The Lakers' precocious Kobe Bryant is itching to start--but where?
This is an article from the Jan. 25, 1999 issue
When 184 NBA players voted on the proposed collective bargaining
agreement two weeks ago, only five cast their ballots to reject
the deal. One of them was Kobe Bryant, the Lakers' third-year
wunderkind, who can be a free agent next summer. Under the old
deal Bryant would have commanded a contract in the realm of
seven years for $100 million. Under the terms of the new
agreement Bryant will have to settle for a maximum starting
point of $9 million a season with annual raises of no more than
12.5%. Bryant's commitment to the union's bargaining
committee--and to his agent, Arn Tellem, who branded the deal "a
"I felt good about what I did," Bryant says. "I can live with my
decision. I hope everybody else can."
Says Tellem about his client, who turned 20 in August, "Kobe's
not afraid to stand up for what he believes in. Down the road, I
think he'll be a strong union leader, not like some of these
other guys who run for the hills."
Now that play is about to resume, Bryant's immediate concern is
where he fits in the Lakers' rotation. This year will be a
pivotal one for L.A., which should have an excellent shot at
grabbing the first brass ring of the post-Jordan era. "We're
hoping this is the year it all falls into place for Kobe," says
Lakers coach Del Harris, who will undoubtedly be the one to
suffer if it doesn't. "He's such an exciting player. I think he's
ready to go beyond the scoring and get his teammates involved."
Which brings up Harris's toughest decision: Where will Bryant
play? Having been used primarily as a sixth man, coming in at
both guard slots and at small forward, Bryant has informed the
Lakers he wants to be a starter. That's conceivable, but it
depends on how the Lakers' roster shapes up after the leaguewide
frenzy of trades and free-agent signings that was to begin this
week. It is no secret that L.A.'s top priority was to acquire a
rugged power forward. L.A.'s first choice was free agent Tom
Gugliotta, but because the Lakers are already over the salary
cap, his previous team, the Timberwolves, would have to sign him
and then deal him to the Lakers for a package that included
forward-center Elden Campbell.
The Lakers would have been happy to get veteran Charles Oakley
from the Raptors, but he was virtually untradable unless Toronto
could get under the salary cap and eliminate his base-year
status, which would only permit a trade for a player or players
earning much less. (Oakley was due to make $10 million this
If they acquired a power forward with muscle, the Lakers could
afford to start the 6'7", 210-pound Bryant at the three slot even
though he gets pushed around in traffic and is a below-average
rebounder (3.1 average in '97-98).
Bryant, who averaged 15.4 points last season, is a natural
shooting guard, but L.A. isn't keen on dealing its veteran at
that spot, Eddie Jones, though he has drawn plenty of interest
from around the league. It's possible that Bryant could beat out
Derek Fisher for the starting point-guard job, but it doesn't
figure that Kobe (2.5 assists per game last season) would prosper
in a pass-first, shoot-second role.
Besides, free-agent point guard Kevin Johnson, a three-time
All-Star, has told the Lakers he'd love to play for them and
would even take a pay cut from last season's $8 million salary
with the Suns to fit into L.A.'s $1.75 million salary-cap
exception. (Sources say KJ gave the Rockets the same speech.) One
thing is certain: KJ is willing to put off his retirement to play
for a contender.
Odds are Bryant will start the season as the first man off the
bench again, and he can show his mettle by swallowing his pride
a little longer. Bryant's desire to start was heightened, in
part, by the fans' voting him a starter in last year's All-Star
Game, a development the Lakers feared would encourage their
budding star to believe he was the next Michael Jordan. Bryant's
disastrous attempt to go head-to-head with His Airness in the
All-Star Game exposed his immaturity and alienated his Western
Conference teammate Karl Malone, who resented the audacious kid
for attempting to take over the game. It proved yet again there
is no substitute for experience. That is a lesson Bryant should
review as he embarks on this shortened 1999 season.
DEFENDING HIS STANCE
Pistons forward Grant Hill has read the reports that a number of
players were upset with him because he did not attend union
meetings and voice his support during the lockout, and that foes
were even threatening to be especially physical with him on the
court when the season begins. In response, Hill tells SI he did
speak privately with union head Billy Hunter throughout the
lockout and defends his low profile. "If you are married and you
have an argument with your wife, you're not going to go out and
tell everyone in the neighborhood what your problems are," Hill
says. "The only people talking for the league were David Stern
and [deputy commissioner] Russ Granik. Everything they said was
very calculated and very strategic. That's how it should have
been on the union side."
Even though he was not the only marquee player who kept his
distance from the labor battle, Hill endures most of the wrath
because he is viewed by his peers as the league's pet superstar,
an image that was reinforced last summer when he made it known
during a players' conference call that he opposed boycotting the
"I thought we were sending the wrong message to the fans," Hill
says of the union's decision to pull out. "I felt we could have
used the world championships as a stage to express our views on
the collective bargaining agreement. I talked one-on-one with a
lot of the guys before our conference call, and they said,
'Grant, we're with you.' But when it was time for the conference
call, it was, 'Hey, fight the power.' The same guys who were
agreeing with me one-on-one had suddenly changed their opinions."
The players' disdain for Hill grew in December when they saw tape
of him and Stern chatting amicably at a White House reception for
the Special Olympics. Hill is the vice chairman of this summer's
games. "We didn't have any conversations about the lockout," Hill
says. "We were talking sports. Actually, he did most of the
talking. I was just listening."
Hill dismisses the talk of physical retaliation for his views.
"If guys don't like me, I couldn't care less," he says. "I've
taken some shots. Oh, well. I'm getting used to it."
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