Bryant puts focus where he likes it: on himself

The Baltimore Sun

Let's take a slightly wider perspective on Kobe Bryant's latest tug-of-war with the Los Angeles Lakers.

The entertainment value of the NBA playoffs has been deteriorating daily and the postseason is lurching and stumbling to a pulse-deadening conclusion. And it's all Bryant's fault.

If he had just looked around him three years ago this month and realized how good he had it, we might be witnessing the end game for one of sports' great dynasties. Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Phil Jackson and whatever pieces could be fit around them, eagerly financed by Jerry Buss - they could be grasping hungrily for a fifth, maybe a sixth, Larry O'Brien Trophy.

And we'd still be glued to the best, most satisfying sports soap opera of this millennium, the team that out-Yankeed the Yankees.

Yes, that's projecting way farther than most people have been recently. Bryant has only presented his now-you-see-it-now-you-don't trade demand to the Lakers' brass for a few days. So it has been easier to focus on the present, on his quest to wreck the Lakers in their current state, to see how much they're still wrapped around his finger and to see whether there's still room for the rest of the league to fit.

It's a stunning example of how shamelessly narcissistic and manipulative a grown man can be. Roger Clemens and Brett Favre, take notes; you're good, but Bryant is the master.

But this is merely the continuation of the self-absorption parade he has been leading since 2004, when he went Michael Corleone on the franchise and settled all family business, without his prints left on anything.

He's still trying to do it. Just during yesterday's media tour, he set up the entire scenario so that it appeared he was only requesting his exit after all other avenues to make the Lakers a winner had been exhausted, and after the great deceit of the owner and executives has been unveiled - deceit so great, he said on a New York radio station, that, "At this point, I'll go play on Pluto."

Then, after lobbing that grenade, he stepped back, spread his arms and announced to the world that, yes, he would be the martyr. It was all out of his hands, he insisted, and always has been.

"I'm so tired of talking," he later said on national radio, capping a full day of nonstop talking. "I just hope and hope that something can be resolved ... so I can stay here and be in this city and be with the team I love."

Love more than the one on Pluto, apparently.

This, of course, has eclipsed the rest of the conference finals, which deserve to be eclipsed, honestly. You could say that the presence of a couple of fundamentally sound, no-frills-and-flash teams like San Antonio and Detroit is good for the game, and that the rise of LeBron James is a positive sign for the future. Or, you could say you'd rather watch the wind sprints during minicamps on the NFL Network for 2 1/2 hours a night.

To his credit, Bryant has done us a favor, giving us a viewing alternative: The Twilight Zone. It's the episode about the kid you had to think only good thoughts about, or else.

More fun than any of those, of course, was the Lakers from 1999 to 2004; that show was better than 24, Lost and Grey's Anatomy all rolled into one. It could still be like that, even with O'Neal three years older and gimpier. Eventually, O'Neal did find a partner he trusted to share with - in Miami. And Bryant found out that playing with Kwame Brown in the middle wasn't the upgrade he thought it would be. Heck, they did call a cease fire a couple of seasons ago anyway.

But Bryant already had blown it all up. He can deny it forever but he'll never convince anyone but his most loyal toadies. He managed the near-impossible: In the Lakers' Beatles-like universe, he became both John and Yoko. Now, in another unprecedented move, he's blowing up what he had already blown up.

Understand, of course, that the Lakers aren't blameless in this. Any armchair shrink can tell you that you can't be manipulated unless you let yourself be manipulated. They were seduced by the talent and figured that no price, monetary or otherwise, was too great to keep him happy. They proved it that entire 2003-04 season as he faced sexual assault charges; they proved it in the following offseason, and now the bill comes due again.

Bryant is in his prime and absolutely fascinating to watch. Not on the court, not during the season. Right now, at times like this, when he shows off the one weapon in his arsenal that sets him apart from anyone else he could ever be compared to.

His ego.

It once took down a dynasty, and now has taken down an entire league on the eve of its marquee event. He has almost run out of worlds to conquer. Maybe Kobe Bryant is right - the place for him really is Pluto.

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