Cirque De L.A. Kobe Bryant couldn't persuade Mike Krzyzewski to join the Lakers, who showed they'll jump through hoops to keep their star happy

July 11, 2004

At week's end Kobe Bryant was still a Laker, his choice for Lakers
coach was still at Duke, and his freedom was still at stake in
Eagle, Colo. Beyond that, who can say? Now that Mike Krzyzewski
has said no to Kobe, something that Lakers owner Jerry Buss and
general manager Mitch Kupchak have been unable to do, Bryant
might be tempted to accept one of the lucrative free-agent offers
that have come his way, possibly from the Los Angeles Clippers.
After all, Kobe usually gets what he wants (that five-game
meltdown against the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals being the
rare exception).

On Monday afternoon the town of Durham, N.C., exhaled for the
first time in a week when the 57-year-old Krzyzewski, Bryant's
handpicked candidate, announced that he would continue to rule
the fiefdom he's built over 24 seasons at Duke, where he has won
621 games and three national championships, all without the
benefit of Jack Nicholson's sitting courtside. It's hard to know
which aspect of Coach K's decision will receive greater praise:
resisting the lure of filthy lucre--the five-year, $40 million
deal would have made him the highest-paid coach in professional
sports--or showing the good sense not to board a sinking ship in
L.A. One thing is certain: His choice, announced during a campus
press conference that had the ambience of a winning candidate's
appearance on election night, was a huge victory for a college
game that, of late, has had precious few.

In May another Iron Mike of the NCAA, Mike Montgomery, left the
leafy confines of Stanford after 18 seasons and accepted a
four-year, $10 million deal from the Golden State Warriors--a
franchise in geographic proximity to the Cardinal program but
light years behind in terms of stability. Last month the NBA
deprived the college game of a raft of potential All-Americas
when eight high schoolers were taken in the first round of the
draft. One of Krzyzewski's own burgeoning stars, forward Luol
Deng, bolted for the NBA after one season (he was chosen seventh
by the Phoenix Suns and traded to the Chicago Bulls), continuing
a trend that, at Duke, began in 1999, when Elton Brand, Corey
Maggette and William Avery all left early.

Who would have been left to fight the good fight had Krzyzewski,
the Coach's Coach of college sports, turned pro? Now, having
sacrificed so much for the cause, he will be an even bigger force
in the National Association of Basketball Coaches, which planned
to meet in Chicago on Wednesday to discuss petitioning the NBA to
stop drafting high school players.

The Lakers must deal with issues of their own. Shaquille O'Neal
still wants out, and Bryant still wants him out. Karl Malone, a
positive force on last season's team, had apparently successful
arthroscopic surgery on his right knee last week but hasn't
committed to returning, while Gary Payton, a negative force, has.
And as of Monday night, there was still no one to succeed Phil
Jackson, though former Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich, a
two-time NBA champion, would reportedly take the job if offered.
Bryant's feelings about Rudy T will no doubt be relevant;
according to well-placed sources it was Kobe who orchestrated the
invitation to Krzyzewski, which turned the basketball world
upside down for a holiday weekend. Here's how the offer evolved:

Sources say that Bryant's agent, Rob Pelinka, made the first
contact with Krzyzewski shortly after the Lakers' 99-91 victory
in Game 2 of the Finals, which Kobe sent into overtime with a
miraculous three-point buzzer-beater. After the series ended,
Bryant phoned Krzyzewski twice, each conversation lasting about
90 minutes. One of those calls took place on June 28, and three
days later Kupchak flew to Durham to offer Coach K the job. As a
high school All-America at Lower Merion in suburban Philadelphia,
Bryant had been heavily recruited by Duke, and he has said that
he would have gone there in 1996 had he not decided to enter the
draft. At Monday's press conference Krzyzewski said he and Kobe
had remained close. Bryant, evidently, had decided that Coach K
was the man to create order out of the purple-and-gold chaos. In
other words: He would have been the man to hand Kobe the ball and
tell everyone else to get out of his way. (Through a Lakers
spokesman Bryant declined to comment, and Pelinka did not return
calls from SI.)

