Commentary

Kobe has reached the legacy stage of his career

Originally Published: June 3, 2008
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

Kobe BryantGarrett W. Ellwood/NBAE/Getty ImagesKobe stuck it out with the Lakers and his teammates, and now he's on the verge of adding a fourth ring.
If you want to know how Kobe Bryant and the Lakers got here -- not to the 2008 NBA Finals, but here, to this harmonious place after all the turmoil -- think back to biology class, or those old nature shows.

Remember symbiosis, two different organisms that come together for a mutually beneficial partnership? Like the clown fish and the sea anemone. The clown fish protects the anemone from other fish that would eat it, while the anemone's stinging tentacles keep the clown fish's predators away. It's similar to that. Only Kobe is so complex that he's really created his own ecosystem, a web of interdependency.

A franchise has paid him maximum dollars and then held on to him, a coach has returned to him, and a fan base has kept cheering for him because they know the alternative is losing games and losing money. He has stayed because he ultimately realized it was in the best interests of his legacy and his bank account to remain a Laker. Sorry if this lacks sentiment. Nature is cold. So is the NBA.

It seems a little unfair, like there should be a punishment for calling out your teammates instead of trophies as a reward. Maybe we're guilty of thinking this is something more than it really is. Does karma factor in when a shark snatches up a fish? Or is it just a matter of the food chain?

This whole order is a testament to Bryant, of course. It's not just his talent. At this point, you could probably find a player on every roster with more raw athletic ability than his. It's his drive and determination that have made him indispensable, that have enabled him to overcome whatever adversity -- some of it self-inflicted -- that has come his way.

He has rebounded from the sexual assault charges of 2003, his role in the departures of Shaquille O'Neal and Phil Jackson in 2004 (it's doubtful he actually issued a them-or-me ultimatum, but he never did campaign for their return), the Lakers' absence from the 2005 playoffs, his second-half shutdown in Game 7 of the 2006 playoffs, and then his blasting of his bosses and teammates on the radio and Internet in the summer of 2007.

Any one of those events had the potential to be permanent career ballast. They could have defined him, or even broken him. Instead Bryant keeps floating away.

It takes perseverance just to make it to the NBA, Lakers guard Derek Fisher said, "And to play at the level that he's played at his career, perseverance is like waking up every day. When he wakes up every day, he's persevered, carrying the expectations, the fanfare, and the good and the bad that comes with Kobe Bryant."

Bryant always maintained a fast path to redemption: Keep getting better at what he does best. It started in 2005-06, when he kept topping himself, with once-in-a-generation feats like outscoring Dallas 62-61 through three quarters and dropping 81 on the Toronto Raptors. In the 2006-07 season, he got on a run of four consecutive 50-point games.

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillTKobe has finally learned to trust -- and love -- his teammates.

This past season, his teammates did their best to keep pace with him, then Pau Gasol was gifted to him. The Lakers won the most competitive Western Conference race we've seen. Bryant was rewarded with the MVP. The Lakers are back in the Finals.

See, that's all it takes to get back in the fans' good graces. Score, then win. Better than a bouquet of roses. Cheaper than a $4 million ring.

And here's the thing we've learned about Bryant: It really is that easy for him. He is close to mastering the game. In the fourth quarter of the first and fifth games against San Antonio, he did whatever he wanted against the defending champions.

The beauty of his game now isn't in the flights to the hoop, it's in the little things. Watch the way he can create space without so much as a dribble. All it takes is a jab step or a wriggle of the shoulders and his defender backs off enough for Bryant to fire up a jump shot. Or look at the way he gets to his chosen spots. In Game 5 it was the right corner of the lane by the free-throw line. Dribble-dribble-dribble, hit the spot, pull up, gotcha. Dribble, spin, fall away, swish.

Bryant was a hit with Lakers fans long before he reached this skill level, back when he was just a dazzling rookie. It didn't hurt that he had a flashy game and that he arrived in Los Angeles as a teenager in a particularly youth-obsessed time that coincided with the rise of the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears. But it was his industriousness that resonated with fans the longest and helped him win the battle with Shaquille O'Neal for the public's hearts.

The most overlooked aspect of L.A. is its hardworking nature. The movie business isn't all red carpets, it's also 18-hour days on the set. And all those lawns and swimming pools don't mow and clean themselves.

Hard workers on the local teams have always been appreciated. That's how Kurt Rambis became a cult hero among the more glamorous players in the 1980s. And it's why Bryant became so beloved in his day.

