No guts, no glory for Kobe

Updated: July 16, 2004, 5:17 PM ET
By Ray Ratto | Special to ESPN.com

Kobe Bean Bryant looked into the abyss, and blinked.

And no, we're not referring to the Los Angeles Clippers as an abyss, their history notwithstanding.

No, the abyss was Bryant's image as the single greatest saboteur in American professional sports since the Black Sox.

Kobe Bryant
In the end, Kobe Bryant's decision to stay with the Lakers was a slam dunk.
Bryant had a chance to not only dismantle the Los Angeles Lakers but to show them the business end of his middle finger on his way from one end of the Staples Center to the other. He could have said no to the NBA's platinum-plated team and yes to the league's zinc-painted one, looked all the nobler for leaving $32 million and an extra year on the table, and turned Jack Nicholson into Billy Crystal, all with one simple nod.

Instead, he took the extra money, the extra year, and the duty of saving the Lakers from himself.

Damn.

Yes, damn, because the conventional wisdom won again.

The conventional wisdom won because everyone figured out weeks ago that Bryant won every tiebreaker with Shaquille O'Neal and Phil Jackson. The conventional wisdom won because the math and the glitter both pushed him toward the Lakers. The conventional wisdom won because, well, the Clippers were involved.

I mean, think about it. A great player would rather go to the Clippers than the Lakers? Most any player would have a hard time choosing the Clippers over the Yakima Sun Kings. Choosing the Clippers over the Lakers would be purest insanity, like turning down a chance to take Beyoncé to the senior prom in favor of the vice principal.

Still, Bryant took the path of least resistance (and most money) at a time when he truly could have turned the entire Western Conference on its ear. He could have put his thumbprint on the NBA by putting a footprint in Jerry Buss' nethers, but even though Bryant enjoys his enigmatic impulses as much as the next six guys, he doesn't enjoy them $32 million worth.

Damn.

Maybe he figured that making the Clippers Miss Congeniality would make them feel good enough about themselves. They normally finish 29th in the free-agent market because, well, mostly because until this upcoming season there were only 29 teams in the league. Thus, having Bryant give them the big tease might have made Donald Sterling feel a little better about his franchise.

But we doubt that Bryant's thought processes worked that way. The Clippers were played as the stalking horses they were, and Bryant played them well enough to scare the Lakers, the first time the Lakers have been scared by the Clippers since ... well, since never.

In fact, he might have wanted to play them a little longer, but his national image has taken such a beating since the end of Game 2 of the Finals that he was in danger of becoming a caricature of self-absorption. He needs some spin time, after the weeks of serious beatings he has taken (Jim Gray excluded), and until he announced his decision to stay with the Lakers, he had nothing to spin.

Now he can speak with crypto-earnestness about his deep devotion to Buss (at $22 million per, devotion seems the least he can manage) and his burning desire to make the Lakers whole again (which seems the least he can do given the number of holes he punched in them), and we can lap it up and then finally, finally, get on with the rest of our shallow, empty life-shells.

But he could have been so much more dramatic had he done the unconventional thing, the fiscally imprudent thing, the "Where In God's Name Have You Put Your Head?" thing. He could have validated the unvalidate-able, legitimized the terminally illegitimate, elevated the ground-bound.

He could have made the Clippers objects of fear rather than stomach-seizing laughter. It would have been the boldest and most daring move imaginable, and if he'd pulled it off, he'd have been the biggest franchise alchemist since Bill Russell.

Instead, he played safe. Even the last-minute rumor that the Clippers were trying to work more trades in an attempt to form their team around Bryant sounded too hollow to believe. He missed his chance to make real history in his desire to re-do history.

Worse, he let the conventional wisdom off the hook.

In a word, damn.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com

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