Duke broke the news of the Lakers' offer in order "to be
proactive instead of reactive," according to a university
spokesman. But once the news got out, there sure was some
reacting going on. Richard Brodhead, who could hardly have faced
a more fiery baptism as Duke's incoming president, latched onto a
bullhorn in Krzyzewskiville, the tented village visible from the
coach's palatial on-campus office, and campaigned for the
incumbent to remain incumbent. Newspapers polled. Recruits
fretted. Dookies agonized. Coaches and former coaches weighed
in--John Wooden wondered why Coach K would leave, Rick Pitino why
he wouldn't. The News & Observer even quizzed Bryant's AAU coach,
for whom he hasn't played in eight years, about the K-wants-K
situation. "In my opinion," said Sam Rines, "[Krzyzewski] is the
only one right now who can really help Kobe through his problems
and through the next phase of his career."

But Coach K passed up that chance, and it's clear what he'll be
doing in the next phase of his career. He has what amounts to a
lifetime contract at Duke (it runs through 2011 when he reaches
the university retirement age of 65) and now an even stronger
bully pulpit from which to speak to his players and the college
basketball world. And it's pretty clear that Brodhead's door will
be wide open whenever Coach K has something to discuss. Indeed,
the leverage Krzyzewski now has with his boss is extraordinary,
almost like ... well, the leverage Bryant has with his boss.

How's this for extraordinary: Bryant is driving the Lakers' bus
(or, more accurately, the Lakers' Buss) even though he might not
be onboard come next season. His trial for felony sexual assault
is scheduled to begin on Aug. 27 in Eagle, and though he faces a
possible life sentence, Kobe is already sifting through
free-agent offers, the most attractive so far being a six-year,
$100 million deal from the Clippers. (The Lakers can give him as
much as $135 million over seven years.) The league has said it
will not approve a contract that promises to pay him even if he's
serving time.

Buss has been steadfast in his embrace of Bryant, who may next
demand to judge Laker Girl tryouts and move Nicholson's seats at
Staples Center. (Hey, three decades ago Buss saw the value in
buying up Southern California real estate, so who are we to
question his prescience?) Months ago the owner broke off contract
negotiations with Jackson, whose relationship with Bryant was
strained even during the seasons that ended with championships in
2000, '01 and '02. Buss also said he would do everything possible
to keep Bryant and was far less attentive to O'Neal. Multiple
team sources said during the season that Bryant made it clear to
Buss that he did not relish playing another year with Shaq.

Sure enough, Jackson was shown the gate just three days after the
Lakers bowed to Detroit, and O'Neal, upset over Bryant's power
within the franchise, asked to be dealt, a request that can only
be more adamant now that he's seen Kobe engineering the team's
coaching offers. At week's end, however, the Big Disenchanted was
still a Laker, and the $56 million he is due over the next two
seasons will make it very difficult to move him.

If Bryant does remain with the Lakers, will he be able to attract
free agents to fortify the roster? Kobe isn't close to many
players in the league, unlike life-of-the-party O'Neal, who was
more responsible than anyone, including Buss and Kupchak, for
getting Malone and Payton to sign with Los Angeles.

The only good news Bryant got last week came in Eagle. Mark
Hurlbert, the district attorney who decided to charge Bryant last
July, withdrew from the case, claiming that a "high level of
involvement" in it would interfere with his administrative duties
on other cases and would not be fair to the citizens of his
four-county district. Three young lawyers, none of whom is nearly
as accomplished as Bryant's attorney, Pamela Mackey, have taken
over. Hurlbert faces his own firestorm of criticism--"This is
like the captain of a ship, when a storm is approaching,
instructing his crew to let him off at the next port," said Bruce
Brown, the Democrat running against Republican Hurlbert in the
November election--but the larger question is whether the D.A.'s
withdrawal indicates that he lacks confidence in the
prosecution's case.

How Kobe feels is anyone's guess because, throughout this
difficult season, the man has kept his own counsel and his
emotions firmly in check. That was not the case with Krzyzewski
on Monday; whatever private doubts he might have had about
turning down the money and the challenge, he looked relieved. At
Duke he's still Coach K, where bright-eyed, floor-pounding
acolytes play on a court named after him. In L.A., after all, he
would have just been Kobe's coach.

SI.com
More NBA news on the Lakers and free agency, plus analysis from
Marty Burns and Jack McCallum, at si.com/basketball.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JOE CIARDELLO THE RINGLEADER With (from left) Rudy T in the wings and Buss on board, Coach K stayed put while O'Neal sought to flee Kobe. COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JOE CIARDELLO

Which aspect of Coach K's decision will receive greater praise:
resisting filthy lucre or showing the good sense not to board a
sinking ship?

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)