Winning always helps. L.A. is a town that adopted the Raiders, which is like picking up a hitchhiker a mile from a prison. But they were only a year removed from winning the Super Bowl when they got to L.A., and they won a Super Bowl their second year there. So there are still people who miss them more than a decade after they returned to Oakland.

Bryant was even more embedded. He had three championships worth of equity (added points for wearing the jersey of Lakers icon Jerry West to the first parade).

Even though he was willing to abandon his fans, to take his act elsewhere after all their years of support, they didn't abandon him. Some booing on opening night was the only punishment, dropped as soon as the Lakers got back into the win column, quickly replaced by chants of "M-V-P!"

They'd already sent in their season-ticket deposits by the time Bryant came out with his trade request. They didn't pay the highest average price in the NBA to watch Sasha Vujacic. For every fan who was outraged by Bryant (most of the e-mails they sent me began, "I've been a Lakers fan since they had Elgin Baylor and Jerry West and played in the Sports Arena"), two more took his side and blamed an incompetent front office for driving him to this point.

Management felt betrayed. Hadn't the Lakers stood by him during the sexual assault allegation, to the point of paying for his flights to Colorado? Didn't it give him as many dollars as it could, 136.4 million of them, even while his legal status was still uncertain?

But management didn't let its emotions overrule it business sense. Owner Jerry Buss absorbed the pain of a player he once likened to a son, turning around and calling him an "idiot." He and the Lakers had learned their lesson from trading Shaq in haste, realizing that even under calm circumstances NBA teams never get better by trading superstars.

"I probably thought like everybody else, they were going to have to trade him," said Nico Harrison, a Nike director of sports marketing who works closely with Bryant. "To Mitch's credit, they didn't. I also thought it would be tough trading Kobe, to make it work, the basketball business side. How do you get value? Even though they might have to, I thought it would be difficult. How many players add up to Kobe? How do you pack the stadium in Los Angeles without Kobe?"

In NBA circles, the further you got away from the epicenter of the Kobe story, the less people believed he would be traded. It just didn't make sense for the Lakers, not with Bryant's opt-out clause still two seasons away.

Likewise, for Bryant, skipping out on the season or even training camp wasn't a viable option. If he did that, he would lose his greatest asset in the minds of the public. As Harrison said, "Whether you didn't like him or you did like him, after a while, he kind of wins you over because you see his dedication every time he laces them up."

You can't win anything if you don't play. You also won't make a good salesman for the shoe company that stood by you through everything. So Bryant would have to find a way to make it with the Lakers, just as they had to find a way to make it work with him.

As a phenomenon, this was no more remarkable than bringing back Phil Jackson a year after they separated and Jackson put out a book spilling the organization's backstage conflicts (including his "psychological war" with Bryant and his desire to trade him). No longer at the top of the league, the Lakers needed the buzz of a big-name hire, and there was none bigger than Jackson. Jackson knew the Lakers would never be hopeless as long as they had Bryant.

Bryant had to realize that Jackson and his triangle offense (which gives him more space and freedom from double-teams) were the best fit for him, and is adhering to the offense more than ever.

"He's always embraced it from the standpoint of liking it," said Tex Winter, the offense's creator. "But oftentimes he's been impulsive and hasn't stayed with the principles of the offense. He has a lot more faith in his teammates now."

Bryant has said he has more trust in Jackson now, values his advice more, and has gone so far as to say he plays to please him. Jackson said he and Bryant have a "syncing of the minds."

In retrospect, none of this should come as a surprise. Look at the natural order of things and go with the path that fits. Dollars over egos, winning over personal pride.

Lakers fans need Bryant to make their emotional and financial investment worthwhile. Bryant needs a successful team to achieve his goals, and it would make the story better if he stays in the same uniform. The Lakers need Bryant to make them viable and valuable. The league needs the Lakers to drive TV ratings.

There are still targets for everyone involved. The Lakers are three championships away from overtaking Boston's league mark of 16. Jackson needs another coaching championship to break free from his tie with Celtics legend Red Auerbach (each has nine). Bryant is four rings away from topping Michael Jordan's total.

Inevitably there will be more drama along the way. Always is when Bryant's involved. But now we're all up to speed on why the past went like it did. All that's left is how the future story will be told.

"I told him the other day, when he got the MVP, that was the saga," Lakers assistant Craig Hodges said. "And now we're in the legacy."

J.A. Adande is an ESPN.com senior writer and the author of "The Best Los Angeles Sports Arguments." Click here to e-mail J.A.