(I worked as a Sports Editor from late 2004 until the summer of 2006. This is one of the many columns I was able to save that were originally published in The Sun-Times of Heber Springs, Arkansas.)
With Tuesday’s loss to Phoenix, the Los Angeles Lakers decision to turn an NBA Finals squad into a lottery team has finally come to fruition. The loss eliminated the Lakers from playoff contention for just the second time in 20 years and cemented their choice of Kobe over Shaq as one of the dumbest moves in sports history.
Of course, everyone without an inflated admiration for Bryant knew that this was a likelihood. In fact, this season was doomed for L.A. from the get-go. Many people felt Rudy T. was a good choice to coach the Lake show, until he retired mid-season from the stress.
Interim coach Frank Hamblin admitted after the loss to the Suns that he felt his team gave up some time ago. I for one think Bryant threw in the towel the other night against the Grizzlies, when he took himself out of the game for a “shin bruise” that happened in a previous game.
He took himself out after scoring 9 points and grabbing 3 rebounds in 14 minutes. The bruise was probably more centrally located on his ego, as the Grizz were leading 32-14 when he took himself out.
It seems important to mention that L.A. wasn’t mathematically eliminated until they didn’t show up against Phoenix. They still had an outside chance, but Hamblin admitted that his team “wouldn’t win out”.
KoKo’s hero Jordan would never have went out like that. Not when there was still a chance to make something happen. After all, basketball is the sport where insurmountable odds can be overcome.
Bryant did nothing to change his ways this season. He could have turned his image back around and become a selfless team player that led an overachieving squad into the playoffs. Instead, he alienated teammates and coaches, and finished the season with a career high in turnovers.
Just last week guard Chucky Atkins referred to Kobe as the GM, and Hamblin said that Bryant forced things too much while his teammates stood around and watched.
The Lakers last link to greatness left when Jerry West took his bags to Memphis. West – who had orchestrated championship teams as a GM and was one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest as a Laker player – was forced out despite being regarded as the league’s best executive.
He was replaced by Mitch Kupchak. I think that’s a little like Michael Jordan being replaced by Pete Meyers, or David Lee Roth being replaced by Sammy Hagar.
Magic is still involved as a partial owner, but as evidenced by his failed talk show, Johnson’s contributions to the Lakers begin and end with his playing. And Jerry Buss acts more like an overgrown party boy than an owner that demands results.
They did have Shaq, who is considered to be a champion, and was also named to the NBA’s 50 Greatest. But even though they won the titles together, Bryant doesn’t get the same love and will have to pull himself up to an elite level again.
Bryant would have been better off if he would have swallowed his pride and took the Clippers free agent offer. The other L.A. team would have been a perfect situation for Bryant, unlike the pressures that come along with feeding the giant that is the Lakers.
The current Clipper players are more suited to Bryant’s strengths. They have a bevy of quality forwards led by Elton Brand, steady point guard play with superstar in the making Shaun Livingston, and a crowd base starved for some star power.
That franchise is just begging for a personality like KoMe’s to lead them from famine to feast. He could have pulled a Madonna and reinvented himself with the Clips, instead of eclipsing his once promising star with his bloated sense of self.
His demands on the Lakers caused a monster to be unleashed upon the NBA. Shaq’s slight angered the sleeping giant, who had become sated on his success. But now he’s slimmed down, worked on his footwork and along with Dwayne Wade, has led the Heat to the best record in the league.
The Lakers choice also forced Phil Jackson to retire, and many believed that he was just ready to go.
But the before the NBA season had reached December, rumors were floating that Jackson would be coaching again as soon as next year. Seems to me he never wanted to stop. At least not until he grabs Red Auerbach’s championship record.
And now Kobe has to live with the hand he forced the dealer to give him. Will he learn from any of this? Will he allow himself to become humbled?
There’s still time for him to become one of the greatest ever, if he can just get out of his own way.