They are the old married couple that has bored you with tales of how they met (during that fabled workout in 1996 at Inglewood High), how they sparred (through the power struggle with Shaquille O'Neal in 2004), how they nearly split (with angry trade demands in 2007) and how they always reconciled (thanks to reassuring phone calls from Jerry Buss and one transformative deal for Pau Gasol). The partnership was wildly prosperous. They earned many championships for each other, and many millions. Now that the union has run its course, they stay together through poor health and diminishing return, even though they both might be better off alone.
There is no room for sentiment in modern sports. The Colts cut Peyton Manning because he missed one season due to injury. The Cardinals traded David Freese two years after he won them a World Series. The Celtics shipped Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to a division rival in what amounted to a cash dump. All those moves were heartless, but all were savvy, in a landscape with unforgiving salary caps and varying television contracts. Sentiment sells jerseys. It doesn't win championships.
Most of today's pro sports franchises, run like big-box corporations, have no problem streamlining sentiment. The Lakers, a massive company but still a family business, are throwbacks. To their credit, and their detriment, they can't view Kobe Bryant as the embodiment of his advanced stats. They don't look at him and see a 35-year-old coming off a ruptured Achilles tendon who has played more minutes than Michael Jordan. They only see a Los Angeles icon, a basketball legend, a statue outside Staples Center. They evaluate Bryant about as objectively as the fans in China who pass out when he walks into the room.
Negotiations for beloved players, past their prime, pit the mind against the heart. Usually, with number-crunching executives at the fore, the mind wins in a blowout. But the heart snuck one out today, as the Lakers handed Bryant a two-year $48 million contract extension, even though he's yet to play a game after rupturing his Achilles. There was no rush to do this, unless Bryant is pulling off 360 reverses in practice, and even then there was no rush. If Bryant comes back from the Achilles in a way that scores of other NBA players have not, which is very possible given his mythic healing powers, the Lakers could have coughed up the same deal closer to the date when his contract expires this summer.
The Lakers are not just giving Bryant $48 million so he will play for them. They're giving him $48 million so he won't play for anybody else. The very thought of him in another uniform scared them right out of the cap space they've waited so long to clear. The Lakers, who were close to two max slots for this summer, are down to one. And they are relying on Bryant, who is admittedly hard on teammates and selective about who plays with him, to lure his sidekick and successor.
"I'm a good recruiter," Bryant said in September. "It depends on the type of person you're recruiting. We don't always see eye-to-eye on players they want to get. Sometimes, I think players don't have the right mentality to be part of the Lakers, which is championship or bust."
In other words, the Lakers just shrunk their pool of potential free agents, and they must be very careful about whom they draft with a potential lottery pick in June. Any premier acquisitions need the right mentality in addition to the right skills. If the Lakers come up empty this summer, they will employ an ornery elder statesman, hungry for a sixth title and tolerant of nothing less, leading a rebuilding effort. The Lakers are proud that Bryant will play 20 years for them, an unusual accomplishment in the mercenary age, but the farewell tour could be strained.
The Lakers can afford Bryant, given their prodigious television deal with Time Warner Cable, and his cultish following that reaches from Orange County to the Far East. But this is a contract out of the old Collective Bargaining Agreement. With a more restrictive luxury tax in place, even big-market clubs must limit risk on major contracts, and Bryant's Achilles represents the largest gamble of all. Bryant has acknowledged he doesn't know how he'll play when he returns.
Of course, he is betting on the Lakers, as well. Even though this deal is lucrative for Bryant, it promises nothing more than money. As a free agent, he could have jumped to a contender and captured that elusive sixth ring. But he isn't the type to hop a bandwagon or become a third option. He could have also waited to see what direction the Lakers will go. And yet, he didn't want to leave them any more than they wanted to lose him. A marriage that endures this long requires sacrifice on both sides.
Seventeen years after they met at Inglewood High, and made the first leap of faith, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers took the last one.