Kobe departure? This ride could make Laker faithful queasy
Never before has the departure of Kobe Bryant from the Lakers seemed more likely, Marc Stein writes.
After the latest wild spin on the Kobe Coaster, another 24-hour scramble of disorienting turns and steep drops with No. 24, things were actually pretty clear at the end of the ride.
So clear that the end of the Kobe Bryant Era in Lakerland has never seemed closer.
The events of a zany Tuesday allowed for no other conclusion. You inevitably wondered, once your stomach settled, whether the Lakers are going to have to live like this for the rest of Bryant's days in purple and gold, however many are left, with the smothering expectation that he's headed to the airport any minute.
It's difficult to believe otherwise when Kobe asks to skip his third successive practice to give his legs some rest and is promptly asked by reporters whether he thinks he's played his last game as a Laker.
It's especially difficult to imagine a different ending when the famously quotable and revealing Phil Jackson responds to almost every Kobe question he gets by saying he either can't comment or doesn't know the answer.
The Zen Master? At a loss for words? So fearful of inflaming the situation further that he doesn't want to say anything?
Can't remember that happening during any of the zillion Laker soap operas of the past 10 years. Which is pretty telling.
The Lakers, according to NBA front-office sources, have no looming intentions to initiate any Bryant trade discussions and still would prefer to hang onto to their most popular player since Magic Johnson. But Buss and Bryant suddenly have a lot of toothpaste to stuff back into the tube to forge the kind of truce that can get the Lakers through the season without every missed practice or injury report sparking the Kobe's Gone hysteria witnessed this week.
The prevailing wisdom around the league held for months that the Lakers were unlikely to even consider moving Bryant until closer to the June draft, when the teams making offers know where they're picking and with Bryant down to a year of waiting before his right to become a free agent in the summer of 2009. But now? After last week's admission from Lakers owner Jerry Buss that he "would certainly listen" to trade offers for Bryant in the wake of Kobe's loud declaration in May that he wants out -- and Kobe's subsequent refusals to recant the request -- there is a growing belief (in Bryant's camp, especially) that he'll indeed be moved before the February trading deadline, possibly even before the season starts.
So edgy is Lakerland, as a result, that Bryant, after dodging the media for a few days, was forced to address reports Tuesday that he already has cleaned out his locker at the team's practice facility. One team source insisted to ESPN.com that Bryant indeed removed his personal belongings, but Bryant and agent Rob Pelinka told ESPN The Magazine's Ric Bucher that Kobe had merely cleaned up his locker after Monday's practice, leaving plenty behind.
It's a tension Kobe created, of course, when he demanded a trade nearly five months ago with a slew of critical comments aimed at the organization that helped make him a worldwide brand and which backed him steadfastly through a sexual-assault case in the 2003-04 season. But Buss' comments -- which Bryant admitted Tuesday "caught me off guard a little bit '' -- appear to have permanently changed the dynamic.
Yet such is the tension around the team now that Bryant can't rest for a second without sparking an immediate panic that he's leaving for Chicago or Dallas, with multiple sources insisting that Bryant -- who possesses an unusually powerful hammer to go where he wants in the form of the league's only active no-trade clause -- lists the Mavericks as his No. 1 destination.
That's because those comments marked the first-ever acknowledgment from the Lakers of any openness to parting with Bryant, after months of scoffing at the mere suggestion. So we repeat: It looks as though it'll take a whopper of a truce to effectively thaw the chill between Buss and Bryant now ironic as it seems for Bryant to take such umbrage at Buss going public after the things Kobe said first.
Yup: Things change fast, even in October. Fears that Bryant might skip training camp or hold out for a time in an attempt to force the Lakers to move him proved unfounded, with 29-year-old reporting for camp on time and apparently intent on putting the turbulence of the offseason behind him. Announcing that he was prepared to move forward with the only team he has ever played for, Kobe said on Oct. 1, "Priority No. 1 for me is to bring the title back here in Los Angeles."
The healing didn't last even 10 days, though. In that short span, Bryant's status was officially changed from the ultimate untouchable to stunningly available.
Jackson tried, in the wake of Buss' revelations, to remind us all that the owner's "initial statement was that we're not interested in trading Kobe Bryant." The coach, however, has since conceded that the resulting uncertainty has been a "distracting thing" for Bryant and the team and backed even further away from a hopeful tone when he met with L.A. reporters for a post-practice briefing Tuesday.
Asked whether Bryant would play in Thursday's exhibition in Bakersfield, Calif., against Seattle, Jackson said, "I can't comment on that."
Asked whether Bryant would at least be with the team for that game, Jackson said, "I don't know about that, either."
Told that his no-comments could give the impression that a Bryant trade was imminent, Jackson said: "I can't comment on that. There's nothing imminent. So I can't comment on anything imminent."
Asked finally whether he thinks Bryant has played his last game in purple and gold, Jackson said: "I can't comment on that. I don't know that at all. I mean, who knows that? Do you know it? We just can't comment on that. There's certain things I think that have to be discussed and will be and then we'll move forward from there."
Make that nervously forward and headed for a Hollywood blockbuster (deal) that seems more inevitable than ever before.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
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