take it.
Bryant had played eight seasons and won three titles before the Lakers organization felt comfortable entrusting the franchise to him, in 2004. They knew him, the Lakers fans loved him, and perhaps most importantly, he understood all of what he was signing up for.
Howard, on the other hand, never asked to be a Laker -- they were his third choice among potential destinations when the Orlando Magic was dealing him during the 2011-12 season. He was traded to Los Angeles and then tried to make it work. As it turned out, in the year he was in town, he built up very little equity with the franchise and the fan base, and always seemed more focused on what the franchise could do for him, rather than what he could do for the franchise.
That was his right as a free agent. Give him a ton of credit for knowing himself well enough to know this just wasn't for him, and ultimately having the conviction to walk away from it in search of a place he felt was a better fit.
Still, all that does is reinforce the need to find and cast a new leading man here in L.A. Officially, that task falls to general manager Mitch Kupchak. Unofficially, it is as much Bryant's responsibility as it is Kupchak's.
He had little say in the casting of Howard. He gave his approval beforehand, tried to talk him into it, but both men had misgivings from the start, and their final meeting ended up being a rehash of all the same issues that had been problematic during the season.
This next time around, Bryant needs to play an active role in both the choice and recruitment of the man who will succeed him. No more trying to make something work that just doesn't. There isn't time for that anymore.
Bryant, more than anyone in the organization, knows which players can handle the face-of-the-franchise role and its responsibilities. He is probably the only one who can truly make that player feel comfortable accepting the challenge. And yes, more than anyone with the Lakers, he has the clout to make it happen.
If Phil Jackson were in a position to recruit free agents, it might be a different story. For now, he's just tangentially around as a resource, but mostly trying to keep his opinions to himself and his half-million Twitter followers.
In a way, it feels beneath a player of Bryant's stature to have to lead a recruiting effort. In a way, it feels beneath a franchise of the Lakers' stature to have to recruit at all. The right kind of player should want to play for the Lakers and learn from one of the greatest of all time. There shouldn't have to be a torch passed; someone should just grab it.
Players like those don't come around very often, though.
Remember, Jerry West found Bryant.
Sometimes it takes one to know one.
5hChris Broussard and Marc Stein