Over the years, we’ve heard a fair amount of comparisons between Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Who’s the greatest ever, how do Kobe’s titles hold up to MJ’s, who’s more historic. That aside, here’s one striking similarity between the pair of two-guards. At this particular time, neither of them are playing NBA basketball.
Kobe’s on a NBA roster, of course, in the middle of $30 million season with the Lakers. And he just signed a $48 million extension, keeping him the highest paid athlete in the league for the near future. But Kobe missed the first 19 games of the season recovering from a torn Achilles, an ailment that’s kept him grounded since April 12th. Then on December 8th, healed and rehabbed Kobe played the first of six full games for Los Angeles, where the team went 2-4, by the way. And finally, last Thursday, having played six games in 8 months, Kobe announced he’d be out the next six weeks with a fractured tibia in his knee cap. This puts the 35-year-old all-star on the bench until well past the halfway point of the season, when the Lakers may or may not still be in playoff contention and Kobe will be as rusty as a Beach Boys reunion tour.
It’s impossible to know what exactly Kobe will look or play like when he does get back on the court. By all accords he does due diligence in the training room and shouldn’t lose his shooters touch. But Kobe has been a pro since around the dark ages, going straight from high school, and his style of play mandates athleticism and nearly commands contact, two constructs that should only precipitate his fall from basketball aristocracy. In other words, he’s no Tim Duncan, with simple moves and teammates that play to best preserve his aging orientation.
Not to overstate the obvious, but very few professional athletes get better with age, at least not past the precipitous cliff that is 30, the odd middle age in this avocation. So at his age and viewpoint, Kobe may never be Kobe as we knew him, especially with patchwork on his knee and heel. Which makes his most recent contract extension somewhat perplexing to Lakers fans.
You don’t have to be old, in basketball years at least, to suffer career altering injuries. Brook Lopez is out for the year with a broken foot, and he’s barely old enough to rent a car. And Derek Rose is more medical experiment than basketball player at this point, to the chagrin of Chicago Bulls fans. The athletic body can fail at any time – it’s just more likely to stay that way with age.
What doesn’t change with time, for most superstars at least, is the athletic mind. Kobe is, from his vantage, forever 21, which is why he concedes nothing in contract negotiations, even if that makes it nearly prohibitive to bring in additional top tier talent. In Kobe’s mind, he doesn’t need it, even if everyone else things he does. The Lakers brass has thus far sided with Kobe – not necessarily because he’s right, but because he can fill an arena better than anyone north of Miami and LeBron James. So to the extent the NBA is a business, Kobe’s still a strong buy as damaged goods.
And that is what the fans should always understand. Team owner take largely pragmatic business orientations. They pick jerseys people will wear, sell food people will eat, and hire players they’ll support. That was long behind the HR strategy of the Dallas Mavericks, who on record privileged high character guys over thugs, even if it cost them a few wins, because their southern fan base wanted it. The fact that they did manage to win a title a few years back is almost serendipitous. They had the fans at hello, sir.
At some point, the Lakers may have to change directions, but not without some deep thought. Just ask the Yankees how easy it is to sell a fan favorite, like one currently named Derek Jeter. Ask the Houston Rockets what it was like after Hakeem Olajuwon left, or Chicago after Jordan skipped town. In each case, it was a good basketball decision, but a lousy business one. Perhaps Lakers ownership, in light of last week’s injury, are wondering if maybe they missed the mark. Maybe now was the time to cut the cord and start the bleeding. Maybe it was time for Kobe to play somewhere else. It would finally be just another way that Kobe would be just like Mike.
KEITH STRUDLER IS DIRECTOR OF THE MARIST COLLEGE CENTER FOR SPORTS COMMUNICATION AND ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF COMMUNICATION.
THE VIEWS EXPRESSED BY WAMC’S COMMENTATORS ARE SOLELY THOSE OF THE AUTHORS AND DO NOT REFLECT THE VIEWS OF WAMC OR ITS MANAGEMENT.