Tuesday October 30th, 2007

Why is Kobe Bryant the bad guy? Because he wants to win.

The league's most talented player is being drawn, quartered and sacrificed to the pagan gods like Hillary Clinton at Rush Limbaugh's dinner table, all because he wants to play on a winning team.

The Rockets are opening the season in Los Angeles on Tuesday night against a Lakers team that's auditioning for the supporting roles in the Kevin Garnett Story 2005-2007. Other than Kobe, this is a roster of one NBA starter (Lamar Odom) and 13 reserves. At one end of the bench should sit Andrew Bynum, too young at 20, and at the other end should be Derek Fisher, too old at 33, with all of the other Lakers uniforms sitting in between. That's how it would be if the Lakers were a contender, which they aren't.

Therefore, Kobe wants to leave and play for a winner, but for the time being he can't.

So coach Phil Jackson, from all who could be criticized in the long-winded aftermath of Shaquille O'Neal's departure, this week singles out Bryant: "Obviously he hasn't thrown his heart and soul into performing on the floor. That hurts me a little bit.''

All Bryant has been doing this preseason and last offseason is trying to exert force to leverage himself away from the Lakers and into a winning organization. Has he been clumsy in his methods? Absolutely. Has he hurt himself along the way? Indisputably.

What does this say about him? To me it says he will do whatever he can -- even damaging what is left of his good name -- to move from a first-round loser to a Finals winner.

"That's the one thing that disappoints me: Phil said that Kobe's just going through the motions,'' Charles Barkley told reporters on the eve of the regular season. "And if your coach tells you you're just going through the motions, that's pretty much the end of the straw.''

To my misfortune, I am old enough to remember how ugly it grew in Philadelphia before the 76ers finally unloaded Barkley in 1992 to Phoenix, where he immediately rediscovered his old form to win the league MVP. Barkley wanted to win then, just like Kobe wants to win now, and I applaud them both.

The ambition to win is far and away the most important quality in the NBA, where players are guaranteed the highest average salary of any professional league on earth. Those salaries are awarded entirely upon hope. Teams sign players to eight-figure contracts in hope they'll work harder than ever to win, rather than relax into a state of semi-retirement.

It's not like players making big money are going to earn appreciably bigger money by winning. The NBA, to its detriment, doesn't operate that way.

Here's another view. Imagine if the Lakers assembled the makings of a championship roster around their best player -- only to realize that Bryant was dogging it, that he wasn't trying to win. In that case, I'd sympathize with the poor Lakers, who did everything right but were being let down by the attitude of their best player.

But that isn't what we're seeing, is it? What we're seeing is the regrettably predictable consequence of a franchise that has been in decline for years. The Lakers have been trying to rebuild themselves since Shaq left to win a championship for Miami, and it hasn't been going very well. Are they trying to win a championship now? No. Are they trying to win five years from now by investing in Bynum? Maybe. What they're probably trying to do is to build up Bynum's stock in order to package him for a secondary star who can launch Kobe back into contention, much as the Celtics did this summer by trading Al Jefferson for Garnett. But that approach is backfiring now that Kobe has lost faith in them.

The most damning criticism of the NBA comes from fans who believe that most players don't care about winning because their money is guaranteed and there is nothing a team can do to force a disinterested millionaire to show interest. But here we have just the opposite: The best player in the league wants so badly to play for a winning team that he'll do almost anything from giving paradoxical trade-demand interviews on radio, to trashing his teammates on videotape, to providing his coach with reason to criticize him.

In this case, the player looks hungrier to win than his team. I'm sure the Lakers' management would disagree, but Bryant clearly doubts whether team officials are as good at their job as he is at his.

In the hours before the opener, Bryant was listed as inactive on the Lakers' roster, which could be taken in any number of ways. Maybe he's about to be traded (unlikely). Maybe his status is in doubt given his absence from the Lakers' final preseason game because of a sore wrist, and he'll be activated an hour before tip-off.

"Maybe the Lakers are just trying to stick it to him a little,'' said a rival team executive, who speculates that the gamesmanship between Bryant and the Lakers might not have hit bottom. "It wouldn't surprise me if Kobe took control of the situation by deciding to go and get his knee scoped. He could take himself out of play by having some kind of minor surgery, because everybody in this league always has bone spurs.''

The big problem here for Kobe is that he is so lousy at public relations. Either he doesn't listen to good advice or he isn't getting any. Michael Jordan was much better politically in this area. Yet imagine if Jordan were in the same predicament, watching his biological clock tick away while at his ring-bearing peak. He would be impatient too, and it would get ugly fast. And -- knowing what we know today about Jordan -- we would say it's all because he puts winning first.

One other thing I can imagine somebody bringing up is the money. If Kobe wants to win so badly, why didn't he negotiate for less than his current salary of $19.5 million to give the Lakers room to bring in more good players? But, come on, now you're being un-American.

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