Commentary

L.A. still Kobe's town, for now

Injured Laker still brightest star in town, but there are contenders on the rise

Updated: October 30, 2013, 1:52 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- They have ways of measuring these things. Ratings points, franchise value, season tickets, jersey sales, stuff like that. It all gives you a pretty good picture of what slice of the market the teams in a city command.

But as with most things in life, what people do is far more instructive than what they say.

And so it was that Yasiel Puig, the Los Angeles Dodgers' electric young star, found himself sitting on a golf cart an hour after the Los Angeles Lakers played the Los Angeles Clippers in a game that was supposed to settle a few things, on the court at least.

Puig and Dodgers president Stan Kasten had joined Lakers president Jeanie Buss in the second row for the Lakers' surprising 116-103 upset of the Clippers. Before the game, he'd posed for photos with former Lakers coach Phil Jackson and starting center Pau Gasol. After the game, he shook hands with Lakers executive vice president of player personnel Jim Buss.

But it's the guy he was waiting for an hour after the game that matters.

The guy who didn't even play in Tuesday night's game and might not get out there until closer to Thanksgiving, at this rate.

Make no mistake, Kobe Bryant still runs this town. Even in street clothes his presence was the largest one in the building Tuesday.

How will the Lakers play without him? Can they survive until he returns from injury? When he does come back, how much will he really have to give? What if the Lakers actually win while he's out? How will he be reintegrated?

Yes, this was billed as the night the Clippers could grab hold of the basketball hearts and minds in this town.

Yes, it turned out to be a night that the Lakers showed they still had something to say about it.

But that's the one-day story. The Lakers play again Wednesday night. The Clippers will have their home opener Thursday. The pages turn quickly.

The conversation does not change so quickly, though. And for the foreseeable future, Bryant still dominates it.

Magic Johnson -- Lakers legend and current co-owner of the Dodgers -- explained things perfectly in an extended interview on ESPNLA 710 before Tuesday's game.

"When you make it big here, you become a celebrity, not a sports star," Johnson said. "Kobe is a celebrity. That's why he owns China, Japan. He plays for the Lakers, and wins championships for the Lakers. Nobody else has that cache."

All of the men vying to one day wear his crown were in the same building Tuesday night. When Bryant retires, his throne will be filled by the Clippers' stars, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, by Puig or Clayton Kershaw, or by some unnamed future Lakers standard-bearer who may or may not come via free agency or trade this summer.

It was strange, and a little bittersweet. A glimpse into Los Angeles' sports future without the man who has commanded its stage for the past two decades in uniform.

He's not done yet, of course. In a few weeks or months he'll be back up on the marquee. But while he's out, and the spotlight is elsewhere, you start to realize just how towering a presence he has become these past 17 years.

No one told Puig to wait for Bryant after the game. He wanted to. They became friends over the summer when Puig stopped by the Lakers' facility to meet him. They took pictures together and tweeted them out for public consumption. But it was more than a social call. Every account I've heard is that the two men had a long, substantive conversation in which Bryant told Puig to let nothing stand in the way of him getting every ounce out of his talent.

The Clippers' Griffin and Paul have a similar relationship and respect for Bryant. Last spring, I did an interview with Griffin. When the subject of Bryant came up, we literally couldn't talk about anything else until he found out if a story he had heard about Bryant biking through the desert on the night before USA Basketball camp in the summer of 2012 was true.

"The first night we all got into Las Vegas last summer for the USA Basketball camp, I heard Kobe [Bryant] went on some 40-mile bike ride at night through the desert," Griffin said. "When I found out about that bike ride, I was so tempted to ask him if I could go next time."

The story turned out to be true, and Griffin had only gotten the gist of it. It wasn't just 40 miles through the desert. It was 40 miles with head lamps on through rugged desert terrain on a ride that didn't end until 2:30 in the morning.

"I love that stuff," Griffin said. "I love all those stories."

It's that level that Griffin, Paul and Puig all aspire to.

It's that stage one of them will one day command.

All the talk about covering up banners and retired jerseys, preseason rankings and expectations, is so small compared to that.

So yeah, opening night was about proving who owns Los Angeles now. And it still belongs to Kobe.

But those other guys are coming.

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